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:

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