Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major - Evolution of a Small Work
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Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major - Evolution of a Small Work

Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto, begun in 1915, put aside and finally premiered in 1923 - history, analysis and performance practice.

During his student days at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where Rimsky-Korsakov declared him to be "gifted but immature," Prokofiev was known as the enfant terrible of the composition department; he had established early on a reputation as the composer of "shocking" music. Most of his early works are marked by their bold experimentalism.  For example, the piano work Sarcasms (1912-14), to pick just one, may be described as astringent and full of cutting rhythmic edges, while the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1912-13) is still considered audacious in its dense complexity. Alongside these works, however, he also wrote compositions influenced by the Romantic and Post-romantic styles.  Works like the symphonic poems Dreams (1910) and Autumnal Sketch (1910), and the Ballade (1912) for cello and piano exhibit varying degrees of mellifluousness, mellowness and a feeling of relaxation. Such is also the case of the First Violin Concerto.

The first page of the solo violin part of Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto

The broad opening melody that opens the concerto was conceived in 1915.  At the time, Prokofiev intended to use this as the basis for a "modest concertino."  Work on the opera The Gambler and on the ballets Ala and Lolli and Chout kept Prokofiev from the projected concertino.  By the time he finally started to work on this score, it had evolved into a full-scale concerto.  Commencing work in earnest on this piece in 1916,  Prokofiev was busy with it until the following year.  He orchestrated the concerto while already at work on the "Classical" Symphony.  The premiere of the concerto did not take place, however, until 1923, when it was played by Marcel Darrieux, with Serge Koussevitsky conducting his Parisian orchestra on the 18th of October.  Elaborating on this performance, the composer wrote in his unfinished autobiography: "[Bronislaw] Huberman and some other violinists flatly refused to learn 'that music' and the solo part had to be given to the concertmaster, who did quite well with it.  The critics were divided; some of them commented, not without malice, on its 'Mendelssohnism'."  Not only were most of the critics dissatisfied with the concerto, but the audience did not respond warmly to the "newness" of the piece either.  It was not until the virtuoso violinist Joseph Szigeti started playing it in 1924, that the concerto was finally to become established in the repertoire.

Prokofiev in 1915

The highly individual First Violin Concerto is a work of youthful fantasy, marked by a strong influence from the Romantic Russian nationalist school. The concerto is quite untraditional in the way that the soloist and the orchestra are given equal importance.  The virtuoso character of the violin is downplayed, there being no cadenzas or bravura passages, and the orchestra is never relegated to a subsidiary accompanying role.  Instead, both orchestra and soloist are treated as a symphonic unit as they share in the development of musical ideas.

The first movement is unusual in that it is not built upon the expected sonata structure, nor does it conform to the norm of being an allegro.  Instead, it consists of a chain of episodes, with the marking of Andantino. The concerto ,sometimes played without interruption, begins in a contemplative mood with the soloist playing a gently lyrical and plaintive melody over a light accompaniment provided by a clarinet and the strings.  Although the movement gathers some momentum as the proceedings for the soloist become more energetic through passages of rhythmic intricacy, the general mood of repose is never completely abandoned. The succession of episodes is brought to its conclusion with a return of the opening theme.  This time the theme is played very softly by a solo flute, accompanied by the harp and muted strings, while the solo violin lightly weaves ornamentation over the melody.

The second movement is a swift, energetic Scherzo - in 4/4 and marked Vivacissimo - where the most salient features are the characteristically Prokofievian whimsical melody of long-leaped intervals and the abundance of nervously accented rhythmic figures.  Built upon a rondo structure, this movement achieves variety through the soloist's use of intriguing effects, such as glissandos on double stops resulting in double harmonics, pizzicato notes played with the left hand, and sul ponticello passages.

For the concluding movement, once again, the emphasis is on music of subdued contemplation and broad lyricism.  A short theme is heard on the bassoon, before the soloist introduces the movement's main theme, one which combines staccato and sustained phrases.  The development section is marked by the sharp orchestral comments to the soloist's discourse.  Once the climax is reached, the gentle, plaintive theme of the first movement makes a last appearance; the violins play this theme, with the soloist trilling each note an octave higher, while the flute and clarinet play part of the finale's main theme against this.  As the texture becomes lighter and shimmering , the closing bars practically mirror those of the first movement, as the soloist sustains a high D.

* Author's addendum:

* The cover image is Prokofiev in New York, ca 1918.

* The embeded audio files above are a live performance by way of the BBC of the London Symphony Orchestra with Vadim Repin as soloist.  This is a signature piece for Vadim, and he has performed it more than once with the LSO in his career.  I'd recommend it over most other popular soloists currently showing up on YouTube, mostly because of the unique rapport between conductor, soloist and orchestra.  The players perform rather democratically here, which is predictably what Prokofiev intended.  These are only examples.  Please support working artists by purchasing music and art legally.  Thank you.

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Comments (16)
Ranked #70 in Music & Musicians

Nice work I cannot fully enjoy the work because, I do not have in depth knowledge of music.

Ranked #16 in Music & Musicians

Absolutely stunning! Even after a hundred listens, this piece leaves me panting. What a beautifully radical piece of genius. I thank you my good woman. I will watch and listen to this many, many times!

Ranked #1 in Music & Musicians

Rama, the fact that you may have just listened to all three files and didn't run away in terror - just qualified you as a fan. If you enjoyed it at all, then you're knowledgeable. Thank you sincerely today for your comment! And James, you're welcome. Prokofiev was prolific, just let me know if you'd like more.

Another article that my daughter will love.

Ranked #1 in Music & Musicians

Thanks, Gayle, and your daughter, too.

Thanks. A free music appreciation course without the tuition. Very thorough article.

Ranked #14 in Music & Musicians

I like the comment above, very well said. Another violin master here, thanks IIeen.

very nice work

Ranked #16 in Music & Musicians

Ileen, I can always do with more Prokofiev. I think he is profoundly creative with scale manipulation. And I can always do with more Russian violin concertos--Tschaikovsky, especially--but feel free to surprise me! And having the background info here in front of me is such a bonus. Much appreciated!

A wonderful article! To be honest, I could listen to Russian music all day.

Ranked #16 in Music & Musicians

You and me both, Kathleen. To my ears, they are the source of all modern American music (including rock).

Ranked #1 in Music & Musicians

I really need to start charging. :-) (Oh, wait, I do that already!) Thanks, everyone. I'll also submit some Russian composer holiday music very soon.

Ranked #3 in Music & Musicians

Great classic pieces, Ileen.

Ranked #1 in Music & Musicians

Thanks, Will and Lucia. Remember to make a requests list - it's holiday time.

I play violin, -but care barely squeak 'Twinkle-twinkle little star'...

Ranked #4 in Music & Musicians

Great work, Ileen. I love Prokofiev, as you know.