Thursday, May 29, 2014

Prokofiev - Overture On Hebrew Themes

Sergei Prokofiev was 25 yeas old when the February Revolution of 1917 occurred in Russia. He was already an accomplished concert pianist and composer, and wrote about those times:
The February Revolution found me in Petrograd. I and those I associated with welcomed it with open arms. I was in the streets of Petrograd while the fighting was going on, hiding behind house corners when the shooting came too close.
Despite his enthusiasm for the revolution, Prokofiev felt that there was little need for his music in Russia at this time so he made arrangements in 1918 with the People's Commissar For Education of the new government for a travel visa to the United States. He arrived in San Francisco in August of 1918 and was soon on his way to New York where he had his debut solo concert in September of 1918. But Prokofiev's stay in the United States turned out to not be a successful artistic or financial time. He stayed until 1920, when he left for France.

While he was still in New york in 1919 he was approached by a Russian musical group, the Zimbro Ensemble, with a commission to write a composition for their combination of clarinet, string quartet and piano. The group had just arrived in the United States on a world tour that had been sponsored by a Russian Zionist organization to try and raise money for a conservatory in Jerusalem.  The leader of the group, the clarinetist  Simeon Bellison, requested that the work have a Jewish style to it, so he gave Prokofiev a notebook that had Jewish folk songs in it for possible inclusion in the work.

Simeon Bellison
Initially, Prokofiev showed little interest in the project, but he played through the Jewish folksong notebook one day at the piano and his interest increased. He finished the work and was the pianist at the premiere in 1920.

The overture is in one continuous movement and Prokofiev used two melodies from the notebook given to him, although neither melody has been identified as being authentic Jewish folksong. The clarinet plays the first theme in a style of Jewish Klezmer Music of Eastern Europe.  The second theme is more lyrical and has the quality of melancholy about it as well.  All through the development section a feeling of improvisation is kept as the themes wend their way in and out amid other material. The themes return in what amounts to a recapitulation, after which the first theme returns in a short coda that builds in speed and volume until the piece ends.

Prokofiev didn't think too highly of his composition, perhaps because he had vowed earlier in his career to use only original themes in his work and he may have written this work mainly for money. Despite the composer's own opinion, the piece has remained popular and is one of the few instances where a non-Jewish musician captured the spirit and sound of Jewish music.

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