Serguei Prokofiev (1891-1953) War Sonatas (N.6-7-8)
(in two volumes)
No. 6 in A major, Op. 82 (1940)
No. 7 in B♭ major, Op. 83 (1942)
No. 8 in B♭ major, Op. 84 (1944)
No. 9 in C major, Op. 103 (1946-1947)
After spending some time in the United States,
then Germany and Paris, Prokofiev returned to Soviet Russia which he
left after the revolution.
Sixteen years passed before he composed his next Sonata: number 6 in A
major op.82. This work was going to be the first of a series of three
to be called "The War Sonatas".
He cherished the idea of thinking about the Sonatas 6, 7 and 8 as a
huge "sonata" in eleven movements. According to Myra Mendelssohn,
Prokofiev got this idea when reading Romain Rolland on Beethoven.
Finished in 1942, the Sonata number 7 in B-flat major op.83 is the most
popular of the three, while the last "War Sonata": N.8 in B-flat major,
is the most complex.
Despite its huge proportions and presenting some serious technical
challenges to the performer, Piano Sonata No. 9 in C major, Op. 103
(1946-47) is extremely refined and "purified". The settling down and
purification of the last period of Prokofiev can be clearly seen in
No. 6 in A major, Op. 82 (1940)
The Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82 (1940) was first performed on
April 8, 1940 in Moscow. The first performer other than the composer
was Sviatoslav Richter. The young pianist relates: "I was astonished by
the amazing clarity of style and the perfect construction of this
music. I have never heard anything like this before. With a barbaric
boldness the composer breaks with the romantic role models to give life
to his music with the devastating urges of the twentieth century."
The word "barbaric" is actually not inappropriate for this music. Here,
Prokofiev, undoubtedly impressed by the world in war, gets into a kind
of violence in his musical language as well as a sort of radicalism
unseen in his works since he returned to the USSR.
The theme, in alternating minor - major thirds is hard, nervous and
sharp edged. It is also one of the most characteristic ones of the
After a section of alternating octaves and chords in both hands, piano,
a second theme appears with an amazing purity and softness. A tender
melody in unison at both hands.
The ecriture, from linear, becomes gradually compacted and tormented.
Troubling triplets at the low range conclude the exposition section of
In the development section, the mixture of threads and anxious drives
is expressed with repeated notes. The dramatic content of this section
is based on the opposition of the lyrical second theme always scattered
with the "demoniacal" thirds which constitute the main element of the
The cruelty of the discourse raises with harsh chords and glissandos.
Then the tension falls to more serene harmonies and the development
section also ends with the staccato triplet figures at the basses.
The shortened re-exposition, taken one octave lower, re-states all
those chaotic visions.
The second movement, in E major, is somewhat relaxed. Staccato chords
present a wandering melody.
A definitely vertical ecriture alternated with a melody in large steps.
At the key signature change, from E major to C major, repeated chords
over a strong left hand melody bring back the first E major theme with
fast falling arpeggios in the left hand.
The middle part, Meno mosso, is a melodic and linear one, yet it also
includes elements from the previous theme.
Tempo di valzer lentissimo
Following the previous "quasi scherzando" movement, a passionate
lyricism appears in this "waltz" in 9/8 time.
With flexible and amorous chromaticism, it, nevertheless brings in the
middle section a darker shade with the ostinato basses even though the
elegiac right hand "tries to keep going."
Back to the atrocities, the tormented figure as if cut with retch,
starts a whirling hallucination. Between its various appearances other
themes appear. One of them, the movement's main other theme, is melodic
but others are angular and contorted.
The middle section, Andante, presents the first theme of the first
movement, but as a distant remembrance: veiled and wrapped in a haze.
In the concluding parts, a merciless battle is engaged between the
present movement's main themes and the first theme of the first
movement. That last one will end the Sonata in an aggressive pacing.
Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83 (1942)
(occasionally called the "Stalingrad")
Completed in 1942, Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83 is the
most popular of Prokofiev's Sonatas. Shorter than the previous one, it
is, nevertheless, analogous to it by its mixture of sheer anxiety, top
rage and also meditative and lyrical sections.
The first movement does not have a key signature, the others do have E
major and B flat major keys. The sonata was premiered in Moscow on
January 18, 1943 by Sviatoslav Richter.
The movement is in the form: A B A' B A''. The first theme, presented
in unison at both hands, is short, angular and agitated. It is promptly
followed by a pounding of a four-notes long motivic cell that will have
an important part in the development sections.
The initial A section is partly in a horizontal ecriture, sometimes
polyphonic and other times with crudely dissonant sharp-edged chords.
The movement, thereafter, is somewhat calming its pace with the
reappearance of the four-notes motive on C, and, after a little
outburst of energetic chords, it leads to the B section.
This B section, Andantino, is in total contrast with the preceding one,
it is suggesting a painful intimacy and a somehow undecided tonal
orientation. With a poco a poco accelerando the A section returns, this
time intensified in its fury and percussive aggressiveness.
The previously mentioned four-cell motive will reappear here in the low
range and with longer timings of its notes, thus intensifying the
dramatic impact with a rigid gravity.
A shortened Andantino briefly appears leading to the last A section
which will drop down and get lost in the low keys of the keyboard.
After the frightening asperity of the first movement and its almost
atonal harmonization, the Andante caloroso brings a warmness in a
deliciously tender setting of the E major and with a lyricism which
seems to be thought for a cello and solo viola.
A middle section starting with a fast scale brings, again, the torments
and horrors which spread through the entire work. Obsessive and
hallucinating ostinato notes with wandering chords above and below may
remind bells sounding. The Coda is a short reprise of the initial
A very popular movement with its 7/8 setting and the ostinato interval
of B-flat - C-sharp at the left hand. This minor third interval is
always in conflict with the major settings of the right hand.
It is a non-stop progression of chords, often built on a scale-wise
motion of notes in B-flat major. The 7 eight motion is mostly grouped
as 2 + 2 + 3. The accent on the left hand, on the C-sharp octave, is
acting as a "disrupter" and it is de-stabilizing the right hand groups,
thus creating all through the movement a feeling of unrest.
Even though the movement is in ABC BA form, the B and C sections,
remembrances of the first movement, do not create any distinct
contrasts but integrate in the overall agitation.
Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat major, Op. 84 (1944)
The last piece of this gigantic triptych: the "War Sonatas" is
certainly the most complex in its content: Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat
major, Op. 84 (1944). It is more difficult for the listener, requiring
a long sustained concentration to be fully appreciated. So its
popularity is much less than the previous two.
Sviatoslav Richter admirably described it: "a sort of heaviness, but
this is due to its richness. Like a tree bending because of its
fruits." The main difference between this Sonata and the ones
number 6 and 7 is in its tendency towards introverted meditation,
mostly in its first movement and also, partly, in the broadening of the
musical discourse. It was premiered by Emil Guilels in 1944.
Introverted, grave and serious music, expressed in a soft voice almost
all through. A serene and melodic pace sometimes only partly animated.
A section Poco piu animato presents a new motive, but again it does not
create a sharp contrast. Even though whispering sixteenth notes appear
and develop into arpeggios in various mixed tonalities the entire
movement remains with some reserve.
In the middle section an obsessive tension is created with a uniform
rhythm of quarter notes which will soon "break into exploding" fast
runs of arpeggios and scales. This will transport the initial melodic
setting into some other "visionary" places, in the last A of the A-B-A
form, the Coda, even though built on the same material as the
beginning, will be much less serene than it.
In D-flat major this movement is a beautifully calm, "dreaming" and
noble Menuetto-like movement. There is an amazing refinement in the
seemingly consonant harmonization. Also to be noted is the richness and
the elaboration of the secondary voices.
The last movement is rhythmical, "motorized", Toccata-like and long
enough to "balance" the first. After the first exposition, just like in
the first movement, a uniform rhythm section with quarter notes will
raise to a hymn-like climax. Two softer sections: Pochissimo meno mosso
and Andantino will cite some elements of the first movement. The last
Vivace will bring a triumphal Coda.
Piano Sonata No. 9 in C major, Op. 103 (1946-1947)
Last completed work for the solo piano, the Sonata N.9 was composed
during 1946-47 and dedicated to Sviatoslav Richter. "This will be
"your" sonata.." said the composer, "..but do not expect a show piece.
It is not made to strike the big hall of the (Moscow) Conservatory"
Despite its huge proportions and presenting some serious technical
challenges to the performer, this last Sonata is extremely refined and
"purified". The settling down and purification of the last period of
Prokofiev can be clearly seen in that work. In many points, one can
trace a parallel with the noble style of Poulenc, a good old friend of
It starts without haste in a limpid serenity. Its
brisk impulsions, fast runs (glissando-like 32nds.) and jerky rhythms,
start when going towards the second theme. Those figures will be
extensively used later in the piece.
The second theme, extremely purified, is not more than a few repeated
notes. At the point "Poco meno mosso" appears a third motivic element
which descends in chromatic steps on dotted rhythms.
A short reminder of the first part, with the two first themes, leads to
an accompaniment figure which slowly animates from eights to triplets
and leads to the third theme, but also includes the glissando-like
figures mentioned earlier. This section is in the well known Prokofiev
A pianissimo transition in which the tonic rumbles at the left hand on
two octaves span, brings the re-exposition in the key of B major. An
unusual tonal layout, which however, returns to the main C major for
the second theme and the Coda.
We have here again the composer's typically
energetic, somehow dry and vigorous style. The swift run which starts
the movement was actually foreshadowed at the end of the previous
movement, in the low range and pianissimo. Interspersed with some
nervous staccatos, it connects with the use of some rhythmical elements
in a short section, to intentionally grotesque sonorities. Then, to
staccatos figures again, this time followed up with chromatic figures.
A short development with previously heard elements leads to a
transitional part "Meno mosso" and then to an "Andantino" with a very
tidy ecriture. This section opposes broken arpeggios of the right hand
with the chromaticism of the left.
Back to the first part but shortened and the Coda expires in a softened
and rarefied line up.
In the form ABA'B'A'', one can describe this movement
as "day and night". First it is a "nocturne" in A-flat major, superb
melody with a very tonal but not that conventional harmonizations. In
the B part, Allegro sostenuto in C major, the light and energy of the
"day" breaks in. This brings an agitation which is both happy and
In the following two sections, same ideas, will reappear with some
variations throughout the movement. A': shortened; B': starting in the
basses with the theme accompanied by quintuplets. The last apparition
of A (A'') leads to a Coda where on several occasions a cell of four
sixteenths shows as a presages of the Finale.
Allegro con brio, ma non
Vivacious, dancing, scooting around, the Finale is
made up from the cell previously heard at the end of the preceding
movement. The other main motive is a small group of staccatos
alternating between hands.
A new theme, Poco meno mosso, combines several motivic elements in a
generally ludicrous atmosphere.
In the central part, Andantino in E-flat major, both hands play
sometimes in unison in octaves. At the Allegretto, both themes of the
principal part appear in inverse order, setting the ground for the
During the vast Coda, made up out of an improvised figure from the
beginning, the theme of the first movement reappear at the high ranges,
backed up with quintuplets at the left hand. The following bars make
the music fade in a harmonic haze. For his last Sonata, Prokofiev opted
for an ending most discreet and reserved.