From Flute to Violin: The Evolution of Prokofiev’s D Major Sonata

During the summer of 1943, Sergei Prokofiev escaped the war-torn Eastern Front for the isolation of the Central Asian city of Alma-Ata, where he was hard at work on the sprawling film score for Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. In the middle of this massive project, Prokofiev found himself drawn to music on the other end of the spectrum- something he described as a “sonata in a gentle, flowing classical style.” This piece was born as the Flute Sonata in …

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Eight of Prokofiev’s Quirkiest Ballet Melodies

Last week, the Richmond Symphony returned to the orchestra pit for five performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s shimmering and comic 1944 ballet, Cinderella. Bringing off Prokofiev’s music, both technically and musically, often feels like solving a puzzle. Hovering somewhere between austere twentieth century Neoclassicism and moments of sudden lush Romanticism, this music is always keeping us off guard. We never know exactly how to take it. It is simultaneously humorous and sarcastic, cool and calculating (like …

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Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony: A Quiet Farewell

The Seventh was Sergei Prokofiev’s final symphony. Completed in 1952, a year before the composer’s death, it ventures into a sparkling, colorful world of innocence, fantasy, and wistful nostalgia. At the time this music was written, Prokofiev was battling deteriorating health as well as denunciation by Stalin’s cultural police, who banned the Sixth Symphony on the grounds of the work’s perceived “decadent formalism.” Prokofiev offered a letter of apology which was published widely. Perhaps to placate …

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Eight Composers on Piano Roll

When you consider the piano roll, what kind of music comes to mind? Probably Scott Joplin’s elegant rags, or perhaps the exuberant swing of Tin Pan Alley. Interestingly, a number of less likely composers, from Mahler and Debussy to the 80-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns, were recorded on piano rolls in the early years of the twentieth century. In some cases, these are the only historical record of the composer’s playing. Additionally, they offer …

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Five Great Lazar Berman Recordings

The legendary Russian pianist Lazar Berman was born in Saint Petersburg on this date in 1930. At first confined to the Soviet Union and its satellite countries (the 12-year travel ban may have been the result of his marriage to a French woman), Berman burst onto the international music scene in the mid-1970s, following American and European tours. His playing often exuded a stunning dramatic power. In a 2005 New York Times …

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Prokofiev’s Haunting First Violin Sonata

“Wind passing through a graveyard…” This is how Sergei Prokofiev described the hauntingly ethereal passage at the end of the first movement of the Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor. Hushed, wispy scales rise and fall in the violin over a series of numb, ambivalent piano chords. This chilly passage, which is anything but definitive or conclusive, returns later in the final movement. It encapsulates the atmosphere of the Sonata, perhaps the darkest, most …

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Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto: The Greatest C Major Riff of All Time?

Musician, teacher, and producer Rick Beato shares some interesting insights into Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto in a recent video at his channel, Everything Music. He calls this passage from the first movement “the greatest riff of all time written with only the white keys.” It’s a stream of notes which seems as fluid and inevitable as any jazz keyboard riff- an unrelenting, anticipation-building, virtuosic romp, completely in white-key C major until one stray G-sharp sneaks in at the last …

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