Classical Music for All is the musical blog of the Pianist Boris Giltburg. For more articles see here.
Playing the three War Sonatas by Prokofiev is a performing experience like almost none other – it’s a unique treat both for a pianist’s fingers as well as for the imagination, as the images that Prokofiev evokes go far beyond the written notes. The range of pianistic techniques, of colours, textures, sounds and moods is bewildering, and the richness and scope of the score lead to a deeply rewarding time on stage – one can easily and happily lose oneself in that music.
Though none of the Sonatas are explicitly programmatic (with the possible exception of the second movement of the Seventh), the horrors of war are nowhere as apparent as in the first movement of the Sixth Sonata, right from the barbaric march that opens the work. This is not subtle music—the war is in your face, marching towards you with dead eyes and it is not pleasant. Dissonant harmonies abound, the rhythms are harsh and angular, and Prokofiev seems to revel in the most aggressive sounds he can draw from the piano, up to several clusters of notes which are to be played col pugno (with your fist), and which startlingly resemble the sound of bombs dropping from above. The second subject is lyrical in contrast, resembling a distant folk song (I’m reminded of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Pity of War’), though this mood is not to last long, cut short by alarm bells. The development sets down the pattern that Prokofiev will follow in the Seventh and Eighth Sonatas: a cautious, somewhat controlled beginning with just a voice or two, to which others are added, gradually gaining in volume and texture, till all the main subjects are combined to a stark effect. A much shortened recapitulation leads into a highly dissonant coda, full of bell-like sonorities, which subtly transform into another typical Prokofiev sound—the clock—gradually fading away before the main motif reasserts itself one last time.
The second movement, occupying the scherzo slot of the traditional four-movement cycle, is sharp and jumpy, a quick march with a long, somewhat hard to follow melodic line (it shifts quite often to the inner voices), interspersed at irregular intervals with poking accents which help keep off any possible symmetry or squareness. The entire line is repeated several times with variegating accompaniment lines, interrupted by a middle section, dark and fairytale-like and slightly scary, before making one last appearance, and ending the movement innocently wide-eyed on a pure E-major triad.
The third and fourth movements are more traditional in their harmonic language (with the exception of the wild and chaotic coda at the end of the sonata). The third is a slow waltz—indeed, the tempo marking asks for Tempo di valzer lentissimo (‘as slow as possible waltz tempo’)—with rich, almost lush harmonies and a slightly eerie, slow-motion elegance. The fourth, a more complex movement, begins as a typical Prokofiev finale—fast and light-fingered—with an unexpectedly sweet bridge section and a much harsher, insistent second subject. But then, instead of a development, Prokofiev reminisces on the main theme of the first movement—but what a transformation! Slowly seeping harmonies do gradually bring back some of the harshness of the original theme, before leading into the recapitulation. Its opening is in fact more of a development—fiendishly difficult—after which the second subject appears shortly, followed by the bridge section, its sweetness accompanied this time by a rather poisonous line in the left hand. Then things grind to a halt and we begin one last gradual climb in speed and volume, one which leads into a real frenzy of a coda. A new motif of four repeated notes—which is to become the main motif of the Seventh Sonata—suddenly appears here, its fast repetitions in different voices resembling a machine-gun fire exchange, and thus the sonata ends, after one final, triumphant, appearance of the barbaric march which opened the work.
If the Sixth, especially in its first movement, is about the ‘horrors without’, I imagine the Seventh to be about the ‘horrors within’. Stalin’s purges of the late 30s were extremely recent in memory, and for me, the nervous agitation of the sonata’s opening is someone’s fear of being immediately arrested—a feeling that must have been known to everybody in that time, Prokofiev not the least, as several of his friends and acquaintances were arrested during the purges and later shot. This fear is confirmed just a few moments on by the violent, repeated bangs on the keyboard—as if by iron-clad boots on one’s door. It is impossible, of course, to construct a full programme for the entire movement—the bleak and gloomy second subject is harder to characterize, with its crawling, broken lines, full of chromatic notes and unexpected shifts of harmony and dynamics; it is especially striking in the recapitulation, a pale shadow of itself after the tumult of the development. Like the first movement of the Sixth, this movement is full of violence and harsh percussive sonorities, to which it adds its own relentless rhythmic, mechanical drive.
The second movement is a stark contrast. A warm E major welcomes us to a cantabile melody which seems to come from a different time and place—and possibly it does; it is supposed to have been taken from a lied by Schumann, namely ‘Wehmut’ from the Liederkreis, Op.39 (written in E major as well, and possibly the justification for such a distant key inside the sonata), the text of which runs:
I can sometimes sing
As if I were glad,
Yet secretly tears well up
And thus free my heart.
When spring breezes blow
Their song of longing
From their dungeon’s depth.
All hearts listen
And everyone delights,
Yet no one feels the pain,
The deep sorrow in the song.
But soon Prokofiev takes over with dark, creeping lines, bringing the middle section of the movement to a tremendous climax, bigger in its impact than everything that the first movement had to offer. After it subsides, a new section, containing just two notes in its melody, is repeated twice, first in a distant monotone, and then with more emotion, the two notes, previously clock-like in their precision, now sounding like sighs. The opening melody is repeated then, though when performing it I can never shake off the feeling that it has been transformed through all that has happened in between.
The finale, a perpetuum mobile in quirky 7/8, is a masterly feat of piano writing—of the percussive kind—and whereas some may see there the triumph of humanity over all obstacles, for me this is rather the march of a well-oiled, incessantly working and clicking machine, which indeed sweeps aside or tramples down all obstacles—humanity included—on the way to its own triumph.
There’s a question about the tempo of the movement: Prokofiev’s instruction, Precipitato (‘precipitately’), only suggests a mood of hastening, but a point could be made in favour of a decidedly fast tempo, based on the structure of the movement. It follows an arch-like path (A + variation on A — B — C — centre — C — B — A + variation on A — coda), and its central point, the only one that does not get repeated, is a clear reminiscence from the first movement—but only if played at a breakneck tempo, a quaver nearly matching the quaver of the beginning of the sonata; it’s quite an eerie effect, though, if one manages to pull it off—like a ghost of the past appearing for a few seconds before our ears.
Whereas Prokofiev links the Sixth with the Seventh through a connecting motif, the difference between the ending of the Seventh and the beginning of the Eighth could not be greater. Long winding lines, a multi-layered texture, a seemingly serene mood, are all worlds apart from the nervous activity of the fast movements of the Seventh. I believe that it is in the Eighth that Prokofiev reached his highest point among the War Sonatas—its massive canvas, superbly structured, has a richness of inspiration both melodic and textural and a particularly evocative vocabulary of sounds—from the crystalline emptiness above the abandoned village or the distant and sad folk song behind the smouldering battlefield to the war once again being upon us with thundering guns and tolling bells. All of these are just a few of the first movement’s materials (my interpretation, of course). There’s a far-sighted objectivity in the music, a sense of distance and of a tale being told, that are in some ways more chilling than the more direct approach of the Sixth and the Seventh Sonatas.
The second movement is a set of variations on a dance-like tune (a slow minuet or an English Waltz), the sweetness of the melody often peppered with dissonant notes and harmonies. It’s a gentle movement, far away from the horrors of the war, with just a few sections casting a shadow over the tranquil mood. The last movement is a bold and triumphant march, fast and sure-footed, with its central section being perhaps the most interesting and unexpected—the march-like tune and rhythm change into a quick triple time, and Prokofiev slowly and methodically begins to develop a short three-note motif, first bringing it from its spiky origins in the lower reaches of the keyboard to a melodic position, then, after several variations, changing it into a grotesque, horrible waltz, then into a relentless ostinato in the left hand, accompanied by shrieks and whistles in the right hand—and then comes the most magical moment of all: over the now subdued left hand which continues its ostinato, the right hand recalls, ghost-like, the second subject of the first movement—a particularly uncanny combination, and a brilliantly imaginative soundscape. A transition, poisonously sweet, then brings us back to the march, and after a repeat of the first section Prokofiev finished this, perhaps his greatest sonata, with a mad whirl of bells and fanfares. It ends with a sense of triumph, for sure, but I think that the question of who triumphed over what, and whether that triumph was a good thing, is once again left open to the imagination of the listeners.
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