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25.3.2019 : 17:38 : +0100

About Prokofiev sonatas 3, 7, 8.

I decided to write a few words about my concept of Prokofiev's Seventh and Eighth Sonatas after reading a review in one of the leading London newspapers, in which the Eighth was described as "a biggish work, with a lot of anxiety». And that was all!!This work perhaps the greatest of Prokofiev's piano sonatas is by far his most tragic; yet few in the wide circle of music enthusiasts seem to know and understand the depth of its feeling.
The output of so-called "Soviet composers" - more precisely, those composers who worked under the watchful eye of the totalitarian regime - always needs some clarification where uncompromising works are concerned. When referring to such compositions in his memoirs, Shostakovich noted sadly that music set to words could reach the heart of the listener and be better understood than music consisting of notes alone. He also made another valuable observation, relating to a phenomenon which emerged in the USSR during the war years: at that time the Soviet people, including all artists, found greater freedom to express themselves. Almost paradoxically, the threat of totalitarianism receded, allowing one and all to mourn their fate openly and to give vent to their dissatisfaction. Here is an initial approach to the Seventh and Eighth Sonatas, whose "birthdates" largely coincide with the war years. In my view these two works are related, and one naturally blends into the other. If we consider the Seventh as a kind of "monster-mould" for the all-embracing Stalinist system, then we must accept the Eighth as an even deeper and more personal reaction to this theme.
Shostakovich, himself an ever more deeply tragic personality, expressed unendurable pain in his musie, pain that arose out of the sufferings of his fellow countrymen. He often said that many of his compositions were monuments to the victims of the system, memorials to friends who perished during the Terror of the 1930s. Prokofiev's strong personality, however, withstood the tragedy that surrounded him. Instead, he adopted a very critical attitude toward sentiment in general and expressed his views on life with irony, skepticism and a great tendency toward sarcasm. All these traits predominate in his works. In these two sonatas, however, Soviet reality weighed heavily upon Prokofiev and forced him (especially in the Eighth) to look at life in a more tragic light and to assume an active and personal role in the unfolding drama.
It is virtually impossible in only a few words to expound upon the intricate structure and form of these two "War" sonatas. I will limit myself to considering what I feel are the fundamental links between the two works. What I immediately find striking is Prokofiev's marking "inquieto", which is common to both the main section of the first movement of the Seventh and the development section of the first movement of the Eighth Sonata. The atmosphere of anxiety and fear in both, the stealthily creeping tones and the recurring tapping sounds immediately summon to mind a picture of a time we all wish we could forget but must not. The nocturnal knock at the door resounds in numerous "troubled" places in the first movement of the Seventh Sonata. Wishing to parody the sounds of the artificially happy and hollow Soviet youth, Prokofiev introduces a "Pioneer" motif into both the first and third movements, setting in relief the little monsters who inform on their relatives, consider themselves "heroes" and proc1aim official propaganda as truth. Although aggression is the dominant feature of the music, there are some marvelous Lyrical episodes in the first movement. But aggression still triumphs and the first movement ends with the recurring themes of anxiety, fear, and anticipation of a knock at the door.
In the second movement we find a musical lyricism that is typical of Prokofiev, reminiscent of the images and pathos in Romeo and Juliet. The contemplative atmosphere recalls the figure of Father Laurence. The mysterious chord progressions are associated in my mind with medieval processions and otter ritual elements. On the whole this movement is a digression from reality, contrasting sharply with the third movement.

The finale is, I believe, one of the most compelling musical portraits of totalitarianism in the piano literature. In overall effect it rivals the sequence of the notorious "invasion" theme in Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, the "Leningrad"; the numerical coincidence of the two works is undoubtedly significant and in many ways they are interdependent. The finale of the Seventh Sonata is an apotheosis of violence - the blunt, mechanical, and methodical destruction of every living thing. I hear the recurring accent on C sharp in the lower voice as a musical symbol of Stalin, the tongue-lied Georgian leader. Soviet citizens are familiar with Stalin's habit of repeating himself, with his way of slightly warping the Russian language; and with the easy manner in which he disposed of these inconsistent with his ideology. In the third movement everything is inhuman. The cheerful motif of the Pioneers' horns is interwoven with the groans of this awaiting death. I associate this macabre sonority with Picasso's Guernica; but perhaps the real key to understanding this music lies with Franz Kafka and his surrealistic visions.

It seems to me that the Eighth Sonata represents a continuation of the totalitarian theme, but this work is concerned even more with expressing anti-totalitarianism. The Eighth is imbued with personal and spiritual self-expression. Prokofiev's innermost thoughts are well integrated into the musical fabric, and I hear first of all the inner pain of the composer himself. I am sure that Prokofiev considered the Eighth Sonata to be his last. As proof of this supposition, I direct the listener's attention to the eight fatal chords at the end of the development section of the first movement: they are interconnected by a monotonous pulse through which blows the cold from the grave.
In contrast to that of the Seventh Sonata the first movement of the Eighth develops in a more orderly manner. I envisage Prokofiev acting as a kind of chronicler who c1everly, yet with a slightly aloof air, relates "The Time of Troubles". I cannot escape the association with Filory Pimen, the pions old monk and industrious historian who proves to be the nemesis of Boris in Boris Godunov. The motif of Fate clearly appears here with the shifting of d'- c sharp (a minor ninth); at the same time this motif is
contrasted with one of "mourning" - an entreaty or a symbol of grief before the inevitability of Fate. In the development section the bass themes - quite characteristic of the personification of "Mother Russia" - "document" the people's way of life. It is as if she were secretly evolving from pandemonium and chaos and making herself felt everywhere. All this culminates in a fantastic emotional outburst: a great wail escapes from wounded (perhaps fatally wounded) Russia. The leitmotif of Fate reaches the limit of sound, and as the final chord in the sequence of eight completes the development section, one is overwhelmed by an image of a dying colossus which trios to raise itself but crashes to the ground. A fantastically tragic picture! The generally peaceful author sections of the movement provide a frame for the frightening images of the middle section, although the first movement still ends with dislocated, chaotic material.
I find the second movement, Andante sognando, one of the most enigmatic. Prokofiev verges on parody by introducing lighthearted and pleasant variations, almost a second voice, with clear irony and sarcasm (perhaps self-irony?), and a kind of mocking levity within a pseudo-serious fugato. All this leads me to suspect that Prokofiev here is speaking ironically about himself; or else he is letting his mind and thoughts run free and is lost in nostalgia for the bygone, carefree days of his youth.
The third movement sharply contrasts with all this, and we return to the dramatic conflict with wild and barbarous reality. From the first note we come face to face with chaos and the verge of destruction. The contrasting middle section, though, is in itself still a grimace at totalitarianism. Once again the Kafkaesque machine methodically devours all living things. The pure sounds from the Pioneers' horns are transformed into pulsating tyrannical blasts. In contrast to the finale of the Seventh Sonata, the drama here is more intense. The killing machine gradually fades into the background, and we hear echoes from the first movement. The themes of Fate and entreaty reappear, and the middle section ends with an amazing passage of tender, unresolved (irresoluto) and delicate music. The chronic1er and the artist steps back, and I hear a lost, suffering man begging God for salvation. Prokofiev has seldom opened his soul in such a way. The finale concludes with another deluge of aggression which leads to apotheosis in the coda. At this moment of heightened confusion and madness we hear the heavy tread of Bolshevik boots; in the upper register the false and feverish fanfare continues to cry out. Thus frightening image is crowned with a sudden drop over a precipice
away from all Bacchanalia and diabolical jubilation in B major. We end with a sudden return to stark reality. After a short pause we sober up to B minor and in the remaining sharp and brisk flashes I hear the verdict and the curse.