Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata for Two Violins


Sergei Prokofiev composed his Sonata for Two Violins in 1932 for a commission from Triton, a new Paris-based society dedicated to showcasing new chamber music. The inaugural concert took place in December of the same year. With the permission from the commissioner, Prokofiev was able to premiere the work before the concert in Moscow. The duo consisted of Dmitry Tsyganov and Vladimir Shirinsky, who were also both members of the Beethoven Quartet. For the Triton performance, Prokofiev called up Robert Soetens (for whom he also subsequently composed his Second Violin Concerto for in 1935) and Samuel Dushkin (for whom Prokofiev had composed his First Violin Concerto for a few months prior to this performance). 

In his 1941 biography, Prokofiev wrote about the origins of the sonata:


“Listening to bad music sometimes inspires good ideas…After once hearing an unsuccessful piece for two violins without piano accompaniment, it struck me that in spite of the apparent limitations of such a duet once could make it interesting enough to listen to for ten or fifteen minutes.

My sonata was presented at the official opening of Triton, which chanced to coincide with the premiere of my ballet On the Dnieper. Fortunately the ballet began half an hour after the end of the concert, and so immediately after the Sonata we dashed over to the Grand Opéra – musicians, critics, composer all together.” 


The Music

Set into four movement with a traditional slow-fast-slow-fast pattern, each movement creates different challenges for the duet. 


Movement I – Andante cantabile

The solemn opening movement starts with an easy-on-the-ear solo. As the second violin enters, the two begin to intertwine together as they accentuate and decorate each other’s melodic fragments. The patterns grow as the intensity begins to set in between the duo. The sonority is spare in this movement, however there is a rich core harmonic centre throughout. The serpentine melody becomes quieter as the movement concludes in the violins’ upper registers.


Movement II – Allegro

Unlike the opening movement there is much more urgency shown in the second. The violence of the dissonance is bolstered by the first signs of unison playing between the two players. Full of percussive double-stops and quick angular melodies, this lively movement shows the violins chase each other around the score. The scherzo-like opening is followed by a quick trio section which is far less aggressive in how it’s played. The fierceness of this movement resonates throughout the whole piece. 


Movement III – Commodo (quasi allegretto)

Perhaps the most lyrical of the sonata, the seemingly sweetened third movement sees the violins mute themselves as they begin to engage with the music. The delicate journey of the music is further accentuated by Prokofiev’s rich and sonorous writing. There is some element of reserved expression in this movement, but this only adds to the beauty and mysteriousness of the music. 


Movement IV – Allegro con brio

Mirroring the first movement, the finale also starts with a solo violin. Instead of the solemn opening of the first, the finale is quirky, quick and certainly presents elements of folk music. The charismatic finale movement is full of exciting twists and turns as the violins take turns in playing the solo line as the other creatively accompanies. The frenzy comes to its climax as the energetic last few bars culminate and finish this sonata off. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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