Prokofiev String Quartet no. 2 in F, op. 92

performed by the Emerson String Quartet, or below by the Pavel Haas Quartet

(cover image by Tamara Menzi)

Indeed, the material proved to be fresh and original… I settled on writing a string quartet, thinking that the combination of new, untouched Oriental folk-lore with the most classical of forms, the string quartet, ought to produce interesting and unexpected results.

Prokofiev; see below

I didn’t really intend for this little series of chamber music works to focus as heavily as it recently has on war, with pieces from Hindemith, Martinů and Weinberg all at least having some sort of emotional reference or connection to a personal experience with war.

Today’s work is the same and yet different. With a composition date of 1941, a war connection may not surprise you, but it’s a different kind of war connection, and you’ll hear it as quite different from what we’ve been discussing lately.

In 1941, the Nazis broke their non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, and as a result, many Soviet artists (and I assume other perceived important people) were evacuated from major cities, Prokofiev among them. He found himself in Nalchik, in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, just north of the border with Georgia (at least on today’s map). So the connection is a more distant one, relocation as a result of war rather than a response to it, and this carries over to the music itself.

While there, a government official, who I assume must have been local, told Prokofiev to write a quartet on local (Kabardino-Balkar) folk themes. Wikipedia actually uses the word “told,” so a reader would assume it was not really up for discussion. However, program notes from the L.A. Phil (written by Herbert Glass) tell us that “In Nalchik, the artists were befriended by the republic’s Minister of Culture, Khatu Sagidovich Temirkano and his wife (whose then three-year-old son would become the renowned conductor Yuri Temirkanov).” How interesting.

Beyond that, Glass quotes from Prokofiev’s autobiography, where he shares his sentiments about the idea. This befriended Minister of Culture shared with Prokofiev some music gathered from previous visitors:

The Minister said to us, ‘You have a gold mine of untapped folk music in this region. If you take advantage of your stay here to work up this material, you will be laying the foundation of a Kabardinian music.’ He went to his files and brought out songs collected by earlier visitors to Nalchik, including several made many years before by the composer Sergei Taneyev [1856-1915, one of Prokofiev’s teachers at the Moscow Conservatory] when he had made a study of the music of the Kabardinians and mountain Tartars…

The quote that opens this article is Prokofiev’s response to this content.

In making use of this borrowed content, the composer was able to maintain his own sound while still writing with unique themes (and even local instruments) in mind. It’s a very interesting work, in three movements, with a playing time of about 22 minutes.

The first movement is marked by a spirited step, powerful rhythms and a full-bodied quartet sound, like a deep breath of fresh country air. The themes are readily identifiable in the first movement, as the violin leads the group in a dance-like procession quite free of the kind of dark tumult we’ve heard in many of the works in this series recently. The melodies are quite standout and easy to latch onto.

The second movement soft and delicate in an almost French way, except with an exotic, foreign spirit, one of the charm of wide open remote untamed spaces. The central passage is almost East Asian in sound, a simple melody over pizzicato accompaniment. The music here is still largely untroubled, but with a bit more tension in the outer, more ethereal sections.

The finale is “based on a lively mountain dance,” and perhaps reminds listeners of Bartók, the master of folk melodies. It has the same spirited, rhythmic nature of the first movement, but even more driving and fiery. It’s so refreshing to have something like this that’s not overcast by shadows of gloom and tragedy. This final movement is by far my favorite of the work, and it has some compelling minor key passages, but they’re merely enthralling exciting, not tragic or dismal. We’ve had plenty of that, and there’s more to come, but for now, we can take a few deep breaths of fresh country air with the composer, who clearly enjoyed putting these exotic themes to use, and may have been quite pleased to find new inspiration and some time outside the city. It certainly seems like he made the best of the situation.

The three movements are of almost equal length, and while they follow what one might expect of a three-movement form, they’re also almost like different musical snapshots of a place, its sounds and character, and to wrap it all up very satisfyingly, the composer briefly revisits material from the previous movements.

As the composer suspected, then, the result of ethnic themes in a traditional quartet form did produce “unexpected results,” quite an optimistic, carefree work so late in the composer’s career, in a point when most people would associate him with the sounds of pieces we’ll be discussing next week, so stay tuned for that. This does make for a nice break from war-inspired chamber pieces, which show you don’t need a whole orchestra to give music of extreme depth and power. We’re almost done with this series, and we’ve seen some very stirring chamber pieces. Thanks very much for reading.

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