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Prokofiev's Piano Sonatas

Prokofiev's Piano Sonatas: A Guide for the Listener and the Performer

Boris Berman
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Prokofiev's Piano Sonatas
    Book Description:

    Boris Berman, renowned concert pianist and teacher, is one of the world's foremost authorities on Sergei Prokofiev. In this book, he draws on his intimate knowledge of Prokofiev's work to guide music lovers and pianists through the composer's nine piano sonatas. These cherished works, composed between 1910 and 1951, are today considered an indispensable part of the repertoire of every serious concert pianist.

    The book, written with a deep appreciation of Prokofiev's style and creativity, looks at the sonatas within the context of Prokofiev's complete oeuvre. For each sonata, Berman provides general information about the work and a discussion of the composition's details and features, and in a section entitled "Master Class" he offers suggestions for interpretation and specific advice for performing. Berman also corrects for the first time various misprints in published scores and includes a helpful glossary of musical terms.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14500-7
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
    (pp. 1-21)

    Prokofiev’s creative path traversed many countries and was affected by wars and revolutions. Life brought him into contact with some of the most prominent and influential artistic figures of his time. Observing the magnificent panorama of Prokofiev’s oeuvre, one sees that the composer’s musical style evolved significantly over the course of his creative life. The reasons for the changes of direction have been much discussed and debated. Was a noticeable and undeniable mellowing of Prokofiev’s musical language in his late works forced on him by political pressure, as some writers have claimed? Or was it—as others have asserted—a...

  6. Prokofiev the pianist
    (pp. 22-47)

    The piano plays a central role in Prokofiev’s oeuvre. Not only are his works for piano solo or piano with orchestra numerous, but they also rank among his more important compositions. The piano was the first instrument Prokofiev heard and the only one he mastered.

    Early in his creative life, Prokofiev developed a highly individual way of writing for the piano. Though the differences between the piano textures of his early and late works are palpable, the main qualities of his piano writing are recognizable throughout.

    One can easily discern two types of piano texture particularly favored by Prokofiev: motoric,...

  7. Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, op. 1
    (pp. 48-56)

    The First Sonata is Prokofiev’s reworking of the first movement (Allegro) of a three-movement sonata from his student years. Prokofiev describes in hisAutobiographythe summer of 1906, when he was fifteen:

    That summer I decided to write a long piano sonata. I was determined that the music would be more beautiful, the sonata interesting technically, and the content not superficial. I had already sketched out some of the thematic material. In this way I began to work on the F minorSonata No. 2, in three movements, and wrote a good deal of it in a very short time....

  8. Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, op. 14
    (pp. 57-74)

    Only a few years separated the Second Sonata from its predecessor. During this short time the young composer further defined his musical language, writing several works, includingSuggestion diabolique, op. 4, no. 4, Toccata op. 11, and the Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 10, that hold their own with his later, more mature compositions.

    Sonata No. 2 gives us a chance to see how the main stylistic traits of Prokofiev’s music, outlined in the opening chapter, play out within the context of a sonata. Prokofiev’s language in this composition is not particularly novel. Many of his themes sound quite traditional....

  9. Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, op. 28 (FROM THE OLD NOTEBOOKS)
    (pp. 75-83)

    The one-movement Third Sonata is the shortest of Prokofiev’s sonatas. It is also the most carefully crafted of all his early works in this genre. Originating in an early sonata of his conservatory years (also no. 3), it must have been seriously reworked to arrive at its final shape. It possesses a remarkable energy that propels the work from beginning to end. The piece’s general tone reflects a much more Romantic spirit than other works written by Prokofiev in this period. Sarcastic or ironic imagery, so conspicuous in many of his early compositions, is not part of this sonata’s expressive...

  10. Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, op. 29 (FROM THE OLD NOTEBOOKS)
    (pp. 84-101)

    This work concludes the series of sonatas written before Prokofiev left Russia. Like Sonata No. 2, the Fourth is dedicated to Prokofiev’s close friend, Maximilian Schmidthof, who committed suicide in 1913. It was composed in 1917, although the material derives from Prokofiev’s student years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In April 1917 Prokofiev made the following entry in his diary: “I was busy reworking a string suite into the Sonata No. 4. . . . I was looking for a new Andante for it: I used to have such an Andante among my works for the musical forms class, but...

  11. Sonata No. 5 in C Major, op. 38 (First Version), op. 135 (Second Version)
    (pp. 102-128)

    Between the Fourth Sonata, completed in 1917, and the group of War Sonatas (Nos. 6, 7, and 8), all started in 1939, Prokofiev composed only one piano work in this genre. (He did write three sonatinas, though: Two Sonatinas op. 54 and Sonatina pastorale, op. 59, no. 3.) The Fifth Sonata, written in Paris, differs significantly from both the early sonatas and the later ones. Its musical language shows Prokofiev in his more experimental phase, as do his many other works of this period.

    On December 10, 1923, Prokofiev wrote to Souvchinsky, the sonata’s dedicatee, that “the sonata as a...

  12. Sonata No. 6 in A Major, op. 82
    (pp. 129-150)

    The Sixth Sonata was the first of Prokofiev’s three most significant works in this genre. It was written during his most productive period, when his style reached the peak of maturity.

    In the West, Sonatas Nos. 6, 7, and 8 are often referred to as the “War Sonatas”; Russian musicology does not use this term. Considering them as a group, however, is justified both by their musical properties and by the circumstances of their composition. According to Mira Mendelson-Prokofieva, “in 1939 [Prokofiev] began to write three piano sonatas, [the] Sixth, Seventh and Eighth, working on all the ten movements at...

  13. Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, op. 83
    (pp. 151-168)

    This sonata is the second of the so-called “War Sonatas.” Prokofiev began composing it in 1939, simultaneously with the Sixth and the Eighth Sonatas, and completed it in 1942. While the Sixth Sonata reflects the nervous anticipation of World War II and the Eighth looks back to those terrible events retrospectively, the Seventh Sonata projects the anguish and the struggle of the war years as they were experienced in real time. This is one of the most successful of Prokofiev’s works, distinguished by its tight structure and careful, complex development of material.

    Sviatoslav Richter, the first performer of the work,...

  14. Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, op. 84
    (pp. 169-192)

    This is the last of the “War Sonatas,” written between 1939 and 1944, although some of its material was conceived earlier. By the time it was completed, the outcome of the war had become clear. This may explain both the victorious coda of the finale and the general reflective mood of the first movement.

    The Eighth is the most expansive of Prokofiev’s sonatas; the first movement in particular unfolds in an unhurried fashion. The composer initially intended the sonata to consist of four movements, not three.

    Some of the Eighth Sonata’s material was taken from earlier unfinished incidental music for...

  15. Sonata No. 9 in C Major, op. 103
    (pp. 193-211)

    This sonata was composed in 1947 but not performed until 1951, and not published until after Prokofiev’s death. These delays, unusual given the performing and publishing history of Prokofiev’s earlier compositions, are indicative of the composer’s changed political fortunes. In the campaign against formalism launched by Communist Party officials in the early months of 1948, Prokofiev (along with Shostakovich) was implicated as one of the principal culprits.

    The Ninth Sonata—in the key of C major—is notable for the simplicity of its style, as well as for the conciseness and clarity of its structure. It lacks the dramatic conflicts,...

  16. Sonata No. 10 in E Minor, op. 137
    (pp. 212-214)

    Although Prokofiev included the Tenth Sonata in the list of his compositions, the draft of this sonata contains a mere forty-four bars. The manuscript of the draft is preserved in the Russian State Archive for Literature and Art. The first page, reproduced in Figure 6, was published in the bookS. S. Prokofiev: Materialy, Dokumenty, Vospominaniyain 1961, while the second page has not been made public until recently.

    This short sketch reveals a connection with the Sonatina in E Minor, op. 54, no. 1, written in 1931–32 in Paris. According to Mira Mendelson-Prokofieva, “[Prokofiev] had spoken of his...

    (pp. 215-216)

    In the preceding chapters, we have examined each of the sonatas and discussed the challenges they present to their performers. We can now try to summarize the qualities and skills a pianist must possess in order to be a successful Prokofiev interpreter.

    It is essential that a pianist meticulously observe the composer’s indications regarding tempo, dynamics, and articulation. These are all crucial in creating full characterizations of individual themes and passages. Far too often one hears unidiomatic performances of Prokofiev’s music in which speed and loudness seem to be the only parameters that matter to the pianist.

    Prokoviev had a...

  18. GLOSSARY OF SELECTED TERMS Compiled with assistance from Liam Viney
    (pp. 217-222)
  19. NOTES
    (pp. 223-228)
    (pp. 229-232)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 233-238)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 239-240)