Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. Indelible names. Indelible music. Both forever left their marks, thrilling and delighting audiences with so many different kinds of pieces. And so many of them varied in style and sound for each composer.
They were born not far apart in time or place, separated by but nine years. Eventually they went their own ways, Stravinsky constantly exploring new musical territory, Prokofiev digging deeply in his roots, often suffused with the culture of his homeland.
Their chamber music is not heard as often as are their orchestral works, but now there’s an opportunity to experience two string quartets by Stravinsky and one by Prokofiev. His two-violin sonata, Op. 56 is likewise part of the June 26th concert offered by the Omaha Chamber Music Society. The title, “Happy Birthday, Sergei,” calls attention to the 125th anniversary of his birth.
It makes sense to pair these composers. Both were from Russia. Plus, early in their careers, they spent many years living away from there, both having great success in heady, stimulating, incredibly culturally alive early 20th-century Paris.
The compositions in this program are from that time: 1918 to 1932. You may find them more similar than different from each other; they were inspired and influenced by earlier music.
Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet from 1918 can suggest Orthodox Church rituals in its third movement. He named that part Canticle in a subsequent orchestrated version. Critic Richard Dodda said that it suggests “a sense of suspended time and rapt ecstasy.”
Two years later the composer created his Concertino for String Quartet expressing a desire to leave the listener with an eventual sense of calm.
Make no mistake, though, each work has less conventional moments, strange scraping sounds in the first and touches of deliberate dissonance in the second.
Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 1 is from 1930 and the Sonata from two years later. The composer was around 40 years old then. He said that the Quartet was inspired, in part, by some of Beethoven’s. The Sonata is similar in form to a Baroque sonata da chiesa and evidently at times is lyrical, energetic and folksy. Prokofiev later wrote in his autobiography that he created this because he’d heard another for two unaccompanied violins which was “unsuccessful.” “Listening to bad music sometimes inspires good ideas,” he claimed. “In spite of the apparent limitations…one could make it interesting enough.”
These two great composers and countrymen intersected and interacted at times. For example, after witnessing Prokofiev’s 1921 ballet Chout, Stravinsky called it "the single piece of modern music” to which he could listen with pleasure.
Yet, a year later, when Stravinsky, after hearing The Love for Three Oranges, commented that Prokofiev should stick to ballets rather than operas, Prokofiev responded that Stravinsky had no right to “lay down … artistic direction (being) not immune to error. ” He claimed that they almost came to blows and thereafter remarked that “Stravinsky's attitude toward me was critical."
However, a few years later, they restored their friendship, even though Prokofiev expressed dislike for some of Stravinsky’s latest music as “stylization of Bach.” Nonetheless, thereafter Stravinsky described Prokofiev as the greatest Russian composer of his day … after himself.
The musicians who come together for this are all members of the Omaha Symphony: violinists Elizabeth Furuta and Ricardo Amador, violist Brian Sherwood and cellist Tim Strang.
Think of this new reunion as one full of many kinds of harmonies, a cause for celebration, especially just two months after Sergei’s 125th birthday.
This concert is June 26 at First Congregational Church, 421 S. 36 St. Sun. 3 p.m. Tickets $5-$20. www.omahachambermusic.org