Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 56
After more than a decade in Paris, then the cultural center of the world, Prokofiev wrote this Sonata for Two Violins on commission from Triton, a new Paris-based society dedicated to presenting new chamber music. The Sonata was written for Triton’s inaugural concert in December of 1932.
In his 1941 autobiography, Prokofiev wrote about the Sonata: “Listening to bad music sometimes inspires good ideas... After once hearing an unsuccessful piece [unspecified] for two violins without piano accompaniment, it struck me that in spite of the apparent limitations of such a duet one could make it interesting enough to listen to for ten or fifteen minutes….”
The piece is in four movements with a slow-fast-slow-fast pattern. The first movement, an Andante cantabile, starts with a lovely, wandering violin solo. The second violin enters, following and winding around the first violin. The instruments continue in a pattern of growing fervent, dying down, then picking back up with even more gusto. The movement ends quietly as the two violins stretch to their upper regions.
In contrast to the first movement’s abstract quality, the Allegro that follows is all urgency, rhythm, and violence. After a percussive beginning with double stops played forte, the violins chase one another in fragmented, angular movement. The harsh repeated chord from the movement’s beginning returns several times, and the violins build obsessively on a dotted rhythmic figure.
The third movement, marked Commodo (quasi Allegretto), contains the most lyrical music of the Sonata. The violins are muted here, giving the music a decidedly reserved expression.
The finale, like the first movement, begins with a violin solo, this time bright and almost folky. In rondo form the violins play and dash to a frenzied ending. Though the work was intended to have its debut at the Triton concert, the actual premiere was three weeks before that concert, in Moscow by Dmitri Tziganov and Vassily Shirinsky, the violinists of the Beethoven Quartet.
— Jessie Rothwell is a writer, musician, and piano teacher who lives in Washington, D.C.