Twenty Comments on Prokofiev's Piano Sonatas, Part 2

Read Part 1

11.  The electrifying nature of the principal subject of the first movement of the Sixth Sonata is not founded on its dissonance but on its consonance. In fact, the primary dissonant elements, the alteration between A major and a minor and the leading tone to the dominant, d#, serve to enhance the stability of A as the tonic, they create a stasis, a stability, not chromatic flux, which gives the music its massive bulldozer effect. Paradoxically, it is typical of Prokofieven dissonance that his “wrong notes” and mercurial modulatory schemes achieve centrality rather than tonal diffusion. Consider also Peter’s principal theme in “Peter and the Wolf”…what could be more C-majorish, despite the theme’s flattened mediant excursions? 

12. The finale of the Sixth finds its analogy in the tarantella of death from Schubert’s c minor sonata. Prokofiev even includes the haunting seductions of the Erl-king, marked “dolcissimo”, naturally. Especially ominous is the casual integration of the first movement’s dissonant d#.

13. The Seventh sonata’s sequence of invention, waltz, and toccata gives the work a strikingly heteregenous, dislocated character, enhanced by the bizarre tonal juxtapositon of B-flat with its tritone, E, for the central panel. The evocation of Bach and then Tchaikovsky in the first two movements bring Prokofiev’s use of antecedents close to Stravinsky, and except for the blunt bombast of the sonatas’s conclusion, the piece really feels close to neoclassical Stravinsky in its alteration of the dry and the saccharine. 

14. Prokofiev’s formal strategies are exceedingly traditional, as Richard Taruskin points out, but they also show tremendous erudition. The first movement of the Eighth finds its analogy in Beethoven’s alternating bagatelle sequence in his “sonata quasi una fantasia” op. 27, nr. 1. The scheme in the Eighth’s first movement may also call to mind Shostakovich (7th and 8th symphonies) in its yoking of reasonably placid lyricism with disruptive violence. Bugle calls animate the movement with a kindred irony to Shostakovich. Sonatas 6-8 are Proko’s so-called “war” sonatas, which invites an interesting comparison with Shosty’s “war” symphonies. Prokofiev was the greater melodist, but he lacked Shostakovich’s mastery in calibrating long continuous structures.

15. The Eighth is the greatest of the sonatas, not least because it requires everything from the player. Virtuosity, stamina, lyricism, and especially, a gift for almost endless dynamic nuance.  The dynamic athleticism of Bartok and the subtle intricacy of Chopin are equally necessary.  In fact, the slow movement of the Eighth is marked “dreamily” and is in Chopin’s preferred key of D-flat major, inviting an approach to the piece as a nocturne. And as for use of both pedals? Few works require the imagination required in the Eighth.

16. The Ninth is a throwback to the domestic sonata. After the “war” sonatas, I’m reminded of the biblical line, “Lord, in thy wrath, remember mercy.”

17.  Is it weird that he dedicated the Ninth, easily his easiest sonata since the First to Sviataslav Richter, the great virtuoso? Richter loved it. As mentioned in part 1 of this essay, the C major is iconic, in a Beethovenian sort of way.  Prokofiev was obsessed with C major; is this an atavism?

18. The Ninth sums up elements from the earlier sonatas, such as a return to the bagatelle conception learned from Beethoven and exploited in the Eighth, which is revisited in the slow movement of the Ninth. It also lovingly invokes one of Prokofiev’s most effective tropes, the evocation of childhood, as well as the evocation of the sort of limited technical means in music for children. Like Mussorgsky, there is both dignity and affection in Proko’s music for children. 

19. As a whole, the greatest achievement in these sonatas is the inventiveness of the textures. Prokofiev becomes a sort of latter day Liszt in his constant re-invention of piano sonority.

20. Unlike Scriabin or Medtner, whose mature sonatas, while excellent, are too harmonically and texturally similar, one from the other, or the piano sonatas of Rachmaninov, whose two excursions into the genre are too conditioned by the Romantic school,  Prokofiev’s sonatas provide a special comprehensiveness of his style, and are thereby especially rewarding when presented as a cycle. 

Read Part 1