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In March 1939 Prokofiev began working seriously on a cycle of three piano sonatas, the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth, to be known later in the West as the “War Sonatas.” As was his compositional habit, he had previously composed a few of the themes and assigned them to different movements of each sonata – “Themes easily slip away, they come and go, sometimes never to return.” The circumstances of their composition were summed up by Mira Mendelson, Prokofiev’s partner for the last twelve years of his life, “In 1939 Prokofiev began to write three piano sonatas…working on all ten movements at once, and only later did he lay aside the Seventh and Eighth and concentrated on the Sixth.” In all, it took Prokofiev five years to complete the cycle, from 1939 through 1944.
As Russia and the allies gained the advantage in the war, artists began to migrate back to Moscow after having been evacuated to different locales far from the front early in the war. Prokofiev and his fellow Soviet composers were placed in the “Composers Home,” near the town of Ivanovo, fifty miles west of Moscow in December 1943.
During the summer of 1944, in a state of great optimism, Prokofiev worked on both his Fifth Symphony and the Eighth Sonata. These two works represent not only the distillation and perhaps culmination of Prokofiev’s creative life, they might also be deemed metaphors for his country’s past history, the hopelessness of the early war years, and finally, victory. Indeed, both works embody what he called “…an expression of the greatness of the human spirit.”
Some of the thematic material for the Eighth Sonata was taken from unrealized projects surrounding the centenary of the death of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Prokofiev composed incidental music for a theatrical production of Eugene Onegin (Op. 71), and for a film version of The Queen of Spades (Op. 70).
The first theme group of the first movement, derived from melodies from The Queen of Spades, consists of three different melodic profiles. Following a bridge section, a new theme in g minor flows into the allegro of the development. The recapitulation restates the first theme slightly modified. Much of the thematic material of the second movement was taken from the ball scene in Eugene Onegin. Its dream-like quality is expressed in its marking Andante sognando, “slow and dreamy.” The third movement, Vivace, is a brilliant, fast, forging ahead sonata-rondo form with an extensive middle section and coda.
Piano Sonata No. 8 received its public premiere December 30, 1944, played by Russian pianist Emil Gilels.
Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.