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An Unexpected Journey
It was just over a year after the Russian Revolution when Prokofiev first left home to travel west to further his career, having secured permission from the commissar of culture under Vladimir Lenin. He made successful inroads in Chicago, and in just a few months, Prokofiev made his American debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on December 6, 1918. The multitalented composer appeared as soloist for his First Piano Concerto and conductor for his Scythian Suite, and the Chicago audience responded to the performance by demanding seven curtain calls. It was an auspicious start to a trip that was intended to last a few months, but became a journey spanning three countries and more than fifteen years.
Despite the early acclaim, Prokofiev’s success in America proved limited, and by 1933 he was living in Paris and feeling an increased longing to return home. In 1935 he had already been contemplating a work for violin when he was urged by supporters of French-Belgian violinist Robert Soetens to compose a concerto for the virtuoso. The composer readily agreed and set to work while concurrently composing his ballet Romeo and Juliet. Elsewhere in the world was great turbulence; the Nazis were growing in power and enacted the Nuremberg Laws, the United States was still reeling from the Great Depression, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, and Persia became Iran. In the Soviet Union, Stalin’s forced collectivism of the nation’s farms was causing massive famines and his “Great Terror” was purging party and army enemies, both real and imagined. In the midst of this turmoil, Prokofiev made his long-awaited homecoming and completed the Violin Concerto No. 2.
The Russia that Prokofiev returned to presented a stifling musical environment in which “modernism” was prohibited and “Socialist Realism” was the required focus of all compositions. Even so, it was during this era that Prokofiev created some of his best-known work, including Peter and the Wolf and the film scores for Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. His Violin Concerto No. 2 proved to be a voluptuous, lyrical work with prominent melodies and a spirited ending evocative of a lively Spanish dance. The work was premiered in Madrid and was successful from the outset, later gaining popularity in the United States through performances by violinist Jascha Heifetz.
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