Violin Concerto No. 1 (Prokofiev)
Sergei Prokofiev began his Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, opus 19, as a concertino in 1915 but soon abandoned it to work on his opera The Gambler. He returned to the concerto in the summer of 1917. It premiered on October 18, 1923 at the Paris Opera with Marcel Darrieux playing the violin part and the Paris Opera Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. Igor Stravinsky made his debut as conductor at the same concert, conducting the first performance of his own Octet for Wind Instruments.
The concerto is written in three movements:
- Scherzo: Vivacissimo
- Moderato – Allegro moderato
Despite the events leading to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and eventually the October Revolution, 1917 became Prokofiev's most productive year compositionally. Along with this concerto he completed the "Classical" Symphony, the Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, and the Visions Fugitives for piano. He also began the cantata Seven, They Are Seven, based on Chaldean texts, and worked on the Third Piano Concerto. Nevertheless, Prokofiev continued his habit of incorporating previously composed sections in the violin concerto (something he would also do in the Third Piano Concerto). He composed the concerto's opening melody in 1915, during his love affair with Nina Mescherskaya. The remaining movements were partly inspired by a 1916 Saint Petersburg performance of Karol Szymanowski's Myths by Polish violinist Paul Kochanski.
Its premiere in Paris was a relative failure, partly due to the work being overshadowed by Stravinsky's more modish Octet. The Concerto's premiere had also been delayed some seven years after it had been completed, due to Prokofiev's itinerant existence at that time and the difficulty in finding a soloist. Had the premiere taken place in Petrograd in 1917, as initially planned, Kochanski would have taken the part. By 1923, however, Kochanski was unavailable for the scheduled Paris premiere. Bronisław Huberman would not even look at the score. Nathan Milstein was still in Russia. The violinist who finally tackled the solo part was Sergei Koussevitzky's concertmaster, Marcel Darrieux; although not famous, he was a solid musician and a more than able violinist, which was all that was necessary for a performance (Darrieux also premiered Kurt Weill's Concerto for Violin and Wind Instruments in 1925.) Joseph Szigeti was in the audience, and was so impressed with the work that he took the Concerto into his repertory. The following year Szigeti achieved success when he played the Concerto in Prague with Fritz Reiner as conductor, then toured it around Europe and the United States. However, the U.S. premiere was not played by Szigeti, but by Richard Burgin, the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on 24 April 1925, again under Koussevitzky.
There were also the musical tastes of the Parisian public to consider. Audience members, especially those who came to Koussevitzky concerts, wanted modern music with a certain amount of shock value. The fact that The Rite of Spring had failed a decade earlier was relative—the choreography had been a failure; the music was a success, as proved a few months later when it was heard enthusiastically in concert. While Paris welcomed spiked dissonant works such as the ballet Chout (The Buffoon) and the Scythian Suite, the First Violin Concerto was simply too Romantic in tone for their preferences. The composer Georges Auric even called the work "Mendelssohnian."
The premiere of the work in the Soviet Union is also worth noting since it was given just three days after the Paris premiere by two 19-year-olds, Nathan Milstein and Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz played the orchestral part on the piano. Milstein later wrote in his memoirs, From Russia to the West, "I feel that if you have a great pianist like Horowitz playing with you, you don't need an orchestra." Milstein and Horowitz also introduced Karol Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto at the same concert.
The work opens ethereally, gains momentum and becalms; this describes both the opening movement, and the piece taken as a whole. The three movements begin in D major, E minor, and G minor respectively, and the work closes in a manner similar to that of the opening movement, seeming to climb peacefully. Apart from the solo violin, the concerto is scored for moderate-sized orchestra including two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tambourine, harp, and strings.
The first movement, marked Andantino and commencing in compound duple meter, opens with a lyrical violin melody to be played "sognando" (dreamily) and "pianissimo" (very softly) over viola tremolos. The violin is joined in dialogue by the flutes, clarinets and oboes. The second theme, more virtuosic and forceful, is marked "narrante"; David Oistrakh recalled that Prokofiev had said "play it as though you're trying to convince someone of something." Shifts to 4/4 time and C major serve to accentuate the contrast with the principal theme. The development begins with the soloist playing pizzicato, and proceeds to develop upon the principal theme. In a brief recapitulation, the theme is restated not by the soloist but the principal flute, accompanied elaborately by the soloist and harp.
The second movement, a scherzo marked Vivacissimo, is in rondo form. Michael Steinberg wrote that the movement 'represents the "savage" element' of the concerto 'as against the generally more lyrical first and third movements. The music, full of contrast, is by turns amusing, naughty, for a while even malevolent, athletic, and always violinistically ingenious and brilliant. It seems to be over in a moment.'
The third and final movement, initially marked Moderato, starts with a bassoon theme over a metronomic eighth-note orchestral accompaniment. The soloist assumes the theme from the bassoon before dropping back to an accompanying role when the movement transitions to a section marked Allegro moderato. The solo violin increasingly interchanges between the roles of soloist and accompanist. The movement ends with the music fading away in tempo and dynamics.
- Steinberg, 349.
- Steinberg, 350.
- Daniel Jaffé, booklet note to CD recording: Sarah Chang, Berliner Philharmoniker cond. Simon Rattle (EMI 3 46053 2)
- Jaffé (1998): p. 92
- Prokofiev (1991): p. 275
- Classical Archives
- Kurt Weill: A Detailed Chronology
- Phillips (2008): 712
- BSO Program Notes
- Steinberg, 351.
- Quoted in Steinberg, 350.
- Scholz, Horst A. (2016). Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Sonata for Solo Violin (PDF) (Media notes). BIS Records. p. 5.
- Steinberg, Michael (2000). The Concerto: A Listener's Guide. Oxford University Press. p. 351.
- Steinberg, Michael. "Prokofiev: Concerto No. 1 in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 19". San Francisco Symphony. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
- Scholz, Horst A. (2016). Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Sonata for Solo Violin (PDF) (Media notes). BIS Records. pp. 5–6.
- Jaffé, Daniel. Sergey Prokofiev. (London: Phaidon, 1998). ISBN 0-7148-3513-7
- Phillips, Anthony (translator and annotator). Sergey Prokofiev: Diaries 1915–1923 (London: Faber, 2008). ISBN 978-0-571-22630-6
- Prokofiev, Sergei (trans. & ed. Oleg Prokofiev). Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings (London: Faber, 1991). ISBN 0-571-16158-8
- Steinberg, Michael. The Concerto (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). ISBN 0-19-510330-0