Diving Deep into Prokofiev’s Soul

Under tension. © Charles Thibo

A man has fallen in love. A man is tormented by the death of his oldest friend. A man discovers the reality – i.e. the terrorizing power – of the Soviet Union. A man is torn between the wish to survive and the desire for free artistic expression. A man is looking in awe at the tremendous cost of war – in terms of human lives. A man wonders about the kind of world he is living in. He feels his destiny and he feels the infinite weight of his destiny on his shoulders. A man conceives three piano sonatas at a time and finishes one by one over a time span of five years, one more elaborate and impressive than the other. Sergei Prokofiev’s War Sonatas are not only some of the most remarkable pieces the composer has ever written, they are also a landmark in classical music.

I was slow to discover the War Sonatas. The bellicose connotation put me off. I had seen the aftermath of wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan and I am not too much exhilarated by anything connected to war. But with my love for Dmitry Shostakovich’s and Prokofiev’s music, it is difficult to navigate around the fact of World War II. Today’s post will be about Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, op. 84. Prokofiev started to write the first sketches in 1939 and finished the sonata by 1944. He dedicated it to his girl friend and later wife Maria-Cecilia Abramovna Mendelson, called “Mira”. When both met, Prokofiev was still married to his first wife Lina, but the relationship was strained. In 1941 the composer left Lina; Mira became his companion, secretary, librettist, and literary advisor.

In June 1939, during the national Conference of Stage Directors in Moscow, Prokofiev’s friend Vsevolod Meyerhold had spoken out against any restriction of artistic freedom by the Soviet authorities, he had insisted “on the right of Soviet stage directors […] to experiment, to express themselves freely without fear of punishment, and to seek new techniques”, as Harlow Robinson, author of a biography of Prokofiev, writes. A few days after Meyerhold speech, he was arrested, and a little later, his wife was murdered “by thugs”, according to the official reports. This type of thugs has been a useful tool for rulers in Moscow, from Stalin to Putin. Meyerhold himself died in prison soon after.

Robinson writes that with the death of Meyerhold “Prokofiev’s eyes were opened to evil and a certain innocence was lost forever”. At the same time, the Soviet regime tasked the composer to write pieces glorifying Stalin and the Soviet Union as his patriotic duty. Innocence was lost and a pact with the devil became unavoidable, unavoidable as in a question of life and death. The War Sonatas are some of Prokofiev’s most introverted pieces, despite their obstrusive character. They take you deep into Prokofiev’s soul, to witness how politics are tearing at his mind and how at the same time love is soothing the pain.

The pianist Sviatoslav Richter said about Piano Sonata No. 8 that it “has a difficult inner life, with profound contradictions […] difficult to grasp, but difficult because of the abundance of riches.” I starts with a drawn-out, slow, flowing first movement built upon two main themes, one of them having a Romantic, Schubertesque ring. The second movement is slow too, but very much shorter, written in the rhythm of a dance, while the last movement is fast. If velocity is the hallmark of Prokofiev’s music, than this sonata is very atypical! But worth to be discovered and enjoyed.

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8 has been recorded by Boris Giltburg.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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