Prokofiev Cello Sonata in C major, op. 119

performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax, or below by Rostropovich and Richter

(cover photo by Aaron Burden)

Prokofiev’s cello sonata in C major is not to be confused with the sonata for solo cello in C# minor. That’s a very incomplete work, with only most of the first movement (of four planned) completed, but you’ll still see it around here and there, op. 134.

The cello sonata with piano, op. 119, was completed in 1949. If you read the article earlier in the week on his violin sonata, you may be expecting this work to be equally, or even more, brooding and dark than its predecessor of a few years, but it isn’t, and there’s an important reason.

The Zhdanov Decree

I won’t get into it all here, but the Zhdanov doctrine plays an unignorable part of Russian music history, especially with regards to Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The decree was “a Soviet cultural doctrine developed by Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov in 1946.” Wikipedia says that this decree proposed that the world had two “camps”, Soviet and American, democratic and imperialist, respectively. The article says:

The main principle of the Zhdanov doctrine was often summarized by the phrase “The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best”.

This seems so totally unrelated to music, or art in general, but Vano Muradeli’s opera The Great Friendship caused a strong reaction, and the party cracked down even more on music they found not to their liking. Wikipedia says:

…it signaled a sustained campaign of criticism and persecution against many of the Soviet Union‘s foremost composers, notably Dmitri ShostakovichSergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian for allegedly writing “hermetic” music and misusing dissonance.

So that’s what happened between the violin sonata and the cello sonata, something of a before and after here, so if you listen to both of these works, listen for what seems fundamentally the same in Prokofiev’s form of expression, but what also might be different. Some people even claim that it was these constraints and limitations that forced Shostakovich to find more creative, and maybe intense, ways to express himself, as with the fifth symphony.

The Sonata

Prokofiev himself had suffered from the decree and much of his music was indeed banned. Despite the oppressive political climate, it seems Prokofiev had a close circle of friends and associates who supported each other. David Oistrakh worked closely with both Prokofiev and Shostakovich on their violin works, and Rostropovich the same with cello. Myaskovsky was a long-time friend of Prokofiev, and it was at a gathering of these minds that Prokofiev was moved by Rostropovich’s performance of Myaskovsky’s second cello sonata, convincing him to write one of his own. It seems it all happened rather quickly, because his own sonata for cello (the first he’d written), completing the work in 1949, with the premiere on March 1, 1950 by Rostropovich and Richter.

The work is in three movements and lasts for about 25 minutes. The first movement takes up about half of this performance time. It begins in the lowest register of the cello, but reveals itself not to be growly or harsh, and after the piano enters, there is quickly revealed the quality that will mark this entire sonata, a crystalline, clean melodious line, but it’s not all about that. Contrasted with this handsome, simple melodic line come crunchy, quadruple-stopped plucked chords. These two ideas are at odds until a ‘moderato animato’ marking, where the real captivating melody appears. There are contrasts of these passages and themes, the more delicate, almost Messiaen-like nature of simple melodies and textures against the more acerbic elements that one might expect of mid-century Russian music. I’d almost call it neoclassical in some areas, but unmistakably modern nonetheless.

The second movement, by far the shortest of the work, at under five minutes, is playful, even comedic, a light, almost Haydn-esque character to what serves as kind of the minuet/scherzo of the work. It has a central section that’s lyrical and very broad, and contrasts with a bit of the almost comical light bounce or even fake smile of the first section. It’s heartfelt and moving. That’s our second movement.

Finally we have the third movement, twice as long as the previous one, but still shorter than the first. There are aspects of the two previous movements here, but it seems that melody and expression have taken over. The cello sings and dances, despite some of the crunchier or more raw passages. There are crunchy pizzicato plucks from the cello as the piano does its thing, some engaging rhythmic interest, but overall it’s the closing movement to a work that’s slightly more reserved, mellowed out. The piano and cello find themselves in unison at the end, and the cello finishes on its lowest note, an open C string. No vibrato there.


If you’re familiar with the composer’s seventh symphony, you’ll know that this isn’t the only work in which he seems to have mellowed out, or else found a language and style that could convey what he wanted to express while still be, on some surface level, acceptable to the powers that be at his time. It, too, is a much lighter, sunnier work than some of its predecessors, but never untrue to the composer’s sound and artistic ability.

Tragically, Prokofiev would never live to see this oppressive climate lifted. The Zhdanov decree/doctrine lasted until Stalin died, which was the same day Prokofiev died. Since Prokofiev’s home was near Red Square, the crowds of people were so heavy that for three days it was impossible to bring the composer’s body out of his home for the funeral service. Despite all of this tragedy, Prokofiev won six Stalin prizes in his lifetime, the fifth of which being for his violin sonata we discussed earlier in the week.

That ends our little stretch of chamber work, and we’ll now be moving on to something else. We have kind of a transition week next week, catching up with some old names we haven’t seen in a very long time, and then you’ll be seeing a series introduction to something that’ll carry us through into early November, so do stay tuned for that! Thank you for reading.


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