Length: 22 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tambourine, harp, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 1, 1931, Artur Rodzinski conducting, with violinist Lea Luboshutz
Prokofiev's early years as a composer and pianist were marked by defiance of the critical and academic establishments through such abrasive scores as his first two Piano Concertos and the cantata Seven They are Seven, in which he attempted to outdo Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in primitivistic noise, as it was then regarded. But the self with which he was ultimately most comfortable was revealed as early as in the first movement of the present Violin Concerto, music of arching, flowing lyricism.
1917, when the D-major Concerto was written, was the most turbulent year in Russian history: the year of the February Revolution, when liberals and moderate socialists toppled the czarists from power, and of the nominally ""bloodless"" October Revolution, when Lenin, Trotsky, and their Bolshevik cohorts dislodged the government of Alexander Kerensky and his ineffectual moderates to declare Russia the world's first socialist state.
What Prokofiev made of all this is difficult to determine. He may have been in the artistic vanguard, but politically he was probably closer to the ousted czarists. Prokofiev was never a man of the people, and he remained far from Petrograd (later Leningrad, now St. Petersburg), his home, during the 1917 upheavals, preferring a retreat in the Caucasus, where he composed at a feverish pace. His worklist for that year alone includes the Classical Symphony, the steely Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, the epigrammatic Visions fugitives for solo piano, the aforementioned cantata, and the present Violin Concerto.
The first performance of the Concerto was scheduled for November of 1917, with the Polish violinist Paul Kochanski as soloist. But the chaotic state of affairs in Petrograd caused a lengthy delay - until 1923, when it was played in Paris by Marcel Darrieux, with Serge Koussevitzky conducting. Prokofiev was by that time living in the French capital, having left Russia shortly after completing the Concerto for what he termed ""a brief concert tour"" of the West. (The tour was to last for 15 years.) The audience included members of the artistic elite of early-'20s Paris, among them Pablo Picasso, Alexander Benois, Anna Pavlova, Karol Szymanowski, Arthur Rubinstein, Joseph Szigeti, and Nadia Boulanger.
The Concerto made an equivocal impression, the progressives finding it too conservative, the conservatives too progressive (it does, indeed, straddle two worlds). Within a matter of months, however, it had become a hit, a consequence of the orchestra-less Russian premiere, played by violinist Nathan Milstein and pianist Vladimir Horowitz, and the subsequent performance of the full version by Szigeti and an orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner at the 1924 Prague Contemporary Music Festival.
The two worlds referred to above are those of 19th-century Romanticism, amply displayed in the luscious first and third movements, and the second movement's 20th-century world of motoric rhythms, of which Prokofiev and Stravinsky were co-inventors.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.