Overture on Hebrew Themes, Opus 34b
Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow
(The following are program notes written by Eric Bromberger, who lives in Los Osos. He is a program annotator for the Minnesota Orchestra, San Diego Symphony, Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center, San Francisco Performances, the Chicago Symphony’s chamber series at the Art Institute of Chicago, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and many others. He was a violinist in the La Jolla Symphony for 32 seasons, and he has been a preconcert lecturer for the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1999.)
Though he was essentially apolitical, Prokofiev was so dismayed by the Russian Revolution and what it promised for his career that he fled his homeland in the summer of 1918, traveling by railroad across the continent to Vladivostok and taking a ship to San Francisco. His plans to establish a new home in America did not bring the success he hoped. He made a great deal of money in the United States and his music scandalized audiences here (both of which gave him much pleasure), but after three years Prokofiev moved on to Paris and eventually back to Russia in 1936.
While in this country, Prokofiev made New York City his base, and there he spent the summer of 1919 composing his opera Love for Three Oranges. That fall, an ensemble called “Zimro” and made up of six Jewish musicians – piano, clarinet, and string quartet – visited New York. Like Prokofiev, all six were expatriate Russians, and in fact all of them had studied at the Moscow Conservatory at the same time Prokofiev was there. Now they approached their old friend and asked him to write something for them. Prokofiev described what happened:
The official purpose of their concert tour was to raise funds for a Conservatoire in Jerusalem. But this was merely to impress the Jewish population of America. Actually they barely made enough to keep themselves alive.
They had a repertoire of rather interesting Jewish music for diverse combinations of instruments: for two violins, trio, etc. They asked me to write them an overture for a sextet, and gave me a notebook of Jewish themes.
I refused at first on the grounds that I used only my own musical material. The notebook, however, remained with me, and glancing through it one evening I chose a few pleasant themes and began to improvise at the piano. I soon noticed that several well-knit passages were emerging. I spent the next day working on the themes and by evening I had the overture ready. It took ten more days to whip it into final shape.
The Zimro ensemble gave the premiere of what Prokofiev called “Overture on Hebrew Themes” in New York on January 26, 1920. Fourteen years later, Prokofiev returned to this music and arranged it for an orchestra of almost Mozartean proportions: pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and strings, though he retained the piano of the original version and added a bass drum. This version was premiered in Moscow on November 30, 1934.
The Overture is sectional in structure. It opens with a sultry vamp, and quickly Prokofiev presents the main theme, reminiscent of the klezmer music of Eastern Europe and full of short phrases, snapped turns, and quick chromatic modulations; the more lyric second subject arrives over rippling accompaniment. The Overture reaches a moment of repose, then Prokofiev reprises both theme groups, now varied and slightly shortened. A brief coda on the opening tune drives to a sudden close.