On Prokofiev’s second sonata

this is the first post in the hackneyed devices series that chronicles my fall 2017 solo Prokofiev tour. hope you enjoy!

“Prokofiev follows sonata form like a train schedule.”

Like any train schedule, however, unforeseen delays and detours may interrupt it, and Prokofiev’s take on sonata form in the Second Sonata is no exception. Indeed, “interruption” is the main counternarrative running through the work, as argued by YSM Prokofiev scholar Rebecca Perry–brusquely unfamiliar material interrupting main themes, seemingly inconsequentially, that assume great significance as the piece progresses.

Take the first bars of the first movement, for example. Rude, ultra-dissonant seconds barge in before the first theme has a chance to catch its breath, and dissipate unceremoniously, only to later constitute the bulk of the movement’s development. The stasis and extreme chromaticism of this interruptive figure creep, almost unnoticed, into the second theme, transitions, and motives throughout the movement, as well as the third movement’s darkly painful melodies. Because this counternarrative is so out-of-the-blue in a sonata that is otherwise, as Perry puts it, “business as usual,” it fulfills its function of defamiliarization, that quintessentially-Prokofiev trait. Another example is the repurposing of the first movement’s hesitant, oddly pitiful second theme in the fourth movement’s development: not a note has changed, yet somehow, one feels as if one is hearing it for the first time.

Additionally, rhythm is integral to Prokofiev’s style, as epitomized by the harrowing second Scherzo movement. Rather than organizing melodies harmonically, Prokofiev has instead chosen a whole potpourri of triplets, dotted sixteenths, pulsing eighths, and syncopation (notably in the frenzied fourth movement) to showcase the simplicity of his themes. Often, rhythmic integrity is what allows Prokofiev’s chromatic displacement to create drama and tension, rather than muddy the music. The overall effect is highly architectural: clean lines, repetitive details, symmetry, balanced colors.

Prokofiev is not so much interested in form as much as what he can do with it–how he can manipulate it, expand and decompress it, or distort it altogether. Prokofiev was always a bit of a rebel, and one finds in the Second Sonata a nascent conservatory student challenging the boundaries of the accepted, or, as Prokofiev biographer Israel Nestyev puts it, “deliberately reviving the old through the medium of the new.” The interruptive material is too deliberate to be coincidence, too brash to be ignored, and it will become a Prokofiev hallmark.

other posts in this series
On Prokofiev’s Toccata
On Prokofiev’s sixth sonata
nos. 1 & 2 | on performance anxiety

“I detest imitation. I detest hackneyed devices.” – sergei prokofiev

more on the tour: hackneyeddevices.com

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