Prokofiev began to compose his Violin Sonata No. 1 in 1938, but didn’t complete it until 1946, an eight-year interval that spans all of World War II. Despite many personal vicissitudes, this was a fruitful period for Prokofiev, one that included his opera War and Peace, the monumental Piano Sonatas Nos. 6 – 8 (the so-called “War Sonatas”), and the fifth and sixth symphonies. Regarding his 6th symphony, Prokofiev wrote, “Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed. One has lost those dear to him, another has lost his health. These must not be forgotten.”
Like so many other great works, I was introduced to this piece when I was a student at the University of Colorado, in a recording by Joseph Szigeti and Artur Balsam. Although it is usually risky to ascribe programmatic intent to a piece of music unless the composer himself has indicated such intent, it is impossible for me to listen to this sonata without being reminded of the utter devastation and wholesale loss of life that surrounded its creation. In short, it speaks to me of irretrievable loss. Prokofiev himself described the haunting, muted violin scales played against the soft, bell-like chords of the piano at the end of the 1st and 4th movements as “wind passing through a graveyard”.
Jean R. Dane wrote perceptively about this sonata as follows:
The Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80… is an uncharacteristically grim, somber, troubled piece – fraught, intense, and passionate. The pervasive darkness carries with it many moments of great beauty, but, in general, the shadows are lightened only by passages that border on real savagery. One senses perhaps more anguish in this piece than in anything else Prokofiev wrote – and it was, in fact, the most apt that could be found to play at his funeral.
Who better to feature in this masterpiece than David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter, two giants of twentieth-century music, both of whom knew Prokofiev personally and were intimately associated with his work. In fact, Prokofiev dedicated the sonata to Oistrakh, who, together with Lev Oborin, gave it its premiere in 1946. “Nothing written for the violin in many decades – anywhere in the world – ” said Oistrakh, “could equal this piece in beauty and depth. I can make that statement without the slightest exaggeration.”
This memorable performance took place in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1972. The four movements are marked Andante assai, Allegro brusco, Andante, and Allegrissimo.