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Sergei Prokofiev: Cello Concerto in E minor, op.

By Jeffrey Solow
"It is very difficult to write a concerto. One has to be inventive. I advise you to jot down
all the ideas as they occur to you, without waiting for the whole thing to mature. Write
down individual assages, interesting bits, not necessarily in the correct order. !ater on
you will use these "bric#s" to build the whole." Sergei $ro#ofiev gave this advice to %ram
&hachaturian around '()), about the same time that he began comosing the *oncerto in
+ minor for *ello and Orchestra, o. ,-, the last orchestral score he commenced in $aris
before his return to the .SS/.
$ro#ofiev began the concerto at the instigation of 0regor $iatigors#y, an early chamion
of $ro#ofiev"s music, who had erformed the comoser1s youthful Ballada on several
recitals in 2oscow. 3hey li#ely met in Berlin in '(45 when $iatigors#y was solo cellist
of the Berlin $hilharmonic. !ater, in $aris, $iatigors#y layed for $ro#ofiev and
ersistently urged him to write a concerto in site of $ro#ofiev"s initial rotestations6 7I
don"t #now your cra8y instrument.9 $ro#ofiev"s diary entry for 2ay 44, '()4 states6
7$iatigors#y very much wishes me to comose a concerto for him, and begs to lay it
everywhere. I already have a lan :and themes; for a <antasy for *ello and Orchestra. If
$iatigors#y could stum u the money, I"d do it . . . =e brought his cello and layed the
Ballade with me, very well.9 $iatigors#y relates in his memoir *ellist6 7I layed for him
and, demonstrating all ossibilities of the cello, saw him from time to time jum from his
chair. >It is slashing? $lay it again?1 =e made notes in the little noteboo# he always
carried with him. =e as#ed me to show him some of the tyical music for cello, but when
I did, he glanced through it and said, >@ou should not #ee it in the house. It smells.1 9
:=e made a similar comment to /ostroovich after $ro#ofiev as#ed to see some
idiomatic cello music and Slava brought him wor#s by Aavidoff and $oer.;
<inally, in the summer of '()), $ro#ofiev started to s#etch the concerto, visiting with
$iatigors#y several times. $iatigors#y says6 7<inally he comleted the first movement. I
received the music and soon we began to discuss the other movements to come. 3he
beginning of the second, which followed shortly, aeared as eBcitingly romising as the
first. >+ven so, it will lead to nothing. I cannot comose away from /ussia. I will go
home.1" Soon, with his wife and two little children, $ro#ofiev dearted for /ussia.
=e returned to the s#etches early in '()C but told his friend comoser Di#olai
2ias#ovs#y, 7%s before, it is still in a somnolent state.9 Aesite the concerto1s being
substantially drafted it remained dormant until '()5, at which oint $ro#ofiev, now in
2oscow, slowly resumed wor# on it. "3he first s#etches did not satisfy me," he wrote. "I
clearly felt "seams" between the various eisodes, and not all the music was of eEual
value. %fter the long interrution I revised the *oncerto, adding some new material.9
$iatigors#y did not have much oortunity to discuss the concerto with $ro#ofiev in '()-
as the comoser toured <rance, +ngland and the .S on his last tri out of the Soviet
.nion. 3erry &ing :to whom I am areciatively indebted for many fascinating details
and Euotes;, recounts in his boo# 0regor $iatigors#y6 3he !ife and *areer of the
Firtuoso *ellist :2c<arland G *o., 4H'H; that as the two crossed together from Dew
@or# to <rance on the steamshi Normandy, $ro#ofiev aologetically announced to
$iatigors#y that the concerto was nearly finished but that he could not dedicate it to
$iatigors#y or offer him the first erformance. %s a Soviet citi8en, $ro#ofiev could not
allow the remiere to be given outside of /ussia by a famous eBatriate who had been
erased from the ublic recordI this could be interreted as an act of defiance that might
endanger $ro#ofiev1s family. 3he wor# needed to be resented in the Soviet .nion first.
:When they both left ostJ/evolutionary /ussia to ursue careers in the West, the
government viewed $iatigors#y as a defector while $ro#ofiev was considered a cultural
emissary. !unachars#y, the $eole"s *ommissar for +ducation, told $ro#ofiev6 "@ou are
a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to wor# together. But if
you want to go to %merica I shall not stand in your way.9 $iatigors#y eventually received
an invitation to erform in the Soviet .nion but this never came to assI $ro#ofiev
returned to become a ermanent citi8en.; $ro#ofiev urged him to give its %merican
remiere and romised that the music would reach him as soon as ossible. $iatigors#y
had to be satisfied with the consolation of #nowing that the concerto he had caused to be
written would be ublished and that he would not be rohibited from touring with it
outside of /ussia.
In '()-, after finishing the music for the film %leBander Devs#y, $ro#ofiev finally
comleted the concerto :the manuscrit bears the date Setember '-, '()-; and the
young cellist !eonid Bere8ovs#y was entrusted to reare the concerto for its first
erformance. $ianist Sviatoslav /ichter was as#ed to wor# with Bere8ovs#y and he
acceted it li#e any other job, in order to earn his living. "<or two solid months I used to
wal# several miles to Bere8ovs#y"s aartment on the siBth floor," /ichter recalled. "2y
attitude was urely businessli#e. %lthough Bere8ovs#y was leased with the engagement,
the music was obviously alien to him. =e shrugged, he sighed, and he comlained about
the difficulties, but he racticed the *oncerto diligently, and he was very nervous." !ater
on, when Bere8ovs#y had finally learned the concerto, /ichter went with him to lay it
for $ro#ofiev. "$ro#ofiev himself oened the door, and led us into a small canaryJyellow
room. 3o begin with, $ro#ofiev said sternly to his sons, Sviatoslav and Oleg, "*hildren,
go away? Aon"t bother us?" and then he sat down. Bere8ovs#y loo#ed terribly uset.
$robably because of this, $ro#ofiev did not feel li#e tal#ing to him too much, and went to
the iano and began to show him "this way or that." $ro#ofiev never as#ed me to lay a
single note, not once, and so... we left."
3o be acceted for ublic erformance, the concerto needed to receive official aroval
from the .nion of Soviet *omosers. /ichter was surrised when the audition met with
enthusiasm from the cultural bureaucrats6 7"% real event? +very bit as fine as the Second
Fiolin *oncerto?" 3here was a lively and ositive discussion, and everyone resent
wished Bere8ovs#y well. Do one doubted that the wor# would be a tremendous success.
"3his is a new age in our history."9 3he concerto was assigned a rominent lace in the
Second <estival of Soviet 2usic and Bere8ovs#y began to reare for the ublic
remiere on Dovember 4K, '()- with conductor 2eli#J$achayev. .nfortunately, neither
the conductor nor the soloist was u to the tas#, musically or technically, and the
erformance was a comlete fiasco. When the comoser came bac#stage 2eli#J$ashayev
tried to brea# the aw#ward silence6 7Well, Sergei Sergeievich, what did you thin#L9
$ro#ofiev relied with an ingenuous smile, 7Dothing could have been worse.9
3he erformance was coldly received and the wor# was soon judged a failure. +ven the
comoser"s close friends were disaointed in it. "<irstJrate music but...somehow it
doesn"t Euite come off," 2ias#ovs#y noted in his diary. <or a long time the comoser did
not agree with these oinions. "3he critics remained indifferent out of sheer obtuseness,"
he said. "3he *oncerto is very much li#e the Second Fiolin *oncerto?" !ater on,
however, heeding the criticisms of 2ias#ovs#y who ointed out substantial flaws in its
form, $ro#ofiev made a number of changes including the addition of a caden8a in the
third movement.
%fter the disastrous remiere it was now $iatigors#y1s turn to lay the romised first
%merican erformance. In '()(, $iatigors#y received the comleted manuscrit and
wrote to &oussevit8#y from $aris6 7I finally received the $ro#ofiev concertoMthe
concerto is suerb, and it gives me great leasure to wor# on it. I have not yet seen the
score, but I am sure that the concerto has been orchestrated with $ro#ofiev"s usual
mastery. 3he cello art is uncomfortable and difficult, but I hoe to successfully
overcome these difficulties. Where and when should the remiere of this concerto beL
3he ideal could be only one thingNand that is the Boston orchestra?. . .9
&oussevit8#y scheduled it for early 2arch of '(CH in Boston and Dew @or#. %s the date
neared they both had concerns about the concerto but with $ro#ofiev in /ussia
communication was difficult. !eaving it in the hands of the erformers $ro#ofiev wrote
to $iatigors#y, "Ao whatever you find necessary. @ou have carte blanche."
3he %merican remiere too# lace on 2arch -, '(CH and $iatigors#y recalled, 73he
erformance in Boston went well and the resonse of the audience was gratifying.9
*ritical reaction was miBed, though more ositive than in the Soviet .nion. *learly the
concerto suffered from the last movement"s length and diffuseness. Warren Story Smith
of the Boston Post wrote6 73he first movement is charmingI the second, slightly less
ersuasive and the third, though full of ingenuity, seems to get nowhere.9 While in the
Boston Herald %leBander William said, 7Mit would be resumtuous to condemn the
concerto on the ground that we were unable to assimilate easily some of the last
movementM3his is, moreover, much too interesting a wor# to be shelved, even if cello
concertos were as common as daisiesM9
%fter the erformances $iatigors#y wrote to $ro#ofiev about the concerto6 7In my letters,
sent through the courtesy of the Soviet +mbassy, I as#ed $ro#ofiev to ma#e changes,
ointing out certain wea#nesses of the wor#. =e than#ed me for the suggestions and said
that he would ta#e them into consideration.9 =owever, with the onset of WWII no further
eBloration of the wor# on the art of $iatigors#y ensued. 3he concerto was not
erformed again until 2aurice 0endron layed it in !ondon in Aecember of '(C, and
$ro#ofiev did not hear it again until 2stislav /ostroovich rogrammed it with iano
accomaniment on a recital in January '(C-. 3he comoser later as#ed /ostroovich to
hel revise it eBlaining that, 7the structure is not comact enough.9 :Wor#ing together
on the revision, destined to become the Sinfonia *oncertante, o. '4,, /ostroovich was
amused by $ro#ofiev"s vivid concetion of the sounds of various instruments searately
and in grous. $ro#ofiev told him that the lower notes layed ianissimo on the tuba
reminded him of fat and greasy beetles that he would carefully ta#e into his hand and
lace from one note to another. =e also said that in his orchestration of his *ello
*oncerto the string Euintet that follows the cello solo art sounded to him li#e "oor
relatives." /egarding the Sinfonia *oncertante, $iatigors#y later noted6 7I am grateful
that there are now two major wor#s for the cello by this great comoser and unforgettable
man.9; 3he concerto was not ublished until the early >,Hs and as the reJublication
materials are not available for eBamination, no one #nows how many, if any, of
$iatigors#y1s suggestions $ro#ofiev incororated.
3he three movements of the concerto follow a rather unusual seEuenceNslowJfastJslow
Nthe same seEuence of temi as in $ro#ofiev1s first violin concerto. :Walton used a
similar form in his '(,K *ello *oncerto, also written for $iatigors#y.; 3he first
movement, a brief Andante, serves as sort of lyrical but dramatic introduction to the
whole wor#I the second, a fast Allegro giusto, has several eisodes including a marchI the
third movement, although mar#ed Allegro, is a theme with four mostlyJslow variations
intersersed by two interludes, followed by a return to the first movement and closing
with an eBtended coda, itself consisting of several eisodes including a set of short
variations on another theme. %lmost as long as the first two movements together, this
movement has remained the stumbling bloc# for the concerto1s accetance by cellists. :In
the concerto1s transformation into the Sinfonia *oncertante, most of the slow arts of the
finale were eliminated and the seEuence of movements became slowJfastJfast.;
3he concerto was first recorded by Janos Star#er in '(,5, followed by <rench cellist
/oger %lbin in '(KH and *hristine Walevs#a in '(5). /ecogni8ing the wea#nesses of the
last movement, Star#er and Walevs#a introduced large cuts, as did Dathaniel /osen
:heeding his teacher $iatigors#y1s advice; when he erformed it with the $asadena
Symhony in '(5, or >5K. $ersonally, I have always been more attracted to the concerto
than to the Sinfonia *oncertante because of its stylistic affinity to the Second Fiolin
*oncerto, comosed in '(), during the cello concerto1s dormant eriod. 2any years ago,
uon finding a coy of the %lbin !$ :until recently the only comlete recording; and
hearing the arts that had been left out, I came to believe that with different and smaller
cuts, the concerto could be successful almost as $ro#ofiev wrote it. 3he arts that caused
the last movement to bog down could easily be removed without sacrificing the integrity
of the wor#1s original concet and what remained would be ure $ro#ofievN
characteri8ed by his erfect fusion of melody and modernism.
%ccording to the !eague of %merican Orchestras, $ro#ofiev1s orchestral music is layed
more freEuently in the .nited States than that of any other comoser of the last hundred
years eBcet for Shosta#ovich and Strauss. $erhas the *ello *oncerto, o. ,- may yet
join the ran#s of his oftenJerformed wor#s.