String Quartet No.2 (On Kabardinian Themes), by Sergei Prokofiev

The String Quartet No. 2 was composed in about five weeks in the autumn of 1942 in the little town of Nalchik, in the Kabardino-Balkaria Autonomous Republic, located in the foothills of the northern Caucasus mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas. During the summer of 1942, following the demise of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, as the German Army was overrunning Russia, the Soviet government evacuated a group of its then favored musicians, actors, artists and professors from Moscow to the safety of this little known region.

It was under these circumstances that Prokofiev came to know of the folk music of this area. His fascination with the music led him to write this Quartet, the aim of which was to achieve, "a combination of virtually untouched folk material and the most classical of classical forms, the string quartet." ach of the three movements of the work contains actual folk songs and dances.

String Quartet No. 2 in F Major Op. 92 (On Kabardinian Themes) (1942)

Chamber music played a relatively small role in Prokofiev’s musical output. His fame rests on his orchestral music - the symphonies, concerti, ballets, film scores and piano music. However, his few chamber music works, the two string quartets, the Overture on Hebrew Themes (performed by the Sierra Chamber Society in the 1988 season) and the two sonatas for violin and piano remain popular and are often performed.

The String Quartet No. 2 was composed in about five weeks in the autumn of 1942 in the little town of Nalchik, in the Kabardino-Balkaria Autonomous Republic, located in the foothills of the northern Caucasus mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas. During the summer of 1942, following the demise of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, as the German Army was overrunning Russia, the Soviet government evacuated a group of its then favored musicians, actors, artists and professors from Moscow to the safety of this little known region.

It was under these circumstances that Prokofiev came to know of the folk music of this area. His fascination with the music led him to write this Quartet, the aim of which was to achieve, "a combination of virtually untouched folk material and the most classical of classical forms, the string quartet."

Each of the three movements of the work contains actual folk songs and dances. Prokofiev took care not to prettify the music. He strove to keep the often harsh harmonies and "barbaric" rhythms of the originals, as had Stravinsky, Bartok and Skzymanowski in their use of folk materials of Russia, Hungary and Poland. In his faithfulness to his sources, Prokofiev came under adverse criticism from the official critics who also praised him for his use of folk music. Despite the carping of the critics, the work was an immediate success. The work was premiered by the reknowned Beethoven Quartet in Moscow on September 5, 1942 but the start of the performance had to be delayed due to a German air raid.

The first movement (Allegro sostenuto) is based on the dance, Udzh Starikov, heard at the beginning and on the song Sosruko, in which three players create an accordion-like accompaniment to the song, sung by the violin. 

The second movement (Adagio) is based on a Kabardian love song, Synilyaklik Zhir, given to the cello to sing in a high voice.  The middle section utilizes a folk dance, Islamei, which seeks to imitate the sound of the kemange (Shikhepishina), a variety of spike fiddle originating in Persia and in use in various forms throughout the Middle East. It is a long necked fiddle with typically 3 strings. It is held vertically, with the spike resting on the player’s knee and bowed. The movement ends with a brief return of the opening song.

The third movement (Allegro) is based on a mountain dance known as Getegezhev Ogurbi alternating with two lyrical themes and a reminiscence of the first movement. 

Emerson String Quartet, Album: Prokofiev: String Quartets - Sonata for 2 Violins

  • The first movement: String Quartet No. 2 in F major, (on Kabardinian Themes) Op. 92 I. Allegro sostenuto
  • The second movement String Quartet No. 2 in F major, (on Kabardinian Themes) Op. 92 II. Adagio
  • The third movement: String Quartet No. 2 in F major, (on Kabardinian Themes) Op. 92 III. Allegro 

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String Quartet No 2 in F major Op 92

by Christopher Palmer

On 22 June 1941 Hitler invaded Russia, and in August Prokofiev, along with other prominent artists and academics, was evacuated to Nalchik in the Caucasus, a journey of three days by train. Prokofiev himself describes Nalchik and the circumstances in which his Second String Quartet was composed:

Nalchik was a small town nestling in the foothills of the Caucasus, with a delightful park (subsequently barbarously destroyed by the Germans) and a mountain range in the background. We were given a warm welcome and provided with every facility for work.

While in Nalchik I wrote my Symphonic Suite (1941) which had three movements: 'In Battle', 'At Night' and 'Brotherhood of Nations'. This suite formed the basis of the music to the film , Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppes written in December 1942. There too I worked on the first six scenes of the opera War and Peace, which portrayed the peaceful life of the main characters of the novel, their joys and sorrows, their thoughts and dreams, disappointments and passions.

The local Department of Art was delighted to have composers like Myaskovsky Anatoly Alexandrov, Shaporin and others staying in Nalchik, the capital of Kabarda. This Department had in its files recordings of Kabardinian folk songs, one volume of which had been recorded by S I Taneyev. "Look here," the chairman of the Arts Committee said to us, "you have a goldmine of musical material here that has remained practically untapped. If you take advantage of your stay here to work on this material you will be laying the foundation of a Karbardinian music." And indeed the material proved to be very fresh and original and before long we all set to work.

Myaskovsky very soon sketched the outline of his 23rd Symphony. I contemplated writing a string quartet I felt that the combination of new, untouched Oriental folklore with the most classical of classic forms, the string quartet, ought to produce interesting and unexpected results. But when I actually started to work it suddenly occurred to me that since the musical culture of Kabarda was at a low level of development by comparison with European standards, apart from the beautiful folksongs it incorporated my quartet might not be understood in Nalchik at all. However, the chairman of the Arts Committee to whom I confided my doubts reassured me. "Write as you feel," he said. "If we don't understand your quartet now we will appreciate it later on".

It would be interesting to know more about that folksong-collecting enterprise of Taneyev (one of Prokofiev's mentors) which took place in 1885. What songs did he collect, and did they by any chance influence the composition of the string quartet he composed (his first published one) the following year? Prokofiev discussed the question of his folk sources in some detail with his biographer, Nestyev; the latter points out that two of the quartet's themes are also to be found in the symphony by Myaskovsky (No 23) to which Prokofiev refers, namely the mountain-dance-like main theme of the Quartet's finale and the melismatic Lezginka Islambey which predominates in the second movement and may well relate to Balakirev's virtuoso piano fantasy Islamey. Balakirev first visited the Caucasus in 1862 and, enthralled by the mountain country and the music of its people, returned there the following year; and it was as a result of these visits that his music first began to reflect the lure of the exotic. Two of his most famous scores, Islamey and the orchestral Tamara, were to issue from this.

Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin were also interested in Russo-oriental folk music; but Prokofiev's approach has nothing in common with theirs nor with Ippolitov-Ivanov's in his well-Known Caucasian Sketches for orchestra. There is no aura of fairy-tale glamour here, but a taste of the genuine article: primitive sonorities and harmonies which often suggest the sound of the Northern Caucasian stringed instruments Prokofiev would have heard both live and on records. The affinity with Bartók and Szymanowski (his Second String Quartet) is striking: both were steeped in their native folk music (Hungarian and Polish respectively), and both strove for a similar kind of integrated authenticity. Of course, the appeal of this music to Prokofiev was in its exoticism, its un-Russianness; he was no different from Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov and others in that regard. Where he differed from them was his refusal to treat it as something decorative or external. He had too great a respect for it for that. And if this gives the impression that a Western audience might have difficulty coming to terms with the Quartet, nothing could be further from the truth - few of Prokofiev's works are so immediately and piquantly attractive. There is a freshness and sharpness; the flavour is decidedly tangy, now sweet, now sour, but never unpalatable. (Grieg's Slåtter and Szymanowski's Mazurkas have a similarly earthy directness of derivation from peasant mountain sources). The colours are brightly exotic, the tunes good, and Prokofiev treats them in subtle and original ways, not least in richness of diatonic dissonance. Myaskovsky had noted in the First Quartet a complete absence of 'effects' - the musical thought was the thing, not the dressing-up. Here there are many effects in terms of string texture and timbre, and wholly delightful they are.

In the first movement Prokofiev has no difficulty imposing sonata form on his open-air themes: in fact the latter sound delighted to co-operate. The second movement is a nocturne with a melting love-song-like theme sung by the cello high in its register; a middle section is more dance-like (a serenade?) with delicious light-fingered effects of staccato and pizzicato in the accompaniment. The finale is quite elaborately designed: a rondo with the ritornello already referred to (the theme Myaskovsky also used), two other recurring themes and an impassioned central interlude introduced by a cello cadenza.

Prokofiev started the Second Quartet in Nalchik in November 1941; by the time he'd finished it, a month later, he'd been moved on to Tbilisi (Tiflis), the capital of Georgia, where he finished his opera War and Peace and the Seventh Piano Sonata. Far from being creatively paralysed by disruption and dislocation, Prokofiev appeared to thrive on them! The Quartet was first performed in Moscow on 5 September 1942.

Christopher PALMER 1992

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