Our music for this week begins the series on the music of Sergei Prokofiev. We are starting it off with one of his lesser-known works, the Overture on a Hebrew Theme. It is among my favorite Prokofiev works and I believe it should be regarded as one of his most beautiful and important compositions.
The Overture on a Hebrew Theme was written in 1919 while Prokofiev was visiting friends in the United States. It was written for a very rare combination of instruments – clarinet, piano, and a string quartet. Prokofiev apparently wrote the work in response to a commission by the Zimro Ensemble, a Russian group with the combination of instruments noted above. He grudgingly agreed to write them a composition and remained stolidly disapproving of the work for the rest of his life. His dislike of the piece, however, is surprising given the immediate positive response it elicited from the public. Since Prokofiev’s death, the Overture has been revised to fit a full orchestra, and, unlike most other compositions that are “scaled-up” in this way, I believe this edition adds value to the work.
The work carries a distinctively Middle-Eastern flavor, due largely to the efforts of the clarinetist. Most of the composition features moments of melancholy lines that are meditative and reflective in nature, interspersed with multiple sections of lively transition. The primary themes of the work are repeated throughout the work but are traded amongst the instruments each time they reoccur. Two things in particular stand out to me whenever I hear this piece: 1) the almost tangible sense of color, and 2) the soulful melody that returns throughout the work with a different instrument each time. This melody is one of those rare gems that feels like you’ve always known it.