Monday, December 06, 2004


A two-headed beast

Sergei Prokofiev, Sonata for Solo Violin in D Major, Moderato.

Sometimes you really shouldn't go home again. Sergei Prokofiev, who had left Russia after the Revolution, made a catastrophic decision to return there in the mid-1930s. So instead of spending his waning years writing scores for Hollywood, or writing in peace funded by a generous university, Prokofiev wound up with his works denounced as "cosmopolitan" trash while his wife was arrested and sent to a Siberian labor camp.

By 1947, when the Soviet Union celebrated the 30th anniversary of the October Revolution, Stalin had broken the spine of the nation's artistic culture, which had been one of the finest in the world. The writer Isaak Babel had been tortured and shot, the poet Osip Mandelstam died in a gulag. Prokofiev's friend and collaborator, the theatre director Meyerhold, was shot in prison and his actress wife Zinaida Raikh stabbed to death. Composers like Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase by the door, expecting the knock after midnight.

While the Sonata for Solo Violin, composed in '47, is not a masterpiece like “Lt. Kij√©” nor as well-loved as “Peter and the Wolf," it is still beautiful, even light and playful, like some lost memory from Prokofiev’s youth. (It can be played either by a solo violinist, or, as in Prokofiev’s original intention, by 20 or more violinists simultaneously.) Crafting something so lovely, so seemingly inconsequential, in a time of terror and misery is a testament to human resilience, or, for the cynical, perhaps to our endless capacity for delusion.

Stalin spent his last years burrowing further into insanity; Prokofiev spent his working in poor health, hardly leaving his house. They would die within hours of each other in 1953, and because the florists of Moscow were wiped out by demands for Stalin’s funeral, only a pine bough could be found for Prokofiev’s coffin.

Posted is the sonata's first "moderato" movement. Performed by Gil Shaham, the whole piece (along with Prokofiev’s two great violin concertos) can be found here.

Lots on Prokofiev

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