Prokofiev's Violin Madness

It doesn't happen often but when it does, it happens in a big way. No, I'm not speaking of a Shields and Yarnell comeback tour, but of finding a composer, group, or artist who seems to speak your personal musical language. You seem to share the same philosophy of music and almost every piece of music you hear by this artist seems to illuminate a different aspect of your personality, even to the point that you find yourself buying operas by this composer (say it ain't so!). You have even deluded yourself that if you both could meet, you would surely be pals, despite the fact that one of you is dead and when alive, spoke Russian. Such is the cosmic-twin bond between myself and Sergei Sergeyevich (pronouncing this makes my endocrine system ache) Prokofiev.

Although you won't find his music in heavy rotation in orchestras around this country, his music is not completely spurned. He is, after all, one of the most recognized composers of the twentieth century. Right now, red flags are going up in your head as you dredge your memory. Twentieth century music... 12-tone... serialism... sounds like Milli Vanilli using his own voice... something is horribly wrong, right? Wrong. Prokofiev (born in 1891 in motherland Russia) was one of the few to successfully reconcile the progressive techniques of the twentieth century with the melodic traditionalism and forms (symphonies, concertos, etc) of the Romantic genre (that would be Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and their ilk). The result is some of the most enjoyable music written in the first half the this century. Of course, not everyone likes him (if I like an artist, this should go without saying). When he first started composing, his music was called "ugly" and "brutal". Always one to follow his own lead, he didn't let this bother him. To show how brash this young fellow was, listen to this here story (for more fun, read it out loud in a pirate voice): There was a custom in his day (that would be Sergie's day) that Moscow Conservatory piano students (of which he was one) would play a piano concerto by Beethoven, Grieg, or Tchaikovsky on their graduation day. Instead, Prokofiev played his own Piano Concerto #1. His professors found it to not only be ugly but outlandishly ugly. But he played so brilliantly that he won the special prize (a Penquin Point franchise, methinks). He then spent the next twenty years touring the world as a concert pianist and composing whenever he had a few minutes, arrrrg!

So far, I've made it sound like his music is ugly, brash, and even outlandishly ugly but this is misleading. While it is true (oh, you can drop the pirate voice now… the story is over) that some of his music could be considered, well, ugly, by certain individuals, the majority of his music is very melodic and easy on the ear. Imagine taking the music of great Romantic composers and "kickin' it up uh notch" with unexpected harmonies and aggressive twentieth century rhythms. Known for having "fingers of steel", his piano music is still usually played in this cold, barbaric fashion. Which is a shame. Early on, he did use a lot of jagged discords, nearly percussive piano playing, and screeching orchestral sounds, but it is a mistake to not remember his gift for melody, his playful mischievousness, and his sense of humor. One could say, and I will, that his entire musical output contains humor and scathing sarcasm. The great Leonard Bernstein found the third movement of Prokofiev's first symphony so hilarious that it left him in tears (to this naïve reviewer, it sounds like a drunk horse trying to waltz). If all this sounds a bit like I'm describing Danny Elfman, you are right (contact me at to collect your prize!). Both cram their compositions full of infectious playfulness and contagious melodies. Prokofiev, however, wrote music that spans all musical mediums from solo piano pieces to symphonies to operas to film music (he was one of the first to lend his talents to this genre that has yet to gain respect from hardcore classical music snobs).

Perhaps his most well-known piece is Peter and the Wolf (although in Russia, they call it Petya I volk, those wacky Russians). You've probably seen the Disney cartoon version of it and the movie A Christmas Story plays the theme of the wolf every time Scott Farkas (with his beady, yellow eyes and matching teeth) comes onto the screen to prey on the innocent protagonist. Written as a narrated children's piece that allows the listener to isolate and recognize the individual instruments of the orchestra, it was immensely popular with all ages from it's first performance back in 1936. Today you can buy versions of it with narrators ranging from Sting to Captain Kangaroo to Professor Tweedlefoofer to Weird Al Yankovic ("Weird Al" was not a joke, I repeat, sadly, "Weird Al" was not a joke). Or you could continue to hoard your money, hiding it behind Aunt Merkin's ash urn, getting it out in the middle of the night, cackling gleefully as you count the clanky bits of loose change.

For this weekends performance, those attending will be treated to Prokofiev's first violin concerto, one of his earliest compositions. Although only a mere twenty minutes long, it is full of swift yet integrated changes of mood and elements that make it one of the best modern violin concertos (and this isn't just my own bias! I read that somewhere!). Still as innovative, light, and fresh as when it was written, this piece features stretches of mechanically aggressive rhythms and bold harmonies. The first movement is full of lyrical melodies with soft, fluttering flutes and violas weaving counter melodies until the violin and orchestra break out in an intense musical discourse ("Tastes great!" "Less filling!"). The second movement has been called "one of the most extraordinary movements in the repertoire of the violin". In a spirit of sparkling, zestful mischief, the violin dances and runs its way through the orchestra, which threatens to dampen its mood with dark, heavy passages. The finale continues this frenzied albeit light-hearted pace before ending in the same quiet contemplation that opened the piece. Because Prokofiev is one of my favorite composers, I can whole-heartedly (and whole-thyroidedly) recommend that you spend some time quietly contemplating exposing yourself (huh?) to the music of Sergei Prokofiev.

Copyright 1999 Jason Hoffman

Previous Article ~ Home ~ Next Article