Cellist Laura van der Heijden on the Optimism Within Prokofiev’s Sonata for Cello & Piano

Player: Laura van der Heijden
Title of Work: Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 119
Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Date Composed: 1949
Name of Edition: Sikorski

think I first heard the Prokofiev Sonata performed live by cellist Fedor Amosov, and was taken by the cutting wit of the second movement. I had been familiar with Daniil Shafran and Anton Ginsburg’s recording, but after that performance, I listened with greater understanding and interest. Shafran’s recording demonstrates the intense color palette of the work and the vast emotional landscape on which it rests. I was also fascinated by the ever-changing relationship of the piano and the cello in this piece: At times, the melodies are beautifully interwoven, and in other passages, the piano remarks critically or supports the cello with gentle accompaniment. The opening of the Sonata is totally captivating, as it showcases, in my opinion, the cello’s best register: the rich, penetrating sound of the C string.

I first started learning the Prokofiev Sonata with the CD 1948 in mind, as I knew that it would work perfectly as the centerpiece for my Russian-themed recording. The CD’s title, 1948, was based on the decree issued by Andrey Zhdanov, the leading Soviet cultural policymaker, published on February 10 of that year in the Russian newspaper Pravda. This decree aimed to encourage a return to Russian aesthetics in music, and attacked any Western-leaning or “formalist” (music that contained any hint of modernism as perceived by the government) composers, and continued on from previous resolutions, which had condemned artists, writers, and filmmakers. Amongst the composers named in this article were Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shebalin, Popov, and Myaskovsky. Pianist Lev Naumov described that fateful day in his autobiography:


“It was devastating. At a meeting, held in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, Shebalin, who was mentioned in the decree, refused to plead guilty, showing incredible bravery. His students surrounded him, silently crying. This decree aimed to destroy the lives of the very best Russian composers.”

The composers knew that this decree was to be taken seriously; anyone who remembered the bloody purges of the ’30s knew that artistic disobedience could result in a death sentence.


During Stalin’s regime, artistic obedience was measured through the awarding of “Stalin Prizes,” which ensured that the authorities were aware of any new works being written. Myaskovsky wrote his second Sonata for Cello and Piano in A minor in 1948–9; it quickly won recognition as the best instrumental work of the year by a long mark. Shortly after its premiere given by Rostropovich, the Sonata was nominated for a Stalin Prize. Prokofiev and Myaskovsky were close friends and had shared the same teacher, Anatoly Lyadov, so it comes as no surprise that Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata was inspired by the premiere of Myaskovsky’s Second Cello Sonata. Both include melancholy lyricism in the “old Russian style,” but Prokofiev’s work is distinctly more satirical.

Much like his first Violin Sonata, the Cello Sonata touches upon the subject of war and the futility of violence. This similarity is particularly striking in the undulating harmonics of the final bars of the first movement of the Cello Sonata, which echo what Prokofiev described as “wind over a graveyard” in the finale of the Violin Sonata. As it comes to rest on C major after such a turbulent section, one could hear the terrifying silence of death: Perhaps Prokofiev’s reflection on the estimated 26 million Soviet citizens who perished in the Second World War.


The Sonata demands great efforts to comprehend both the difficult context in which it was written and how the piece reflects Prokofiev’s own response to the political climate. Aspects of his character and his music have been described as naïve and childlike; however, when preparing this piece, it is hard to distinguish between ironically simple melodies, and those that are genuinely open, which is part of what makes the piece so special. My interpretation of the sonata was greatly helped by the pianist Petr Limonov, who created a sense of the work’s visceral nature by describing certain passages using evocative Russian imagery.

The finale of the piece is appropriately optimistic. After all, Prokofiev needed to appease the Communist Party, and pieces ending on a tragic note were not in favor with the officials. Alternatively, in the context of overcoming the terrors of the war, Prokofiev’s optimism could be interpreted as an affirmation of humanity’s ability to create rather than destroy.