on Hebrew Themes
by Sergei Prokofiev
"...Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it. Itís multifaceted. It can appear to be happy while it is tragic. Itís almost always laughter through tears. This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music."
Dmitri Shostakovich (as told to Solomon Volkov in Testimony)
The Overture on Hebrew Themes was composed by Prokofiev during his brief period of residence in the United States. Unlike his compatriots Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, Prokofiev was given permission to leave the Soviet Union. Leninís hand-picked "Peopleís Commissar of Public Education" Anatoly Lunacharsky himself arranged for Prokofievís exit visa, though not without some regret, as he was said to have remarked to Prokofiev in 1918, "You are a revolutionary in music. We are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together but if you want to go to America, I shall not stand in your way."
It was in 1919, while Prokofiev was living in New York, that a small group of Jewish musicians, former schoolmates from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, approached him with the idea of writing a piece for their ensemble, Zimro. They hoped to raise funds through a concert tour, to fund a Conservatory in Jerusalem. Zimro consisted of piano, clarinet and string quartet. Their repertoire contained works for combinations of these instruments. However, there was no work extant which would include them all. A work by Prokofiev would solve this problem, and add prestige to their mission. As they wished the work to have a "Jewish" cast to it, they gave him a notebook of Jewish folk songs. Prokofiev was not at all enthusiastic about such a project. The story goes that one day, (or was it one night?), he came across the notebook and started playing through some of the songs and improvising, as composers will. The work quickly took shape, fragments expanding and coalescing, and by sundown the next day the Overture for piano, clarinet and string quartet was complete. Cabalistic ??...or... maybe it was ten days later. In any case, the work was premiered in New York City on January 26, 1920 with Prokofiev at the piano and was a great, some would say, enormous success. Much later, already after his return to the USSR, Prokofiev arranged the work for orchestra in 1934.
Yuli Turovsky, cellist, member of the famous Borodin Trio and conductor, recalls in his notes to his recording of this work, that the Overture on Hebrew Themes was not performed in the Soviet Union for decades. When he and some friends decided, in the early 1970ís, to program the work as part of a concert in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the Soviet authorities balked at having the word "Hebrew" appear on the posters and programs. They suggested that Turovsky and friends choose another work. A compromise was reached, whereby the work could be performed if it were called simply Overture Op. 34 and the word "Hebrew" not appear on posters and programs. Rumours quickly spread through the musical Moscow that it was the "Hebrew Overture" that was to be performed. The Soviet censorship could not give the work any better advertisement. They played to a packed house of such enthusiasm that the work had to be repeated twice in its entirety.
This is indeed a wonderful work, evoking as it does, the music and spirit of the Klezmerim, the itinerant Jewish musicians of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the Overture is played very rarely and does not belong to repertory of any Danish ensemble.