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The piano, for all its ability to caress the ear with limpid streams of sound, is after all an instrument of percussion: hammers strike strings. At the beginning of the 20th century a characteristic of the piano that had always existed but been studiously avoided began to be exploited in fairly undreamed of ways. In Russia, Prokofiev created a literature for the keyboard that exploited to the hilt that characteristic, the instrument's percussive nature. His Toccata of 1912 made a mighty noise in stating the case for percussiveness, and from that starting point he enforced the thesis with undiminished energy. This is not to say that Prokofiev neglected the element of lyricism in his piano music; he could make the keyboard sing with the melodiousness of a Chopin or a Rachmaninoff.
Prokofiev's Seventh Piano Sonata is the second of the composer's three so-called "war sonatas." Sketched as early as 1939, the work was completed at the beginning of 1942, having been written during the time Prokofiev was in the Caucasus, to which he had fled from Moscow to escape the approaching German invaders. Although the composer had frequently seemed oblivious to the elements around him (the disarmingly charming Classical Symphony, completed in 1917, the year of the Russian revolution, is irrefutable evidence of his ability to exist in an ivory tower), he was clearly caught up in the horrors of the conflict when writing the present piece. Strife, anxiety, bitterness, and a fearsome fervor explode through its pages.
The first movement's quiet opening has about it a chilling foreboding that soon enough erupts with cannon-like dissonant chords in the low bass pounding violently as the right hand grimaces wildly in the high treble. The music then proceeds along a tumultuous route to a slow, lyrical, but disquieting second theme that suggests an effort to escape reality. The unrest here is palpable though, foretelling the return of the menacing mood of the opening in a development section that is as combative as anything in the Prokofiev arsenal.
The second movement takes a dramatically contrasting turn to a kind of dream world, an E-major dream world where the forces of evil are nonexistent. It is a complex movement, harmonically and texturally rich and varied. The mood, too, is varied, for the music grows in intensity and assertiveness midway, only to draw back at the end to the opening calm.
This is a calm destined to be shattered by the unrestrained vigors of the toccata final movement. The perpetual-motion momentum of this music, and its blazing virtuosity, are breathtaking, frightening. There is little in contemporary piano literature to compare with the frenzy and the ruthless demonism of this movement; it is an extraordinary testament to the vision of the composer, and to the comprehensive keyboard command of those who would reveal its raw power.
- Orrin Howard served the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Director of Publications and Archives for many years, and he continues to contribute to the program book.