SONATA FOR TWO VIOLINS, OPUS 56
II. Commodo (quasi Allegretto)
IV. Allegro con brio
Much of Prokofiev’s art is marked by the tension between his iconoclastic nature and the reality of needing the approval of government cultural police. Born in an isolated part of Eastern Ukraine, Prokofiev showed prodigious talent early, composing his first piano piece at five and an opera, The Giant, at nine. The director of the Conservatory in Saint Petersburg, composer Alexander Glazunov, was so impressed he allowed him to enroll at fourteen. But the teenager’s arrogant manner alienated colleagues and professors alike. His works elicited intense reactions; at the premiere of his second piano concerto one reviewer wrote: "The cats on the roof make better music!” yet Igor Stravinsky described Prokofiev as the greatest Russian composer of his day (after Stravinsky, that is).
Seeing little opportunity in the chaos following the 1917 Revolution, Prokofiev moved to America and then Paris. Fifteen years later, homesick, he answered an edict from Stalin recalling Soviet artists with promises of a composer’s union and the free reign of artistic expression, a nightmare decision he came to rue. Biographer Daniel Jaffé notes that, in his War Sonata No.7 (premiered in a Moscow under siege in 1943), "having forced himself to compose a cheerful evocation
of the nirvana Stalin wanted everyone to believe, he expressed his true feelings by opening the central movement with a theme based on Schumann song Sadness whose text translates as ‘I can sometimes sing as if I were glad, yet secretly tears well and so free my heart.’ “ Ironically, the allusion went unnoticed and the work received the Stalin Prize.
After the war, political winds shifted and he was branded "anti-democratic," his work banned, and his wife arrested and sentenced to 20 years. In a final irony, Prokofiev died the same day as Stalin in 1953. The throngs mourning The Great Leader were so intense that for three days it was impossible to carry Prokofiev's body out for the funeral at the Composer's Union. The leading Soviet musical periodical reported Prokofiev's death on page 116; the first 115 pages were devoted to the death of Stalin.
The Sonata for Two Violins was written in happier times in 1922 in San Tropez. To me, Prokofiev’s music still has the ability to shock, like inadvertently touching an electric current or bottoming out unexpectedly on what you thought was a smooth part of the road.
Program notes by David Yang