Where did the twentieth century go? There were times, within living memory, when all seemed to hinge on bookish ideologies, when over-determined systems and slogans of social distribution would define friendships, careers, artistic styles, political borders, and even the survival of populations. And where are they now, these ideas poured in concrete? Sergei Prokofiev, wandering from the tumult of Tsarist/Revolutionary Moscow to the surprises of Paris and San Francisco, witnessed a great deal of it. There were times when he was revolutionary, and times when he was counter-revolutionary. And all he could do was make music — Modern music, in the now-archaic sense of that word.
Prokofiev wrote two violin concertos, each from a different side of the early 20th century modern. The first violin concerto (premiered in Paris in 1923), is full of lyric fantasy and Fabergé ornament; the second violin concerto leans toward People-oriented Russian realism — the ‘new simplicity’, as it was then called. Between these large works sits the Sonata for Two Violins, op. 56. It seems to draw from a great deal of Prokofiev’s compositional resources, even with its limited instrumentation. There are proto-military Kijé-esque moments; there are moments reminiscent of socialist anthems; there are moments of fairy-tale distance; there are moments of silent-movie humor; there are moments of pure virtuosity; there are moments of Romeo and Juliet. There are very sharp shadows of Prokofiev in this slim work.
Ideology and history notwithstanding, almost no music for two violins can escape being folk music. It is too portable and too dependent on fiddle traditions of one stripe or another to be deadly serious. But this is a beautiful fact for the people who gather around the Sonata for Two Violins. The slim, winding smoke of two well-used violins contains so much music that need not seek its meanings in the experience of a century or a biography. It is rather the experience of a moment, guided by two near-weightless instruments at play, which gives delights that are not merely Modern. They are the delights of the moments Prokofiev managed to conjure, and continues to conjure, from almost nothing.