Chamber music played a relatively small role in Prokofiev’s musical output. His fame rests on his orchestral music - the symphonies, concerti, ballets, film scores and piano music. However, his few chamber music works, the two string quartets, the Overture on Hebrew Themes (performed by the Sierra Chamber Society in the 1988 season) and the two sonatas for violin and piano remain popular and are often performed.
The String Quartet No. 2 was composed in about five weeks in the autumn of 1942 in the little town of Nalchik, in the Kabardino-Balkaria Autonomous Republic, located in the foothills of the northern Caucasus mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas. During the summer of 1942, following the demise of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, as the German Army was overrunning Russia, the Soviet government evacuated a group of its then favored musicians, actors, artists and professors from Moscow to the safety of this little known region.
It was under these circumstances that Prokofiev came to know of the folk music of this area. His fascination with the music led him to write this Quartet, the aim of which was to achieve, "a combination of virtually untouched folk material and the most classical of classical forms, the string quartet."
Each of the three movements of the work contains actual folk songs and dances. Prokofiev took care not to prettify the music. He strove to keep the often harsh harmonies and "barbaric" rhythms of the originals, as had Stravinsky, Bartok and Skzymanowski in their use of folk materials of Russia, Hungary and Poland. In his faithfulness to his sources, Prokofiev came under adverse criticism from the official critics who also praised him for his use of folk music. Despite the carping of the critics, the work was an immediate success. The work was premiered by the reknowned Beethoven Quartet in Moscow on September 5, 1942 but the start of the performance had to be delayed due to a German air raid.
The first movement (Allegro sostenuto) is based on the dance, Udzh Starikov, heard at the beginning and on the song Sosruko, in which three players create an accordion-like accompaniment to the song, sung by the violin.
The second movement (Adagio) is based on a Kabardian love song, Synilyaklik Zhir, given to the cello to sing in a high voice. The middle section utilizes a folk dance, Islamei, which seeks to imitate the sound of the kemange (Shikhepishina), a variety of spike fiddle originating in Persia and in use in various forms throughout the Middle East. It is a long necked fiddle with typically 3 strings. It is held vertically, with the spike resting on the player’s knee and bowed. The movement ends with a brief return of the opening song.
The third movement (Allegro) is based on a mountain dance known as Getegezhev Ogurbi alternating with two lyrical themes and a reminiscence of the first movement.