On Prokofiev’s Toccata

this post is part of the hackneyed devices series that chronicles my fall 2017 solo Prokofiev tour. enjoy!

Playing with form–or, in the case of the Toccata, perverting it altogether–assumes great importance in this piece. The toccatas (from Italian tocare, meaning literally “to touch”) of Bach’s and Scarlatti’s time were strictly studies of keyboard technique, pieces that could only be played on keyboard instruments. Bach’s infamous organ Toccata and Fugue in d minor, for example, also epitomizes the original purpose of toccatas as improvisatory, cadenza-esque pieces, something to whip out as the equivalent of an encore. Though unmistakably showy and technique-driven, toccatas symbolized a freedom at the keyboard not afforded to other forms.

Of course, Prokofiev has to take it one step further. There are only four themes governing this piece’s structure, but the way Prokofiev arranges them lends the Toccata uncanny complexity and, yes, technical difficulty. Prokofiev takes cells of traditional Baroque & Renaissance form–canons, fugues, polyphony–and plays them off one another jaggedly, kaleidoscopically. (His compatriot, Igor Stravinsky, would do much the same with themes of Russian Orthodox primitivism in Le sacre du printemps, “Rite of Spring,” 1913). Prokofiev has remarkably reappropriated antiquated toccata features into his own mechanized, perpetuum mobile language. Rumor has it that playing this Toccata is meant to mimic typing on a typewriter–unsurprising, given Prokofiev’s identity as through-and-through a “modern” composer, his music reflecting his increasingly mechanical time.

The form of Prokofiev’s Toccata is particularly of note because, like the endless geometric patterns or paintings within paintings of Italian Renaissance ceilings, this piece is a palindrome within a palindrome. An up-up-down-down figuration, strewn across various keys, is nestled within a larger form that is a mirror: the piece begins with the incessant D’s struck in both hands, which returns halfway, and then appears again at the end, with an expectedly-unexpected Prokofiev twist. With the predictability of the Toccata’s palindromic form, Prokofiev upturns the freedom for experimentation that the toccatas before him championed. Instead, the five-minute Toccata represents Prokofiev at his most mathematical and most constrained: short, bullet-like notes in perfectly uniform sixteenths leave little room for error, reminiscent of target practice.


other posts in this series
On Prokofiev’s second sonata
On Prokofiev’s sixth sonata


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

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