In the years following the Second World War, Stalin’s “propagandist-in-chief,” Andrei Zhdanov, drafted a series of resolutions that were designed to censor Soviet art, literature, film, and music. All art had to adhere to the ideals of Soviet “socialist realism.” The Zhdanov Doctrine proclaimed that “The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best.” First, Zhdanov banned the works of Anna Akhmatova, arguably Russia’s greatest living poet at the time. Then, in 1948 he took aim at Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian, and Sergei Prokofiev, charging the composers with the crime of formalism.
It was in this environment that Prokofiev composed the Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 119 in 1949. Written for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter, the work survived the censors. Yet, declining health prevented Prokofiev from attending the premiere. In his memoirs, Richter wrote,
We gave the first performance of Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata. Before playing it in concert, we had to perform it at the Composer’s Union, where these gentlemen decided the fate of all new works. During this period more than any other, they needed to work out whether Prokofiev had produced a new masterpiece or, conversely, a piece that was ‘hostile to the spirit of the people.’ Three months later, we had to play it again at a plenary session of all the composers who sat on the Radio Committee, and it wasn’t until the following year that we were able to perform it in public, in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on March 1, 1950.
Prokofiev is said to have placed an epigraph on the first page of the Sonata which quoted Maxim Gorky: “Mankind—that has a proud sound.” The first movement (Andante grave) begins with a lamenting melody in the cello which some listeners have compared with the deep, resonate basso-profondo voices of Russian Orthodox choral music. Soon, a passionate conversation emerges between the cello and piano. At moments, the music drifts off into a sensuous, dreamy, and transcendent new world. The final bars fade into the ultimate gentle serenity.
The second movement (Moderato) is a playful scherzo. Its dancelike principal theme could have wandered out of one of Prokofiev’s ballet scores. Soon, it is interrupted by a soaring and expansive Trio section.
The final movement (Allegro ma non troppo) is filled with spirited allusions to Russian folk music. A vibrant sense of melody abounds. Yet, the dreamy introspection and mystery of the first movement never seems to be far away. The coda section arrives at a mighty climax, with an ecstatic return of the theme which opened the first movement.
I. Andante grave:
III. Allegro ma non troppo: