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Violin Sonata No 1 in F minor, Op 80
composer
begun in 1938, completed in the summer of 1946

Recordings
'Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas' (CDA67514)
Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas
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Details
Movement 1: Andante assai
Movement 2: Allegro brusco
Movement 3: Andante
Movement 4: Allegrissimo

Violin Sonata No 1 in F minor, Op 80
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In the 1930s, profoundly homesick, Prokofiev was wooed back to Russia—by now the USSR ruled by Stalin—with official promises that he would enjoy not only such privileges as being allowed to tour regularly in the West, but would also play a leading role in rebuilding Soviet music after the ravages of the cultural revolution of the late 1920s. Thus, in 1936, he finally settled in Moscow with his wife and two young sons.

Within less than a year, Stalin’s so-called ‘Great Terror’ was unleashed, involving several million arrests by the NKVD secret police, most famously of Shostakovich’s patron Marshal Mikhaíl Tukhachevsky. Several colleagues of Prokofiev’s were also taken. On 20 April 1937 Vladimir Mutnykh, general director of the Bolshoi Theatre who had commissioned Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, was arrested. Adrian Piotrovsky, co-librettist of Romeo and Juliet, followed on 10 July 1937. Nataliya Sats, who had commissioned Peter and the Wolf and so successfully narrated it, was arrested on 21 August. Nikolai Zhilyayev, a composer, scholar and staunch champion of Prokofiev’s work, was arrested on 3 November. Apart from Nataliya Sats (who, after time in a labour camp, was released in 1942, though she was not allowed to return to Moscow until 1958, five years after Prokofiev’s death), none of these former colleagues was ever seen again: it is now known that they were all shot just months after their arrest.

It was against this deeply troubled backdrop that Prokofiev began work on the Violin Sonata No 1 in F minor, Op 80, in 1938. Significantly, unlike Romeo and Juliet and the Second Violin Concerto, none of its themes was composed before Prokofiev’s return to the Soviet Union; rather, one senses that he drew his inspiration from the uncharacteristically dark wells of fear, despair and bereavement which were the lot of Prokofiev and his contemporaries under Stalin’s Great Terror. Possibly in an attempt to distance himself from the trauma represented by the Sonata’s unfamiliarly dark emotional terrain, Prokofiev originally wrote its first movement entirely in strictly alternating metres of 3/4 and 4/4.

Having completed this version of the first movement and substantially composed the second, Prokofiev put the Sonata to one side to score Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky. With further interruptions posed by the Second World War and other compositional projects, Prokofiev did not resume work on the Sonata until 1943; even then, he confessed to his friend Nikolay Myaskovsky, he found the work ‘difficult’, and apparently laid it aside once more to compose his Fifth Symphony. Indeed, even before he resumed work on the F minor Sonata he completed his Violin Sonata No 2 in D major in 1944. It seems that working on that Second Sonata, essentially a transcription of the Flute Sonata, Op 94 (composed in 1943), undertaken with the help of David Oistrakh, finally spurred Prokofiev to complete the dark F minor Sonata.

Oistrakh’s friendship with Prokofiev had begun in the mid-1930s, living as he did in the same apartment block as the Prokofievs in Chkalov Street and sharing the composer’s enthusiasm for chess. According to Prokofiev’s eldest son, Sviatoslav, Oistrakh visited their apartment to try through sections of the F minor Sonata. This would have been in the late-1930s, as Prokofiev left his family, and therefore the apartment, on 15 March 1941 to live with the young writer Mira Mendelson. If Sviatoslav, who was seventeen when his father left, was correct in recalling that it was the Violin Sonata his father played with Oistrakh, rather than the First Violin Concerto which Oistrakh performed under Prokofiev’s baton on 22 October 1939, this would mean Oistrakh was closely involved with the Sonata from the first years of its creation, rather than—as is usually assumed—from 1943. This raises another possibility—that Oistrakh, who is known to have encouraged Prokofiev to transcribe his Flute Sonata into the D major Violin Sonata in 1943, did so knowing of the F minor Violin Sonata on which Prokofiev had got ‘stuck’. Might Oistrakh, perhaps, have cannily calculated that by making this transcription Prokofiev would then be encouraged to complete the F minor Violin Sonata?

And yet, although the F minor Sonata was ultimately dedicated to David Oistrakh, Prokofiev clearly composed it to assuage an inner trauma. Oistrakh recalled that when rehearsing the Sonata, the composer told him that the rushing scalic passages in the first and final movements should sound ‘like the wind in a graveyard’. Oistrakh added: ‘After remarks of this kind the whole spirit of the sonata assumed a deeper significance for us.’

It seems indeed significant that when Prokofiev resumed the work in 1943, his revisions to the first movement included the addition of those rushing scalic passages, marked freddo, which hitherto had not existed in the work. Prokofiev, in talking of those scales, appears also to have been alluding to Anton Rubinstein’s famous characterization of the finale of Chopin’s B flat minor Piano Sonata: ‘a night wind blowing over graves in a cemetery’. Yet—unlike the anguished chromaticism of Chopin’s—Prokofiev’s rushing scales appear serene, as if representing a haven removed from the tormented and sometimes brutal style of the rest of the Sonata. While it is unlikely that Prokofiev knew the precise fate of those colleagues who had been arrested in 1937 (and those named earlier are only the ones we know of), it seems likely that the F minor Sonata over which Prokofiev laboured for so long was intended as a covert yet loving memorial to all those, including several of his colleagues, who had been wiped from official Stalinist history. In the final year or so of his life, Prokofiev drew up an annotated list of his compositions; significantly, in writing of his F minor Sonata, Prokofiev elaborated on Rubinstein’s original description by referring to ‘an abandoned graveyard’, which itself suggests he had in mind deaths less immediate than the obvious casualties of war when he completed the work in the summer of 1946.

from notes by Daniel Jaffé © 2014

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