Sunday, January 15, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, op. 82

Between 1918 and 1936 Prokofiev pursued his career internationally with some success. But he grew more and more homesick for Russia and during the 30s became something of an ambassador linking the Soviet and Western musical worlds. His tours in the Soviet Union were greeted with considerable success, so in 1936 he and his family settled permanently in Moscow where he lived until his death in 1953--on the same day that Stalin died!

Perhaps the most well-known of the Prokofiev piano sonatas are the three written during WWII and collectively known as the "War" sonatas. The sixth sonata was written in 1939/40 and premiered by the composer in April 1940 and by Sviatoslav Richter in November 1940. This was during the time of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, so technically speaking it was not yet wartime, at least as far as the Soviet Union was concerned (though they did invade Poland in September 1939). Russian musicologists do not use the term "War" sonatas when talking about these pieces.

Like Schubert did with his last three piano sonatas, Prokofiev conceived and sketched all three of the "War" sonatas at the same time before setting to work on the sixth in earnest. The high levels of energy and tension undoubtedly reflect the unsettled times even before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

After hearing Prokofiev's performance of the piece Sviatoslav Richter had this to say:
"The remarkable stylistic clarity and the structural perfection of the music amazed me. I had never heard anything like it. With wild audacity the composer broke with the ideals of Romanticism and introduced into his music the terrifying pulse of twentieth-century music. Classically well-balanced in spite of all its asperities, the Sixth Sonata is an utterly magnificent work." Quoted from Berman, op. cit.
It was also a favorite of Shostakovich. The sonata is in four movements:
  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Allegretto
  3. Tempo di valzer lentissimo
  4. Vivace
 The opening movement has a most distinctive motif, presented in a variety of syncopations:

Click to enlarge
Apart from the rhythmic tension, another powerful element is the offbeat tritone D sharp juxtaposed against the tonic harmony. The sixteenth-note motif also returns in various forms in the last movement.

The two middle movements, a fairly cheerful scherzo and a lyrical waltz, are a relaxation of the tension, which returns full-force in the last movement, a tour-de-force tarantella:

Click to enlarge
Sviatoslav Richter played the sonata in a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1960:


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 5 in C major, op. 38

Prokofiev's life divides into three parts and the four sonatas we have discussed so far were all written during his years in Russia. In 1918 he left and spent time first in the United States and later in France and Switzerland. The fifth piano sonata was written in Paris in 1923 and was the only one in this genre (excluding some sonatinas) until the "War" sonatas, written after he returned to what was then the Soviet Union.

Every composer seems to have particular moods or modes that recur in different pieces and one of the most characteristic of Prokofiev is his "Evil Music-box" mode. I haven't mentioned it as such, but we have heard some examples of it in the second and third sonatas especially. Berman relates this to the Russian obsession with fairy-tales, especially in their spooky grotesquerie. The Sonata No. 5 is replete with eerie music that sounds sometimes like a Classical era piano sonata heard in a dream or, at other times, like one heard in a nightmare! Just as he showed in his Classical Symphony, Prokofiev had a real gift for re-thinking the Classical style. The opening of the first movement is an excellent example. Let's listen to the whole sonata. The pianist is Anatoly Vedernikov:


The sonata alternates very consonant passages in neo-classical style with some very strong dissonances (especially in the last movement). I am always interested in just how Prokofiev adapts tonal harmony to his uses, especially in cadences, where tonality is most strongly defined. The cadence ending the last movement is a fascinating example:

The piece is in C major and the final chord is a simple tonic in root position (with a little grace note leading tone in the bass). Pretty simple for Prokofiev. But it is the chord before that is interesting. So far every final cadence we have looked at has had some kind of altered dominant in penultimate position. But not here. The dominant in C major is spelled GBD often with the seventh F. The only note from that collection here is a solitary D buried in the middle! This chord is A flat, D, F sharp, B, another F sharp and C! What the heck is that? What it most closely resembles is an augmented sixth chord (A flat to F sharp is an augmented sixth), especially the French augmented sixth which in C major is spelled A flat, C, D, F sharp. Pretty much exactly this chord, particularly if you see that B as an appoggiatura. But an augmented sixth chord's function is to be a strong preparation for the dominant. That A flat is supposed to go to G, as is the F sharp. Instead, Prokofiev just omits the dominant entirely and goes right to the tonic. And somehow it works. Rather nice, actually.

There are two versions of this sonata. The second, done in 1952, shortly before Prokofiev's death, has a lot of small changes, especially in the last movement. That cadence I quoted above is from the second version. Prokofiev thought the changes were significant enough that he gave the second version a new opus number: op. 135.

Let's hear another performance of the piece. The pianist is Boris Berman:


Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Last month was the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and yes, there is a musical connection. Usually military bands don't have to actually fight, but on this occasion they did. We learn from Strategypage that:
These American soldiers from the 28th Division Band and Quartermaster Company, stayed and fought Germans in Wiltz, Belgium, until their ammunition was exhausted. Shown at Bastogne, Belgium. 12/20/44.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the Band was placed on the line to defend the Division Headquarters at Wiltz, Luxembourg. In this action, for which the Band was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation, all but thirteen of sixty members were killed or captured. Of the thirteen, eleven were wounded. Sergeant Raab avoided capture and helped re-form a new band after the Ardennes campaign.
Here's the photo, before the battle:


But they got that unit commendation, so there's that...

* * *

I honestly don't know what to think about this experiment in synesthesia. I wonder what Debussy would have thought:
On a Friday night in December, I sat in a small room with 33 other audience members, each of us accompanied by a dancer in black. The dancers pulled out blindfolds and covered our eyes, and for a brief moment, all was dark and quiet and freighted with anticipation. Then, as a chamber ensemble began to play Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, the dancers began to “play” the music on our bodies.
When the music soared, the dancers lifted our feet to mimic the sense of weightlessness. When the music was playful, they tickled our forearms. And when it pressed in intensely, the dancers squeezed our shoulders and rocked our heads.
At times, they held scents near our noses, and wafted a wind across us, and even pressed evocative morsels of food into our mouths—truffle cheese with pop rocks, fizzing as the music rose—as if our entire bodies could be recruited into feeling the mad sensuality of Debussy’s work. As if the idea was to bring us inside the music itself.
 Truffle cheese?

* * *

The Guardian has pretty much the best classical music coverage in the mass media. They have an article on an interesting exhibit in Paris about the Beethoven myths: Beethoven in dreadlocks … the show that celebrates great myths about the composer:
The French are good at this sort of show, exploring the life and afterlife of a dead genius. Like the Pompidou Centre’s show devoted to Roland Barthes (which opened with by a pristine black 1957 Citroën 19 in all the semiotic pomp conferred on it in Barthes’ essay), this is a vast multi-media celebration. But while that was hagiographic, this is more critical: the Barthes show made critic into icon; le Mythe Beethoven deconstructs the myth and then puts it back together again. In the Salle Pierre Boulez upstairs, there has been a swaggering series of allied concerts, including a fabulous concert performance of Fidelio.
Read the whole thing.

* * *

 You know how I love to snark at the New Yorker, but they have had some of the funniest cartoons ever. And this piece, the stream-of-consciousness of a reluctant symphony attendee, is really funny. But it's not really about the orchestra, it's really about him.
Don’t clap too soon, wait till they’re done, don’t clap too soon, wait till they’re done, don’t clap—

So this is the Symph-Tacular Winter Series.

Four concerts times two seats plus parking equals . . .

Jesus. I could’ve gotten something I wanted.

Like one of those three-wheeled motorcycles.
* * *

If you have ever wondered what the New York Philharmonic does when it needs an accordionist, wonder no more, the Wall Street Journal has the answer:
Among its ranks, the New York Philharmonic counts 28 violinists, 11 cellists, four flutists, three trombonists and even one bass trombonist.
But when the call came for an accordionist this past week, the orchestra had to go outside its circle.
The ensemble turned to Bill Schimmel, a New York-based master of the instrument who has made something of a specialty performing with orchestras.
* * *

If this article on the tv show Mozart in the Jungle is even halfway correct, I'm going to have to watch it:
If a show can be in love with its subject matter, Mozart in the Jungle has fallen for the strange, motley power of music. Consider this season’s eighth episode, which is structured as a fake documentary about, of all improbable comic devices, a jailhouse Messiaen gig. In order to shoot the segment, a real orchestra and its actor-filled double traveled to Rikers Island and performed for actual detainees, who were genuinely overwhelmed (and said so on camera). What they heard was not a concert of easily digestible pops, but a program of music by the 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, who wrote one his best-known works, Quartet for the End of Time, in a World War II prison camp. Inmate to inmate, composer and audience connected across continents and decades. In the episode, Messiaen’s ecstatic percussion, the bell-like chords, and the eerie electronic cry of the ondes Martenot go gliding over the concertina perimeter toward the East River and the Manhattan skyline. I hope the next time an orchestra administrator claims that the surest way to win new audiences is by spoon-feeding them pabulum, someone will cue up the moist eyes of inmates listening to Turangalila-symphonie.
* * *

Also in The Guardian is this article on Ligeti's single, but very odd, opera Le Grand Macabre:
Set in a absurdist land of despots, debauchery and drunkenness, Le Grand Macabre premiered in 1978. Its score is a riot of quotations and pastiche and a huge percussion section that includes “a duck-quacker”, a wind machine, a saucepan and a “large alarm clock”. Ligeti wasn’t sure his work could even be classed as an opera, and despising the then-trendy term anti-opera, Le Grand Macabre thus became the first – and possibly the last – anti-anti-opera.
What gives this essay its undeniable authenticity is that it was written by Elizabeth Watts who is singing the role of Amanda in the upcoming production.

* * *

Canada beclowns itself: next year will be the 150th anniversary of Canada's birth as a nation in 1867. In honor of this occasion $500 million dollars have been budgeted for the celebrations. As part of this lavish series of events, there will be a competition for composers to write a new piece for the carillon on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Commissions for Canadian composers, as suggested by the Canadian League of Composers, are already hilariously low: a five minute work for one or two performers is a mere $2125 CAN. But the miserly prize to the winner of this competition will be, wait for it, $800. For the winner in the Youth category it will be $400. One Canadian composer has already started a protest petition. This isn't a prize, it is an insult.

* * *

The Herald of Scotland has a fascinating piece on a revival of an opera by Philip Glass on Kafka's The Trial:
AMERICAN composer Philip Glass has the characteristic dry humour of the city of New York, from where he is speaking to me.
"If you live a long time, you can make a living out of opera," he says, having composed something over thirty works that might be described as such, or as music theatre. Glass's 80th birthday falls in the middle of the run of Scottish performances of a revival of his 2014 chamber opera The Trial, based on the seminal book by Franz Kafka, written 100 years earlier.
* * *

For our envoi today, here is an excerpt from Act I of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre:


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 4 in C minor, op. 29

For links to the Wikipedia article on Prokofiev, which I recommend reading for an outline of his life and work, see the first post in this series. Like the third piano sonata the Sonata No. 4 is subtitled: "From the Old Notebooks" meaning that Prokofiev took a piece from his student years and rewrote it. Nothing wrong with that, and it is rather characteristic of Prokofiev. Several times in his life he took an older work and did a new version so dramatically different that it is really a different piece. One example is his Symphony No. 4 in C major, originally composed in 1930 which he rewrote in 1947. The revised one is so different from the original that recordings of the complete symphonies include both versions.

Also like the Sonata No. 3, the C minor sonata was composed in 1917 and premiered in 1918, but unlike the A minor sonata, it is in three movements:
  1. Allegro molto sostenuto
  2. Andante assai
  3. Allegro con brio, ma non leggiero
Now let's listen to a Sviatoslav Richter performance:

Unlike all the previous Prokofiev sonatas, this one begins in an introverted, reflective mood. The motif of a rising and falling semitone permeates the texture in both the accompaniment (in sixteenths) and the melody (in eighths). This extends even to the final cadence, a V-i in C minor, but with added notes a semitone below in different voices:

Click to enlarge
 Notice how, in the first pair of chords, there is an F natural, the 7th, that resolves down normally to the E flat. But there is also an F sharp that resolves up to G. Then, for the final pair (each repeated), Prokofiev clusters the F sharp and F natural together in the right hand and a C sharp and D in the left hand. This pattern is then reproduced in the tonic, which is combined with an added F sharp. This is all consistent with the characteristic motif of the whole movement.

Boris Berman (whose book on the sonatas I linked in the first post) hears the semitone accompaniment motifs as references to Baroque trills. He also mentions the use of hemiola as another Baroque element. There seems to be an influence from Nikolai Medtner as well.

The Andante assai second movement is full of contrast with a bleak and somber chromatic first theme and a very tranquil and beautiful diatonic second theme (with more Baroque-style trills). The movement is in A minor with an important variation in G sharp minor.

Berman mentions that this sonata was written around the same time as the Classical Symphony (which was premiered just four days after that of the piano sonata) and he hears the third movement as a sardonic parody of the Classical piano style. The accompaniment is often a woozy version of the typical Alberti bass. There is also a return of some of the sixteenth-note semitone figures from the first movement. There is also a return of the kind of cadence we saw in the first movement:

As you can see, in addition to the four notes of a dominant seventh chord, there is also a C sharp (lower chromatic neighbor to the D) and an A flat (upper chromatic neighbor to the G) and the tonic has a D sharp lower neighbor to the E natural of the tonic. Oddly, this is rather a close cousin to the famous chord that Jimi Hendrix used in Purple Haze: an E chord with an added seventh and both a G natural and a G sharp.

Let's listen to a different performance to end. This is the young French pianist Rémi Geniet playing in the 2013 Reine Elisabeth competition:


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 3 in A minor, op. 28

Prokofiev's third piano sonata is even briefer than the first and is another re-working of a student piece dating from 1907. It was composed in 1917 and premiered by the composer in 1918 in Petrograd. If you are looking for Petrograd on a map, you won't find it. The city is St. Petersburg, but the name was changed to Petrograd in 1914 and then to Leningrad in 1924. In 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was changed back to Saint Petersburg. Berman again provides us with a synopsis of the important motifs and makes that point that this is the most carefully integrated of his early sonatas, with fewer disjunct contrasts. Might we not think of this as a companion piece to his Classical Symphony, written in the same year?

Here is Boris Berman's performance with the score:



And here are the important motifs:

Stravinsky is usually credited with the origination of neoclassicism in music with his Octet of 1923 or perhaps Mavra from the year before. But I think it might be interesting to argue that Prokofiev, with the Classical Symphony and this sonata, beat him to it by a few years. Certainly the classical aesthetic was in the air.

There were two major departures from both the aesthetic and the methods of late 19th century Romanticism: in both of them the gargantuan lengths of compositions by Bruckner, Mahler and others were scaled down. Both the atonal modernists like Schoenberg and his school and the neoclassical composers like Stravinsky and Prokofiev wrote in forms and on a scale very different from the generations before.

I believe it was R. G. Collingwood in his The Idea of History that made the point that in examining history you can emphasize either the contrasts or the continuity. In other words, you can, with any historical change, such as the transition from the Baroque to the Classical Era or the 19th century to the 20th century, focus on what constituted a radical change. For example, the tremendous simplification of textures that heralded the Classical Era, or the radical change in scale and mood that typified the way 20th century composers opposed themselves to the late Romantics. Or you could look at features that were common to both eras such as the frequent use of fugue and counterpoint in so many pieces by Haydn and Mozart, or the retention of many tonal structures in the music of Prokofiev and others.

Music historians for the last several decades have been wedded to a kind of chronicling of music history that only looks at the contrasts and technical innovations, which is why Prokofiev has gotten rather short shrift from them. But that is only one way of looking at history. Of course, the newer generations of music historians have been captivated by identity politics so they won't be giving him more credit any time soon!

Let's end with another performance, this is a very brisk one by a young Martha Argerich:


Monday, January 9, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata #2 in D minor, op. 14

The second piano sonata comes just three years after the first, when Prokofiev was in his twenty-first year. Boris Berman has a good discussion of the piece in his book on the sonatas. As with the first sonata, the Wikipedia article is a mere stub. Berman outlines the formal structure, based on the classical sonata structures of exposition, development, recapitulation, but "Prokofievized" by altering the harmonic content and relationships. An example would be the modulation to E minor at the end of the first movement exposition where one would expect the relative major, F major. Prokofiev uses chromatically descending sequences instead of the traditional ones based on interlocking seventh chords or movement by fourth or fifth.

Let's listen to Berman's performance with the score:



Berman also discusses Prokofiev's use of characteristically Russian elements such as the folktale atmosphere of the third movement and the obsession with mechanical toys and puppets, which he also relates to Stravinsky's Petruschka, composed the year before. He even finds an occurrence of the famous "Petruschka" chord (C major combined with F# major) in the fourth movement. Berman mentions the multiplicity of moods and personalities in the piece with its hints of waltz, polka, music hall and tarantella. One obvious connection that Berman doesn't mention is Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of narrative polyphony which he discerns in the work of Dostoevsky:
each character represents a voice that speaks for an individual self, distinct from others. This idea of polyphony is related to the concepts of unfinalizability and self-and-others, since it is the unfinalizability of individuals that creates true polyphony
Incidentally, this offers an explanation of what Berman refers to as a weakness in Prokofiev's style: his difficulty in realizing true development of themes, which instead repeat with clashing harmonies or superimposed polyrhythms (three against two, for example).

Let's listen to Sviatoslav Richter's interpretation:


He seems to have been short of time that day: he rushes out and starts playing almost before he sits down and dashes off as soon as the last note is over.

Listening to this sonata a couple of things come to mind: first, how poorly my many years in university prepares me to examine this writing. Every theory and history professor I had seemed to want to avoid Prokofiev like the plague! You might compare him to Bartók, who was a perennial feature of any discussion of 20th century music. Theorists loved Bartók because there was so much they could point to in his music that was analytically "progressive". Yes, he also did a couple of movements in fugal style, but they could be ignored. But Prokofiev was perceived as being merely "derivative" of older, obsolete styles. He was insufficiently atonal! His music had identifiable content instead of being abstract. The fact that he was particularly successful with ballet and opera was also a strike against him. That Stravinsky, while not terribly successful with his operas, was an excellent ballet composer was not counted against him, however.

The other thing that comes to mind is how Prokofiev relates to his contemporaries in the visual arts, especially figures like Picasso. The years 1909 to 1912, precisely those of the first two piano sonatas of Prokofiev, were the years of "analytic cubism". Here is an example, Picasso's Bouteille, clarinet, violon, journal, verre from 1913:


But an even better comparison might be made to his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907:


What interests me in both of these is that they contain representations of real objects, but with distorted relationships and perspectives. Isn't this rather what Prokofiev was doing with traditional harmony and phrasing? Don't his chromatic alterations and juxtapositions cut up and distort harmony the way Picasso did images? The Demoiselles d'Avignon is a particularly good example because of the colors, which map against Prokofiev's colorist harmony rather better than the dull browns of most of the cubist pieces from this period by Braque and Picasso.

Prokofiev's characteristic rhythmic distortions are another parameter that suggests cubism to me. When he layers three against two, or inserts an awkward group of sixteenths or suddenly jumps to 7/8 or hammers out an incongruous syncopation, these seem to me to be musical analogues of cubist painting.

What do you think?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Prokofiev: First Piano Sonata

Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 1, op 1 is a short, one-movement re-working of a student piece he wrote when he was fifteen. The new version dates from 1909 when he was eighteen. Just for comparison, Beethoven's first piano sonatas date from his twenty-fifth year. Prokofiev later on referred to this piece as the end of his "early period" and cited his Op. 2 etudes as his first mature work. Still, this brief piece, only eight or so minutes in length, is not to be disparaged. It has a freshness and rhythmic energy that is certainly worth a listen. Here is Boris Berman, author of a recent book on Prokofiev's piano sonatas that I am using as a reference:


Berman remarks that the piece is unified by the similarity of the themes, all based on ascending or descending tetrachords as marked in the examples:


Berman doesn't talk about the harmony much, in his discussion. This is, I suppose, late-romantic-extended-tonality, that is, music that rests on a tonal foundation, but with a considerable amount of chromaticism and altered chords. Take for example the final cadence:

This is an altered V7 to i cadence, but altered in interesting ways. The V chord, which is major, giving us the E natural leading tone, is diminished with an G flat! Very unusual sound. And this is emphasized by putting that G flat as the bottom note in the chord. You have no idea that this is a cadence until we hear the F minor, in root position. Then it all makes sense. What distinguishes this kind of harmonic structure from so much of the modal harmony we hear nowadays is its gnarled strength. The inversion gives us a G flat to F at the bottom, very like a Phrygian cadence, but the rest of the harmony is V7 to i resolving normally. There is something very California mellow about all those flat VII to I cadences with no leading tone that are so often found in modal harmony. It is nice to hear a leading tone cadence that is transformed enough to be ear-catching.

Let's listen to a different performance. This is Daniil Trifonov with the first and third sonatas:


Berman calls the musical language of the sonata "traditionally Romantic" and yes, its passionate turmoil certainly qualifies it. Perhaps one difference is that there is more drive and less lingering in this than is typical in Romantic music. Even in this early music, Prokofiev is not a sentimental nor melodramatic composer. As a student at the conservatory he had a reputation as a ferocious modernist and around 1910 was asked by the organizers of a contemporary music concert series to give the Russian premiere of Schoenberg's Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11. These pieces, only written in 1909, were a crucial step in Schoenberg's path to atonality. Wouldn't it be fascinating to hear how Prokofiev played them? Let's have a listen, just to give some historic context, as they were written the same year as the Sonata no. 1. Here is an early performance by Eduard Steuermann, a student of Schoenberg's: