Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C Major: Triumph Over Censorship

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 …

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Prokofiev’s “Summer Night” Suite: Music from “Betrothal in a Monastery”

Sergei Prokofiev’s 1946 comic opera, Betrothal in a Monastery, involves trickery, bribery, disguises, an averted arranged marriage, and (in the final act) monks engaged in alcoholic revelry. A twentieth century homage to Italian opera buffa, it is far removed from the cultural and political landscape of Stalin’s Soviet Union. In 1950, Prokofiev used music from the opera as the basis for the five movement orchestral suite, Summer Night, Op. 123. The boisterous, larger-than-life music which …

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Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto: Enter the Enfant Terrible

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10 is music of the audacious, young Sergei Prokofiev. Completed in 1911 when the 22-year-old composer was still a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, the Concerto’s brash, spirited energy elicited strong public reactions. The August 7, 1912 premiere in Moscow marked Prokofiev’s first appearance with an orchestra and showcased his dazzling keyboard virtuosity. In a letter, Prokofiev recalled that “the outward success was …

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Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite: Unused Music for a “Barbaric” Ballet

In 1915, the 23-year-old Sergei Prokofiev set to work on his first ballet score. Commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, the work, which was given the title Ala and Lolli, moved deep into Slavic mythology. It depicted an epic battle between the forces of light and darkness, represented by the sun god, Veles, and the grotesque monster, Chuzbog. The ballet’s setting centered around the Scythians, a prehistoric nomadic tribe which, beginning around …

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Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony: “Glorifying the Grandeur of the Human Spirit”

The January 13, 1945 premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major marked a momentous occasion. Fourteen years had elapsed since the completion of the composer’s Fourth Symphony. An expectant audience filled the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Hall. As Prokofiev raised his baton before the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in anticipation of the first movement’s opening bars, a barrage of celebratory artillery fire rang out through the city. The gunfire was a signal …

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Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto: A Colossus Reborn

Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor rise ups before the listener as a formidable colossus. The work is scored for an enormous orchestra which includes three trombones, tuba, and an array of percussion instruments. It is set in four movements rather than the traditional three. At moments, the piano seems to be pushed to the edge of its limits and consumed by a blazing, raw power. For the soloist, the Concerto’s technical …

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Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto: Chilly Anxiety on the Edge of Terror

Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor begins with a lonely, lamenting statement in the solo violin. It’s a strangely solitary voice which opens the door to an unsettling drama filled with chilly anxiety and occasional raw terror. In his program notes, the American violinist Stefan Jackiw, who can be heard in this excellent concert performance of the piece, provides the following descriptive analysis of this opening: Prokofiev puts the …

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