Monday, January 23, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 9 in C major, op. 103

The Piano Sonata No. 9 is the last one that Prokofiev completed--a draft for a tenth sonata is only 44 measures long. Prokofiev's life ended in tragedy due largely to politics.  It is likely that he wrote no more sonatas because of ill health and more importantly because he, along with Shostakovich, Khachaturian and others was a victim of the Zhdanov Doctrine that condemned their work as being "formalism" and too influenced by the music of the imperialist West. The ninth sonata was completed in late 1947 and the Zhdanov decree came out in early 1948. The sonata was not premiered until 1951, by Sviatoslav Richter, and not published until after Stalin's death. Quoting from Wikipedia:
...on 20 February 1948, Prokofiev's wife Lina was arrested for 'espionage', as she had tried to send money to her mother in Spain. After nine months of interrogation, she was sentenced by a three-member Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR to 20 years of hard labour. She was eventually released after Stalin's death in 1953...
 The Sonata No. 9 begins in an atmosphere of simplicity and naïveté and though it plumbs greater depths, it keeps returning to this place of calm, peace and health. Here is the opening:

Click to enlarge
I have been describing a lot of what Prokofiev does as "chromatic alteration" meaning just that he does things like flatten the G in the first measure, flatten the A in measure three and so on. But it is entirely likely that a more specific way of looking at his practice might be via Russian theories of modality. There is an excellent paper on this in the Shostakovich Studies volume from Cambridge University: "Russian theorists on modality in Shostakovich's music" by Ellon D. Carpenter. These modes have origins going back three centuries so their application to Prokofiev is likely just as justified as to Shostakovich. To give you an idea of what they look like, here is a chart from the paper:

Click to enlarge
I might review the paper and have a more detailed look at how the modes might function in Prokofiev in a future post.

Berman discusses the theme of childhood in this music in his book on the sonatas previously mentioned:
Givi Ordzhonikidze observed another trait of the Ninth Sonata: the important role played by the imagery of childhood. Throughout his life, Prokofiev turned to childhood-inspired, or childhood-related, themes: from the set of piano pieces Music for Children, op. 65; to the symphonic fairy tale Peter and the Wolf, op. 67; to the suite for speakers, boys' choir, and orchestra, Winter Bonfire, op. 122; to the oratorio On Guard for Peace, op. 124. In these works he highlights the emotional qualities associated with childhood-innocent simplicity, naivete, pure lyricism, and carefree playfulness. These characteristics also figure prominently in later works that are not explicitly related to childhood by a program or a title, such as the Seventh Symphony or many pages in Cinderella. In the Ninth Sonata, these images are particularly prominent in the fourth movement.
(Boris Berman. Prokofiev's Piano Sonatas: A Guide for the Listener and the Performer (Kindle Locations 1976-1980). Kindle Edition.)
Let's listen to the sonata. It is in four movements:
  1. Allegretto
  2. Allegro strepitoso
  3. Andante tranquillo
  4. Allegro con brio, ma non troppo presto
This performance is by Sviatoslav Richter from a concert in Japan in the 1980s. It includes the score:


Marc Puckett said...

I had never listened to the Prokofiev sonatas, alas, so, thank you! for the introduction to them. And the 'Russian modes' is in itself an interesting question; never having thought of it before, surely one ought to be able to situate them in the context of the ancient Greek modes? but maybe not.

Bryan Townsend said...

Except for No. 7 I was also unfamiliar with them. But good solid repertoire and worth the time. The Russian approach to modes is certainly based on the ancient Greek modes. Carpenter doesn't mention it, but Russia was converted to Christianity by Greek Christians from Constantinople. This is why they use an alphabet based on the Greek instead of Roman one. So it is also likely that the Russians based their modes on Byzantine ones. Russian books on modality date from the late 17th century.