Serge Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, August 17, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Serge Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata is the middle entry of his three so-called war sonatas. The earliest ideas for the sonata date to 1939 and Prokofiev completed the piece in 1942. It was written at the height of the Second World War, when its outcome was far from certain, but it was premiered in Moscow by Sviatoslav Richter on January 18, 1943, just as the Russian Army came within reach of victory at the Battle of Stalingrad.

It is a ferocious piece: one of Prokofiev’s harshest and most dissonant, untempered by whimsy or subversive wit. It is also one of his most visceral and straightforward in meaning: the piece is exactly what it sounds like.

Richter had just four days to learn and memorize the sonata, which he quickly did while staying in the Moscow flat of Henrich Neuhaus, another pianist. Neuhaus’s wife was sick at home with a fever as Richter practiced. “The piano was in her bedroom,” he recalled. “The poor woman had to submit to the onslaughts of the final movement for three or more hours at an end.” Imagine the sounds of the raucous sonata shaking a Moscow apartment building in midwinter of 1943.

Richter then went to play the sonata for Prokofiev, who had just returned to Moscow from Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan, where he had been evacuated to safety. Their meeting began with a mundane frustration:

There was a piano in his room, but it turned out that the pedal was not working, so Prokofiev said, “all right, let’s fix it.” We crawled under the piano and were straightening a piece of metal when we banged our heads together so hard that we both saw stars.

Richter remembered this as the most personable moment he ever shared with Prokofiev, a man he found remote and intimidating. Their interactions were otherwise strictly businesslike, limited to the music on the page.

The Sonata was hailed as a triumph at its premiere in Moscow’s Hall of the House of Trade Unions, with Prokofiev in the audience. It won him his first of six Stalin Prizes.

The sonata unfolds in three movements. The first, Allegro inquieto (restless), starts with jagged lines, mostly in just two voices, punctuated by crunching, martial chords. Eventually a lyrical theme intercedes, but is subdued by the first idea. The lyrical theme returns once more, but is again subdued before the movement ends. The second, Andante caloroso (warmly), offers a reassuring alto melody, shadowed in the bass. The middle section grows with active lines and incessant, bell-like chords—punishing in volume, ominous in rhythm, even as the harmonies are sweet. The opening melody returns as an ending refrain. The finale, Precipitato (hurried), is brief, with jazzy syncopations popping out of frantic textures. The movement builds to cacophony, before a final run arrives at pure and decisive B-flat.

Richter offered his own impression of the work:

We are brutally plunged into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance. Chaos and uncertainty reign. We see murderous forces ahead. But this does not mean that what we lived by before thereby ceases to exist. We continue to feel and love. Now the full range of human emotions bursts forth. Together with our fellow men and women, we raise a voice in protest and share the common grief. We sweep everything before us, borne along by the will of victory. In the tremendous struggle that this involves, we find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life-force.