I am sitting this morning drinking coffee and listening to Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto on the radio. This is one of my favorite pieces of music. All three movements are very good, but I like the second movement the most. It is a lovely slow movement with a rhythmic feel, full of wistful happiness, the sort of movement that makes you want to close your eyes and breathe deep while you listen. At the end of the movement, the solo violin picks out the simple theme pizzicato while the low strings sing along behind it, and the theme resolves as simply as an old folk song. To my mind, perfect music.
Thinking about this, it comes to me how often the second movement of a work is the one I like most. Even in Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony, I like the second movement more than the very recognizable first. But there are many examples. Ravel’s String Quartet, with its lilting juxtaposition of pizzicato and bowed expressions of the theme, which sounds fiendishly difficult to execute, is just the same very pleasing to listen to. Dvorak’s ‘American’ String Quartet, whose second movement pulses with a melancholy, simple tune: if he wrote any music using Native American themes, as some critics speculate he did, this is the finest example.
All these examples share the traits of beautiful tunes and a quiet meditation. Which reminds me of something that happened many years ago, when I had my first library job in the Music Department of St. Louis Public Library. A young man I’ll leave nameless came to work for the department. To this day, I’ve never known anyone with a broader knowledge of popular music. He was useful for that, but he had no interest in classical music. ‘It’s all too bombastic,’ he said, ‘Sometimes I need music I can relax to.’ It was kind of embarrassing. One hears this often from people who have only heard a little of a genre of music, it’s the old ‘it all sounds alike to me’ criticism, which says more about your lack of experience that it says about the music. I should have compiled for him a recording of my favorite second movements.
A woman I once dated told me about working in an office where the boss played classical music all the time. ‘That angry music,’ she called it, and I wondered, is that really all you hear? Anger? Bombast? Sure, there is bombast in huge movements of the great romantic symphonies and concertos, but it is rarely meant to express anger, and frequently settles into more peaceful slow movements.
Second movements are often the ones with recognizable tunes. The second movement of Haydn’s String Quartet No. 62, the ‘Emperor Quartet’ holds the tune that became the German national anthem. Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, his ‘New World,’ gave us a second movement which is frequently excerpted as a stand-alone tune; in the symphonic rendition, this theme is played by a solo English horn, as beautiful and restful a piece of work as you’ll find in all of music. Bach’s famous ‘Air on the G-string’ is actually the second movement to his Third Orchestral Suite.
The Prokofiev piece on the radio ended a half hour ago, and I have been sitting here playing the pieces I’m writing about. The combined effect is that I am completely relaxed and do not feel like getting up and doing anything on this lovely, sunny Sunday morning—despite too much coffee. My advice to anyone is, when you hear a new piece of music and don’t like it, please wait until the second movement, it may convince you otherwise.