Actually, both No. 1 and Opus 80 are misleading in the identification of this sonata. Prokofiev did begin it in 1938, two years after returning to the Soviet Union from years abroad, but he did not complete it until 1946. In between came World War II, of course, and numerous other works, including the Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 94a. Prokofiev composed or completed a number of solo and chamber pieces during the war years, perhaps as personal ballast to the patriotic propaganda pieces he also wrote (in addition to the opera War and Peace and the ballet Cinderella).
Prokofiev said that in this Sonata he was inspired by one of Handel’s violin sonatas, and the four-movement structure, slow-fast-slow-fast, does follow the outline of a Baroque church sonata. All four movements are almost equally long, but Prokofiev said that the first served as a kind of extended introduction to the second, being a haunted prelude that ends with whispering muted scales that should sound “like the wind in a graveyard” as Prokofiev told David Oistrakh, who played the premiere performance.
That second movement is a vigorously brawling debate, approximately the argument of the Classical sonata form. The third movement is a warmly rocking lullaby, although it does not keep all the ghosts at bay. The finale is a folk dance in shifting meters, driven in the composer’s characteristically biting toccata style, though it ends serenely after a recollection of the “wind in a graveyard” from the first movement.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.