This week’s music, as part of our series on ballet music, is the Balcony Pas de Deux from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. First performed in 1940 by the renowned Mariinsky Ballet, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is the definitive musical expression of one of the greatest love stories of all time.
Prokofiev wrote the music for Romeo and Juliet at a time in his life in which he was under significant public pressure. European audiences had not liked his violin concerti, American audiences had dismissed his ballets, and Russian audiences had rejected his chamber music. On top of these pressures, Prokofiev was under close scrutiny by the Soviet government. Therefore, when Russian, European, and American audiences alike received Romeo and Juliet with adoration, a great weight was lifted off of Prokofiev’s shoulders.
The scene you will watch today, the Balcony Pas de Deux, depicts Romeo and Juliet falling in love. Notice how Prokofiev uses soaring lines in the violins to create a sense of rapture. Listen as well for the oboe solo that ushers in one of the main themes of the entire ballet.
Our music for this week is the Sonata for Two Violins by Sergei Prokofiev.
“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….” Sergei Prokofiev, 1941
Thus the idea for this sonata was born. It was written in 1932 on commission for a private recital, but it soon became well-known in public concert halls. There are four movements in this sonata; you will be hearing the second, performed by violinists Alexi Kenny and Brian Hong. This movement is all about rhythm, virtuosity, and aggression. Listen to how the violins trade flying eighth note jabs in percussive waterfalls up and down the harmonic register.
I would also encourage you to watch the performers themselves in this video. Notice how they use eye contact and body motion to communicate and stay in touch with each other during these challenging sections. As a musician myself, I can attest to the paramount importance of eye contact and expressive motion (to an extent) during performance. These physical cues can help the musicians connect through and across musical shapes and can also ensure rhythmic stability.
Our music for this week is the Piano Sonata #8 by Sergei Prokofiev, performed by the superstar Russian pianist Daniel Trifonov. We will be listening to the second movement of this sonata.
Prokofiev is one of Russia’s most famous twentieth-century composers. He is most widely known for his ballet Romeo and Juliet and his second violin concerto, but he was incredibly versatile. Among the number of piano works he composed are what we’ve come to know as the “Three War Sonatas.” These three works – his sixth, seventh, and eighth sonatas for piano – were written during World War II and reflect Prokofiev’s despair, fear, and – sometimes – hope.
The thematic material for this second movement comes from one of Prokofiev’s abandoned movie scores. You’ll notice that he creates a dreamlike quality with the dichotomy between the running right hand and the plodding, entranced left hand. Listen closely at the 3:28 mark; you’ll hear a delightfully Prokofiev-esque melody emerge from the dreamy texture in all of its polyphonic glory. Listen as well for the jolting atonal chords he inserts near the end before resolving the movement in perfect tonality. Pure genius.
Today marks the 100th installment in the This Week’s Music tradition! For those of you who have been with us since the email days, this is more like #200, but we have now reached the 100 mark here on the website. To celebrate the occasion, our music this week will be one of the very first pieces we ever listened to: Overture on a Hebrew Theme by Prokofiev.
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 (2 violins, viola, and cello). Prokofiev apparently wrote the work in response to a commission from 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 positive response it elicited from the public.
The work carries a distinctively Russian flavor, due largely to the efforts of the clarinetist. It features melancholy lines that are meditative and reflective in nature, interspersed with multiple sections of lively transition. The most memorable and beautiful theme comes in at 2:37. This melody is one of those rare gems that feels like you’ve always known it.