for Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano (1919)




The Overture on Hebrew Themes op. 34 for clarinet (in B-flat), piano and string quartet by Sergey Prokofiev (Сергей Сергеевич Прокофьев; 1891, Sontsovka–1953, Moscow) is without a doubt one of the most popular works within the entire clarinet chamber music repertoire. It is not the only work for clarinet with Jewish themes, but by far the best known and most performed clarinet composition in this field. Prokofiev composed the Overture during his stay in New York in 1919 on commission by the Jewish-Russian clarinetist Simeon Bellison and his ensemble Zimro (Kravets 2006, 266–267). The members of Zimro were Prokofiev’s former fellow students at the Petrograd Conservatory (see Chapter 4). Bellison and the cellist of Zimro, Iosif Chernavsky, gave Prokofiev a notebook with traditional Jewish melodies as the basis for the Overture. Prokofiev noted in his diaries that some of the melodies are quite decent, whereas others he found rather weak. Prokofiev also noted that he composed the work very quickly, making the first version of the sextet, albeit without instrumentation, in just one day (Prokofiev 2002, 45). With Prokofiev himself on the piano, Bellison and the string players of Zimro played the first performance of the Overture in the Bohemian Club in New York in 1920. The premiere audience liked the Overture so much that the ensemble performed it a second time as an encore (Prokofiev 2002, 76). Prokofiev was surprised about the great success of the Overture as he seemed not to take the piece himself so seriously, at least in the beginning. The Overture was published in 1922 by the edition Gutheil. Prokofiev also made a version for clarinet and orchestra, op.34 bis, which Gutheil published in 1935.

Prokofiev´s Overture is not the first work on Jewish themes in this specific sextet instrumentation, but the others, such as sextets by Achron or Krein, are either lost or neglected nowadays. Even after Prokofiev´s Overture, Bellison continued to commission works for himself and his ensemble. However, neither of the later sextets, for example by Stillman, got much attention within the clarinet repertoire (see 4.3). There is plenty of specialized literature on Prokofiev and his chamber music, so I limit myself here to a few observations in the context of the use of Jewish traditional music and compare that to the other works discussed in this chapter. Prokofiev uses various elements from Jewish traditional music (see 4.1). The first theme of the Overture was composed by Prokofiev in the style of a ritual circle dance, reminiscent of an up-tempo Freylekh, but in 5 bars instead of the traditional 4-bar structure (Kravets 2006, 277). The “Jewish” folkloristic tone is even more emphasized by the frequent repetition of the half-step tone in the clarinet melody (from a-sharp to b). The recognizable half-tone step alludes to the traditional modes used in Jewish traditional music, such as Freygish and Misheyberakh (see 4.1). The introduction in the piano and the strings shows a traditional accompaniment with alternating bass notes and afterbeats. Prokofiev exaggerates this folkloristic feature by adding grace notes to the strings in the afterbeat, creating an almost comical effect (Video ex.4.2.1: First theme). Prokofiev noted in his diary on the first performance of the Overture that it sounded good, though somewhat shrill, adding for future performers the advice: “the clarinet should not shout, and the piano not hammer” (Prokofiev 2002, 76).

Video ex.7.1.1: First theme (Prokofiev, Overture, mm. 1-24)


The second theme is an original Jewish folk melody called Zayt gezunterheyt mayne libe eltern (Farewell, my dear parents). The song is well-known and, among others, Aleksandr Veprik and Julius Engel also composed own versions of this song for voice and piano. This song expresses the melancholy of the grown-up daughter who is leaving the family to get married (Video ex.4.2.2: Zayt gezunterheyt). The quick change between happy and sad sentiments are often described as a common element in Jewish traditional music. In this section of the Overture, the clarinet passes the role of leading melody instrument further to the cello. The section progresses into an intense interaction among the six performers. 

Video ex.7.1.2: Zayt gezunterheyt (Prokofiev, Overture, mm.158-184)


In the reprise section of the Overture, Prokofiev enhanced again the traditional setting of clarinet solo and the typical afterbeat-accompaniment returns. By splitting the melody and repeating small fragments, Prokofiev reinforces the playful effect of the Overture (Video ex.4.2.3: Repetitions). In comparison to, for example, the sextet by Stillman, Prokofiev´s Overture is light and entertaining, concise, very showy and compelling. Concerning the standard clarinet repertoire, the Overture on Hebrew Themes op.34 is often seen as a reference work for a composition with Jewish themes. But in terms of the use of Jewish themes in Russian/Soviet music in a wider context, the use of this topic in the Overture appears rather shallow and exotic, almost caricature-like or, at least, quite exaggerated.

Video ex.7.1.3: Repetitions (Prokofiev, Overture, mm. 225-244)



Anne Elisabeth Piirainen, clarinet

Kirill Kozlovski, piano

Eeva Oksala, violin

Lea Tuuri, violin

Leena Jaakkola, violin

Carmen Moggach-Laivaara, viola

Liina-Mari Raivola, cello 

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3rd doctoral concert "Facets of Expression"

27.09.2016, Helsinki Music Center