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?

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