The music of war: a listening guide to Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata, 1st movement (part 1 of 2)

Hello everybody!

Today’s post marks a somewhat special occasion, as my new CD has been recently  released worldwide. I recorded the 6th, 7th, and 8th piano sonatas by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), which are commonly grouped together as ‘the War Sonatas’, having been composed between 1940 and 1944. To tie-in with the release, I decided to publish a listening guide to the opening movement of the CD – the first movement of the 6th sonata. And to really tie-in with the release, the YouTube clip below comes from the newly released CD (thanks to Orchid Classics for arranging this).

Since we’re once again discussing a sonata form movement (and in rather more depth than in the recent guide to Ravel’s Concerto in G), I thought I’ll do a quick recap of what a sonata form is and how it works before we delve into the music (you can also find an in-depth discussion here). The sonata form is a musical mold or a blueprint which could be used to construct a musical movement of almost any length – it’s highly flexible and modular, while at the same time being structured enough to provide the skeleton for even the longest movements. It’s also one of the most popular and longest-enduring musical forms with hundreds of works ranging from the mid-18th century to our days. The basic division of a sonata form movement is into three parts:

  • Exposition
  • Development
  • Recapitulation (often shortened to recap)

In the exposition the main themes/subjects/motifs are presented (more on it in a second), they are then developed, combined and clashed in the development, and reprised in the recapitulation, which is often a complete repeat of the exposition. The exposition itself is normally divided into four sections:

  • The first subject section (subject being just another word for a musical theme)
  • A connection section (a.k.a. a bridge or a transition, which leads into ->)
  • The second subject section
  • A closing section (formally called the ‘codetta’, meaning ‘little coda’ – which is Italian for tail)

The first and second subjects are the defining melodic elements of the movement (those are usually the tunes one could sing – though they’re not always singable, as we’ll see), and since some point in the 19th century, it became common practice to have two contrasting subjects in your movement – so if the first was energetic and quick, the second would be lyrical and slow (e.g.). The other two sections need not present new melodic material (though they may), and their function is more of a structural one – connecting, moving from one key to another, etc. Once again, please refer to the Mozart post linked above if you’d like a more thorough explanation.

The development is a free-form section, without rules – it’s quite often the least stable area of the sonata form movement: the subjects are combined and juxtaposed, buildups are built up, big climaxes are reached – exciting stuff. The recap would normally contain the same sections as the exposition, and would sometimes be followed by a coda – a closing section.

So, as you see, it’s a very organized way of writing music. But there’s also much freedom to be had – sections can be as short or as long as the composer wants them to, they can be expanded to include more material, or even be done away with completely. This is all rather theoretical at the moment, but will hopefully become clearer as we progress with the music. And so, without further ado, here’s the recording:

00:02 – now how’s that for a melody to sing? This is angular, aggressive, angry, persistent – and basically not a melody at all. It’s a sharply defined rhythmic motif – one longer note, followed by three quick descending ones, and immediately repeated, with the first longer note shortened (00:02-00:04); this group of eight notes (they are actually sixteen, as each note is doubled by an interval, like two voices moving in parallel paths) is repeated in full (00:05-00:07), and then repeated once again, shortened even more and with an extra helping of the three descending notes (00:07-00:08); and to end the sentence, we have a new four-note rising motif, with a snappy dotted rhythm (00:08-00:10), like a series of angrily barked words.

I would like to dwell on this short sentence some more, as it’s fascinating to see how much can occur in such a small stretch of time, and on how many different levels. (For me it’s one of the greatest hallmarks of classical music – things are happening all the time, no second is wasted, and the perception of time is often stretched to accommodate the amount of stuff packed into every bar.) We’ve spoken about the melody, but what happens in the left hand?

(note: this paragraph and the next are slightly more complicated and technical, so feel completely free to skip them.) You have probably noticed that the the music resembles a march more than anything else (I imagine endless lines of blank-eyed soldiers, marching past or towards you) – but what a weird march it is! You would normally expect a march to have a very steady, constant beat, to help with the marching. But not here – the third beat out of every four is empty, missing, giving us instead of a regular ‘one-two-three-four’ an oddly syncopated ‘one-two-…..-four. And not just in the left hand, but in the right hand as well, as the third beat falls on the shortened long note of the main motif – which is shortened precisely to leave the third downbeat empty (I mean the very beginning of 00:04 and 00:06 – there’s just an emptiness there, no right hand, no left hand – as if the soldiers all stopped on the Right! and froze on one leg for a beat before continuing to Left! Could be quite scary, if you imagine it). Later, in 00:07-00:08, the left hand finally plays all four beats, but instead of sounding normal as it should, it now sounds shortened, condensed (as the empty beat has been dispensed with) – this to coincide with the shortening of the motif in the right hand. 00:08-00:10 is nothing special, with the left hand steadily accompanying the right. (But do notice the abrupt ending in 00:10 – in the beginning we first had ‘one-two-…..-four’ for two bars, then one bar of ‘one-two-three-four’, and then, at 00:10, it’s suddenly ‘one-two-three!’, like a cut-off, categorical statement – very effective. And it’s quite a variety of rhythmical configurations for such a short sentence.)

Lastly I’d like to talk about the harmony – the very first chord we hear in 00:02 is a pure major triad – a clean, perfectly consonant sound. But immediately thereafter, at 00:03, we get the harshest dissonant one could create from four notes (that’s how many we’ve got there), which is further exacerbated by Prokofiev ‘freezing’ on that harmony (the empty third beat) – this serves as a virtual accent, as there’s nothing after that chord, letting us continue hearing it in our ears. Prokofiev also repeats the same harmony on the fourth beat (00:04), so on balance our first bars are one fourth pure consonance to three fourths harsh dissonance – a sweet mix, isn’t it? The first chord of the closing four-note motif (00:08) is a hard dissonance as well, though the very last chord (00:10) is a clean one – consonances make better ‘full-stop’ chords, or, as in this case, ‘semicolon’ chords – as we’re not nearly done yet.

If you listen to this first sentence again, you can now probably hear and feel how those elements – the melody, the rhythm and the harmony – combine to create the militant, triumphant mood (triumphant in an ugly way). Moreover, the sentence is perfectly balanced – first, two identical full bars, each one with a skipped beat in the left hand and the main motif in the right hand played twice per bar, once in full, once in a rhythmically shortened version. This is followed by a general condensing of the material (no skipped beats in the left hand, only the shortened version of the motif in the right hand), the tension is building up, and finally the snappy four-notes motif finishes things off for the moment – and we’re just 8 seconds in.

And here I’d like to add that for me in no other movement of these three sonatas – ten movements altogether – are the horrors of war as blatantly apparent as here. There’s nothing subtle here, nothing is hinted – you’re staring war in the face, and it’s ugly.

Let’s go on (finally). 00:10-00:17 – We have some new material. This is a kind of an appendix to the first sentence, not a new one. 00:10-00:12 gives us a rowdy motif (possibly with an element of laughter to it – of the mocking, malicious kind) which is answered at 00:12-00:14 by a booming, dissonant fanfare in a lower region of the keyboard (rhythmically, it’s ‘one-two-three!’, like at 00:10 – once again, a semicolon chord). And then, in 00:14-00:17 there is a sweeping upward passage in the right hand, accompanied by dotted rhythms in the left hand (dotted rhythms are – well, it’s easier to show: this is what they are, 05:55-06:03. They are called so because of the way they are notated in a musical score. Here’s an example, the first dot is circled in red):

Dynamically, the run starts out somewhat softer with an immediate crescendo afterwards (crescendo is the musical term for the volume getting louder), there’s another tension buildup, and it gets released into –

00:17-00:25 – a full repeat of the opening phrase (00:02-00:10), sounding even more triumphant then before. The only difference is the ending, at 00:23-00:25 – instead of the snappy four-notes motif from 00:09-00:10, we get the booming fanfare one from 00:12-00:14 (musical interchangeability :-)) – and this time it serves as a full-stop, bringing the entire section to a close. And yet, at the very last moment, the bass line in the left hand slides down – that single note between 00:25 and 00:26 – and brings us to the next section –

00:25-00:41. If you have been keeping the sonata form structure in mind, you might be wondering if this is the bridge – the connecting section between the first and the second subject. The truthful answer is that one cannot know for sure at this point – we’ll have to wait and see what happens afterwards: if this brings us to the second subject, then yes, if it brings us somewhere else, then no. As it is, this section is based on just two motifs – first, the descending three-note motif which we encountered right at the beginning of the movement (without the first long note); but whereas before it has been the melody (sort of), now it has become the accompaniment to the other line – a series of long, loud notes, sustained in the middle of the keyboard, while the three-note motif encompasses them from above and from below like snarls and shrieks. The effect is absolutely barbaric – a terrible force is on the march to the sound of horns (I immediately think about the armies of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings; and realizing that Prokofiev meant no imaginary creatures, but rather some very real human beings, makes it all the more chilling).

Melodically the sentence is divided into two short parts, 00:25-00:30 and 00:32-00:36, with the areas between and after serving as buffer or filler – no melodic notes there, just repetitions of our descending three-note motif. And then, after one last angry snarl in the basses at 00:38, we get the same upward run as at 00:14, complete with the dotted notes in the left hand. And, like at 00:18, it once again brings us to a full repeat of the opening phrase (00:41-00:48), and we can now know for sure that those barbaric horns at 00:25 were not the bridge section, but rather the expansion of the first subject section. This is a prime example of the flexibility of the sonata form – Prokofiev has constructed a complicated, multi-segmented section with quite a bit of different material, and yet, it’s all snugly encapsulated inside a clearly delineated structural block. Nice! But let’s move on.

00:49-01:21 – our bridge section. In the beginning (00:49-00:56) we’ve got a creeping, slithering chromatic line (chromatic means covering all the tones and semi-tones on the piano; basically advancing in the smallest increments possible from point A to point B. Chromatic scales got a distinct sound, and among other things they’re very good for crawling lines such as this). The two hands alternate note by note, and the melody is just in the thumbs of both hands, the other fingers providing dampened harmonic chords. The last four notes of the line get repeated three times (00:53-00:56), each time a bit louder (with a hint of a growing menace), then the phrase is repeated again at a higher pitch (00:56-01:00), this time ending with a bigger crescendo and even a tiny bit of triumph as the hands split and separate from each other (01:00-01:02). Our chromatic line is then repeated one last time, higher and louder still (01:02-01:05) and after a single octave in the bass (01:06), we get to the climax of this section: we’re showered with a cascade of highly dissonant descending chords (01:06-01:12) – like a carillon gone mad. There’s no melody to speak of, just harsh intervals. The line slows and quietens down gradually (01:11 onward), coming to a near-standstill at 01:16-01:20.

And then at 01:22, above the held interval in the bass, the second subject appears – a distant melody, sad and forlorn and beautiful, played by both hands in unison. I cannot but think of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Pity of war’ in this place – for me this is the musical embodiment of that idea. The unison line splits into three voices at 01:30, the middle voice adding a counterpoint to the upper voice melody and the bass line appearing down below, reminding us that all is not well. Then at 01:38, the first half of our melody is repeated with more presence in the middle voice, the upper voice accompanying it with a few separated notes, this half-line ending uncertainly at 01:45-01:47.

At 01:47-02:02 the full line is repeated with several variations, in the same three-voice configuration we had at 01:30. The middle voice is becoming more prominent (note the long up-and-down line at  01:48-01:54) and there’s an unexpected dotted-rhythm interplay between it and the upper voice at 01:56-01:58, bringing a note of urgency and nervousness into the previously calm line. This is joined by the lower voice with a short but noticeable upward arpeggio (broken chord) at 01:59.

At 02:02 a new, calmly flowing line appears, passing into the lower voice at 02:06, as the right hand plays three prominent bell-like notes (02:06, 02:08, 02:10). Immediately after the third note our main melody re-appears above, making the flowing line below its accompaniment. A small additional quirkiness is in the fact that the melody is offset by one note, entering as it were just a bit too late, and making it ever-so-slightly out of sync with the bass, and adding to the flow (the two hands are then re-synced at 02:13).

02:17 – calmness is over. This is the closing section to the exposition; a quick upward line made of sharp notes alternated between the two hands snaps us out of the slightly dreamy mood that preceded it. This is further emphasized by the relative harshness of 02:20-02:24, which contains a preparation of what is to come – in its middle voice we can hear a line of four descending notes which will serve as the backbone of the forthcoming climax. The quick upward line is repeated at 02:26-02:27, followed by a short buildup at 02:27-02:31 which contains the same four-note motif, repeated twice (02:27-02:29, 02:29-02:31). And finally things erupt in an explosive manner at 02:31. Something bad is upon us, and the outer chords sound the alarm, like low and high heavy bells, while the middle voice hammers out incessantly the descending four-note motif. 02:38-02:41 – still more harshness and clamor, the four-note motif especially insisting at 02:42-02:45, where it’s isolated and for all to hear. Things slow down at 02:45, as if the motor propelling the four-note motif had run out of fuel, and the section ends with a few slow notes in the bass at 02:51-02:55.

But then Prokofiev adds one final touch before moving on to the development. Just as things seem to have calmed down, a dark, somewhat scary motif of repeated notes appears in the bass at 02:59 (not to detract from the seriousness of the music, I’m reminded a bit of a Hollywood technique – showing us one last giant ant queen or man-eating locust creeping out of the dark, just as we thought they were all annihilated. Though of course the place we’re at in the sonata form structure – just before the beginning of the development – suggests in itself that the big events are yet to come. And however we look at it, it’s a very effective and highly atmospheric place). At 03:05 the single voice splits into two, with quite a scary effect as the lowest voice enters at a higher volume, before gradually slowing and dying away through several repeats of a three-note ascending chromatic motif. At 03:09 this motif is repeated one last time, slowly, in the middle of the keyboard, and now we’re truly ready for the development.

(I’ve split the post in two due to its length; the second part follows right away.)

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13 thoughts on “The music of war: a listening guide to Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata, 1st movement (part 1 of 2)

  1. Very interesting this, Boris – I can’t wait to hear the recording. There’s the Beethoven influence with this music too: Prokofiev’s second wife, Mira, said that it was Romain Rolland’s biography on him that influenced the 6th, 7th and 8th sonatas. It’s no surprise, then, that the opening ‘fate’ motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony runs through the Sixth (it first occurs in the first movement at m. 6) and it’s a common feature of the last movement – check out the coda section!

  2. The first: You are right!!! … I think (as a singer) is impossible to sing it hahaha! and although Prokofiev is not my favorite composer it is a intriguing Sonata ….

    The section between 00:25-00:41 … it is interesting your comparison with the army of Mordor because when I read it I remembered when the orcs were making weapons for war (the sound of hammers) …
    really, it is strange and violent music (that kind of music is not my favorite but it’s intriguing to me)

    now I am going to read the second part …

  3. I really loved reading your interpretation of Prokofiev’s 6th sonata, especially since I am learning it myself at the moment. You even pointed out a couple of things which I hadn’t noticed before!

    I watched your performance of Prokofiev’s 2nd piano concerto (my favourite piece of his), and I was wondering if you are planning to do a similar analysis on this piece.

    • Thank you very much! Glad you liked it. I might do an article on Prokofiev 2 in the future, can’t say for sure right now. The very next one will probably be about Ravel’s Trio in A minor.

  4. Hi Boris, great blog!, it’s Francisco from Argentina, I’m working on the Pokofiev 7th sonata and I would love to read a listening guide to that sonata in particular like you did on the 6th!, if you can do that I’m here to read you, keep the good work in this blog, it’s useful for many pianist like me and is very interesting to have such a great pianist in contact with people through this social environments, thank you!

    • Hi Francisco, thanks for the good words; glad you liked it. 7th sonata is not out of the question – I’m now transferring my blog onto a proper website (borisgiltburg.com), so it will take some time.

  5. Bravo from Ann Arbor, MI, and a musicologist who has written a book on Music and the Great War. “Music and War”–a Big Topic, and also very timely. Thanks for your insights and extraordinary performances.

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