On Prokofiev’s sixth sonata

this is the third installment of the hackneyed devices series that chronicles my fall 2017 solo Prokofiev tour. hope you enjoy!

The Sixth Sonata, the first in the “War Sonatas” trilogy, is a significant departure from the Second Sonata we heard earlier: gone are the lush colors and deference to tonality; in their place are jagged rhythms, unapologetic dissonance, and an eerie musical irony in the lyrical passages amidst the piece’s electric fury. The harsh battalion imagery of the Sixth Sonata is especially fascinating, for the Nazis had not yet invaded the Soviet Union when Prokofiev set to work on this piece. Prokofiev was instead engulfed by personal turmoil–his friend, Vsevolod Meyerhold, had commissioned an opera, then disappeared (code for “was arrested and executed”)–while simultaneously commissioned to write a celebratory cantata for Stalin’s 60th birthday. In some ways, then, this sonata can be interpreted as a political statement, an overt critique of a brutally oppressive regime.

Despite Prokofiev’s avant-garde approach to harmony and rhythm, this sonata’s structure remains deliberate; no note goes unplanned. The first movement is percussive (Prokofiev marks some chords con il pugno, “with the fist”) and incessant, as if the notes themselves are fighting for attention. The bombastic four-note motif introduced in this movement recurs 124 times in the work. The first hints of irony–literarily defined as, “the expression of meaning with language that signifies the opposite”–appear in the first bars, with the left hand in a minor and the right in A Major, cementing the sonata’s overarching tone of friction. Prokofiev’s creativity is on full display as he manipulates the plaintive, monophonic second theme into, firstly, the bullet-like staccato pokes in the development, then, the unnerving ff melodic line of the same section.

The second Allegretto movement is the clearing after the cyclone: spritely and energetic, despite the pronounced dissonance throughout. The irony lies in how one cannot shake the feeling of being unsettled–the chromaticism is a bit too jarring, the homogenous quarter-note pillars too precise for comfort. These, coupled with a somber espressivo middle section, reiterate the sinister undercurrent of the piece: nothing is as it seems. The third movement’s unctuous waltz–a nod to Cinderella, which Prokofiev was composing concurrently–is fugue-like in its four voices. The left hand’s deep drone basses and right hand’s modulations from major to minor suggest a danse macabre dimension to an otherwise unassuming waltz, another nod to irony in the work.

Prokofiev actualizes the sound of madness in the toccata-esque fourth movement, a see-saw between heart-racing chaos and the poetic return of the first movement’s motif. The music dwells insistently on one note or motif; other times, Prokofiev renders the cacophony of voices overwhelming. Nowhere is this more true than the finale, which builds up to, arguably, the most chilling flourish in Prokofiev’s piano music. He ends the piece the same way it began, only this time, the four-note motto is pounded to death, sealing the piece’s dramatic narrative.

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