Sergei Prokofiev: String Quartet No.1 

Context

Sergei Prokofiev composed his first string quartet in 1931 as a commission from the Library of Congress. The quartet premiered in Washington D.C. in April of the same year by the Brosa Quartet. The Russian premiere came later in the year in October, this time performed by the Roth Quartet. The quartet remains popular in the core repertoire and poses many challenges for the ensemble. 

 

The Music

Set into three movements, the first string quartet is distinctive as it is set in B minor, which is a semitone below the bottom limits of the viola and the cello ranges. It takes the unusual form of fast-slow-slow form, with the finale movement being one of Prokofiev’s favourite compositions. He liked the finale so much he transcribed it for string orchestra, which is also popular in performance. 

Movement I – Allegro

The infectious vivacity of the opening movement keeps the driving pace of the music at the forefront. Sometimes split into pairs, the ensemble interweave as the first theme is presented. The unison sections are bold, with the quieter and more intricate sections offering real light and shade to the music. The angular and sometimes dissonant theme rears its head a number of times in this movement, chiefly on the violin parts. The jaunty accompaniment during the middle section is somewhat Bartókian and the folk-like robustness of this section is really exciting. This incredibly exciting opening movement concludes with the four lines of music coming together to play the last final fragment of melody.

 

Movement II – Andante molto – Vivace

The lyrical start of the second movement is full of Prokofiev’s rich orchestrations that make you feel like the ensemble is larger than it actually is. The slow movement is rich and bolstered by staggered entries and nuanced dissonances. The middle vivace section comes out of nowhere and has a similar character to the opening movement. The excitement and sheer speed of this section is thrilling. 

Syncopated unison movement is used effectively here and is one of the chief characteristics of the theme. The quick changes between arco and pizzicato adds to the incredible textures Prokofiev creates. This pace goes on right until the end of this movement – quite the feat to keep this tempo sustained for so many minutes.

Movement III – Andante

After the excitement and chaos of the second movement, the finale movement is slow, solemn and lyrical in style. The rich cello sound grounds the ensemble as the upper strings start playing fragments of the main theme. The rich viola sound is at the core of the opening theme as the nuanced dissonances begin to diminish. There is a pertinent emotional core to this movement, making it very moving throughout. The dissonant climax section near the end is full of intensity and almost diminishes into thin air before the cello takes over the theme once more. The finale movement ends quietly, with a tinge of sadness woven through. 

 

Final Thoughts

Sergei Prokofiev’s First String Quartet is full of dramatic twists and turns. From the jaunty opening to the lyrical and solemn finale movement, Prokofiev’s writing shines through. A very challenging work to perform, but when done right is truly a delight to behold.

 

Happy Reading!

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