Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Sergei Prokofiev (189l-1953)


[Bullet6] Overture on Hebrew Themes for Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano Op. 34 (1919)

[Bullet6] Sonata No. l for Violin and Piano in F Minor Op. 80 (1938-46)

[Bullet6] Quintet in G Minor Op. 39 (1924) for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Viola and Double Bass

[Bullet6] String Quartet No. 2 in F Major Op. 92 (On Kabardinian Themes) (1942)


Sergei Prokofiev (189l-1953)

Overture on Hebrew Themes for Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano Op. 34 (1919)

Sergei and wife

"...Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it. It’s multifaceted. It can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears. This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music."

Dmitri Shostakovich (as told to Solomon Volkov in Testimony)


The Overture on Hebrew Themes was composed by Prokofiev during his brief period of residence in the United States. Unlike his compatriots Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, Prokofiev was given permission to leave the Soviet Union. Lenin’s hand-picked "People’s Commissar of Public Education" Anatol Lunacharsky himself arranged for Prokofiev’s exit visa, though not without some regret, as he was said to have remarked to Prokofiev in 1918, "You are a revolutionary in music. We are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together but if you want to go to America, I shall not stand in your way."

It was in 1919, while Prokofiev was living in New York, that a small group of Jewish musicians, former schoolmates from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, approached him with the idea of writing a piece for their ensemble, Zimro. They hoped to raise funds through a concert tour, to fund a Conservatory in Jerusalem. Zimro consisted of piano, clarinet and string quartet. Their repertoire consisted of works for combinations of these instruments. However, there was no work extant which would include them all. A work by Prokofiev would solve this problem, and add prestige to their mission. As they wished the work to have a "Jewish" cast to it, they gave him a notebook of Jewish folk songs. Prokofiev was not at all enthusiastic about such a project. The story goes that one day, (or was it one night?), he came across the notebook and started playing through some of the songs and improvising, as composers will. The work quickly took shape, fragments expanding and coalescing, and by sundown the next day the Overture was complete. Cabalistic??...or... maybe it was ten days later. In any case, the work was premiered in New York City on Jan. 26, 1920 and was a great, some would say, enormous success. In 1934, Prokofiev arranged the work for orchestra.

Yuli Turovsky, cellist, member of the Borodin Trio (you may recall, they were kind enough to send us the score to the Rachmaninov Piano Trio last season) and conductor, recalls in his notes to his recording of this work, that the Overture on Hebrew Themes was not performed in the Soviet Union for decades. When he and some friends decided, in the early 1970’s, to program the work as part of a concert in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the authorities balked at having the word "Hebrew" appear on the posters and programs. They suggested that Turovsky and friends choose another work. A compromise was reached, whereby the work could be performed if it were called simply Overture Op. 34 and the word "Hebrew" not appear on posters and programs. Rumors quickly spread through Moscow that it was the "Hebrew Overture" that was to be performed. They played to a packed house of such enthusiasm that the work had to be repeated twice in its entirety.

This is indeed a wonderful work, evoking as it does, the music and spirit of the Klezmorim, the itinerant Jewish musicians of Eastern Europe. Fortunately, this music is once again alive and thriving, thanks to a current generation of young musicians here in America.

A personal note: Some years ago I had the onerous task (second only in onerosity to writing program notes) to turn pages for pianist Steve Cavalier - the onerousness, you understand, comes from having to turn the pages, not from having to turn them for Steve! He’s very understanding and gracious in these matters. I had practiced turning for Steve while he worked on the piece. I was, I must admit, unfamiliar with the work, and at the first rehearsal of the whole ensemble I was acquainted with only the piano part. In the playthrough, when the cello entered with its lovely melody, I was so mesmerized by it, that I completely forgot my purpose in being there; namely, to turn the pages. Steve didn’t miss a beat. I was shocked and embarrassed by my lapse. Fortunately, it was only a rehearsal; such are the perils of page turning.

1995-96 Season, Program III, Sunday January 21, 1996

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Sergei Prokofiev (189l - 1953)

Sonata No. l for Violin and Piano in F Minor Op. 80 (1938-46)


I strive for a greater simplicity and more melody. Of course I have used dissonance in my time, but there has been too much dissonance. Bach used dissonance as good salt for his music. Others applied pepper, seasoned the dishes more and more highly, till all healthy appetites were sick and until the music was nothing but pepper. I think society has had enough of that. We want a simpler and more melodic style, and dissonance once again relegated to its proper place as one element in music, contingent principally upon the meeting of the melodic lines...


What people usually accept as a melody is that musical phrase which above all is not new as to intervals, rhythm, or style. Thus Puccini is a composer considered especially melodic - that is, his themes fall into the category of intervals and chords to which the human ear has long been accustomed, and which it is in the habit of accepting but it is obvious that with the passage of years the recipe for melody changes...


(Sergei Prokofiev from an interview with Olin Downes in the New York Times l94l)


If chamber music played a small part in Prokoviev’s creative output, then instrumental sonatas, other than piano sonatas, played an even smaller role. Though there are two violin sonatas in his catalog of works, the Second Violin Sonata op. 94a (1942-44) is actually a transcription of his Sonata for Flute and Piano op. 94, and, as can be seen from the dates of composition, was actually completed before the Violin Sonata No. 1. This Sonata had, by Prokofiev’s standards an unusually long gestation period, composed as it was in wartime Russia. It is a somewhat dark-hued work, though the lyrical nature of the violin richly illustrates his own melodic recipes. Prokofiev, himself, characterized this Sonata as "much more serious in mood than the Second.....The first movement, Andante assai, is of grim character and serves as an expounded introduction to the Allegro in Sonata form. The second movement is exuberant and vigorous but with a broader secondary theme. The third movement is slow, of gentle and tender character, and the finale is impetuous and written in complex time."

1995-96 Season, Program I, Sunday October 8, 1995

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Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Quintet in G Minor Op. 39 (1924) for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Viola and Double Bass


"It sometimes happens that a composer’s personality - his physical appearance, his psychological make-up, his social attitudes - corresponds so perfectly to his art that the music and the man become natural counterparts of each other. The music of Serge Prokofiev was his best portrait.


Prokofiev was tall, prematurely balding, with long legs, long arms and long fingers that seemed prehensile at the keyboard. His bodily movements were angular and quick, his gestures abrupt. He had a voice that cut through the air without being loud, and a brusque manner of speech, often laden with sarcasm. He totally ignored social amenities but he had many devoted friends to whom he was loyal.


These physical, psychological and social characteristics are reflected in his music with its tremendous kinetic energy, short and almost abrupt thematic statements and a spirit of irreverence toward established traditions. But there is also in Prokofiev’s music a spirit of lyricism, all the more profound because lyric passages occur in contrast to typically boisterous episodes. He regarded this lyric element as very important and resented being classified merely as a brilliant composer of modernistic works."

Nicholas Slonimsky

New Book of Modern Composers by David Ewen

Knopf 1961


Chamber music plays a small part in Prokofiev’s output. He composed two String Quartets, the Second (Op. 92) was performed by Sierra Chamber Society in the 1993-94 season and the Overture on Hebrew Themes Op. 34, performed by the Sierra Chamber Society in the 1988-89 season (and to be repeated next season). Add to this a sonata for two violins, and the two violin and piano sonatas (the second also arranged for flute and piano) and that’s basically it. The G Minor Quintet, like the Overture on Hebrew Themes was the result of a commission. Prokofiev was living in Paris at the time and received the commission from the five member instrumental ensemble of a traveling ballet troupe. Though the commission was for a small ballet, to be titled Trapeze, he was not burdened with having to compose to a story or plot. Thus the piece could work as a ballet or pure chamber work. It succeeded on both counts. This six movement work is quite reminiscent of some of his compatriot Igor Stravinsky’s "Russian Period" works: Le Sacre du Printemps (1913), Les Noce (1917-23), Renard (1922) , Berceuses du Chat (1915), and especially Pribaoutki (1914). In fact, in 1919, Prokofiev was present at the American premiere of this brief set of songs based on popular Russian folk poetry. He wrote to Stravinsky telling of his enjoyment of the work, especially the song Uncle Armand where "the oboe and clarinet are like the gurgle of a bottle emptying. You express drunkenness through your clarinet with the skill of a real drunkard." While Stravinsky’s spirit, like that of his puppet Petrushka, may at times haunt this quintet, it is nonetheless, an energetic, highly colored work; a postcard from Paris in the Twenties, and a fine bit of circus music at that.

1994-95 Season, Program V, Sunday May 21, 1995

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Serge Prokofiev (189l-1953)

String Quartet No. 2 in F Major Op. 92 (On Kabardinian Themes) (1942)


Sergei readingChamber music played a relatively small role in Prokofiev’s musical output. His fame rests on his orchestral music - the symphonies, concerti, ballets, film scores and piano music. However, his few chamber music works, the two string quartets, the Overture on Hebrew Themes (performed by the Sierra Chamber Society in the 1988 season) and the two sonatas for violin and piano remain popular and are often performed.

The String Quartet No. 2 was composed in about five weeks in the autumn of 1942 in the little town of Nalchik, in the Kabardino-Balkaria Autonomous Republic, located in the foothills of the northern Caucasus mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas. During the summer of 1942, following the demise of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, as the German Army was overrunning Russia, the Soviet government evacuated a group of its then favored musicians, actors, artists and professors from Moscow to the safety of this little known region. (I don’t even wish to think about whom the American government of today might choose if presented with this same predicament. Sly Stallone, Madonna, Christo, Peter Max?)

It was under these circumstances that Prokofiev came to know of the folk music of this area. His fascination with the music led him to write this Quartet, the aim of which was to achieve, "a combination of virtually untouched folk material and the most classical of classical forms, the string quartet."

Each of the three movements of the work contains actual folk songs and dances. Prokofiev took care not to prettify the music. He strove to keep the often harsh harmonies and "barbaric" rhythms of the originals, as had Stravinsky, Bartok and Skzymanowski in their use of folk materials of Russia, Hungary and Poland. In his faithfulness to his sources, Prokofiev came under adverse criticism from the official critics who also praised him for his use of folk music. Despite the carping of the critics, the work was an immediate success. The work was premiered by the reknowned Beethoven Quartet in Moscow on September 5, 1942 but the start of the performance had to be delayed due to a German air raid.

The first movement (Allegro sostenuto) is based on the dance, Udzh Starikov, heard at the beginning and on the song Sosruko, in which three players create an accordion-like accompaniment to the song, sung by the violin.

The second movement (Adagio) is based on a Kabardian love song, Synilyaklik Zhir, given to the cello to sing in a high voice.  The middle section utilizes a folk dance, Islamei, which seeks to imitate the sound of the kemange, a variety of spike fiddle originating in Persia and in use in various forms throughout the Middle East. It is a long necked fiddle with typically 3 strings. It is held vertically, with the spike resting on the player’s knee and bowed. The movement ends with a brief return of the opening song.

The third movement (Allegro) is based on a mountain dance known as Getegezhev Ogurbi alternating with two lyrical themes and a reminiscence of the first movement.

1993-94 Season, Program I, Sunday October 3, 1993

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All original text on this page Copyright 1997 by Joseph Way