Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2
Notes by TŌN violinist Haley Maurer Gillia
Prokofiev composed his Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor in 1935, at a critical point in his life: It was the last piece he wrote before returning home permanently to Russia. He believed, wrongly, that if he were to follow Stalin’s guidelines he’d be able to compose and perform his works with more ease. This proved challenging and dangerous (but that’s another story). He wrote the concerto in Europe while he was on tour with violinist Robert Soetens, and he intended it to be a stark contrast from his dreamy First Violin Concerto.
Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto also entered my life at a critical juncture in my journey as a violinist: It was my college audition piece. I spent many hours practicing and performing it, finding my voice, developing technical skills, and telling my own story through this nuanced work. I always imagined the violin soloist as the hero on a treacherous journey, with dreamlike sequences, dances embellished with castanets, and danger conveyed through intentionally grotesque double stops. I am thrilled to now be playing it for the first time in concert from the perspective of the violin section.
I have always been stunned by the work; the push/pull tension between vividly written musical characters—dark and ominous, majestic, militaristic, and anxious, but also light and sweet, lush, dreamy, and heartbreakingly romantic—that shift sometimes abruptly, sometimes smoothly from one to the next, or at times interweave, sometimes dueling, sometimes dancing.
Prokofiev takes us on an evocative journey, and finding the bright moments amid the dark, and vice versa, is thrilling. The textures and interplay between the orchestra and soloist create a cinematic experience defined by contrast. One of my favorite parts is the opening: The violin enters alone with a simple, haunting melody played only on the violin’s G string, its lowest. While the melody is seemingly “simple,” it is also filled with tension; it feels both moving and held back at the same time. This opposition underpins the entire concerto. The second movement is slow, graceful, and delicately beautiful. The third movement is fast and fiery, highly rhythmic.
The dark and light coexist, creating a work of extravagant beauty and intensity. Such tension and contrast seem fitting since Prokofiev was struggling with a deep love for his home country while simultaneously dealing with the realities of Stalin’s cruelty and harshness.