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

Picking right where the first part ended, let’s go on to the development:

03:14 – above the long held chord quiet activity ensues, full of energy which is held in check for the moment. Believe it or not, but these are the first three notes of our dreamy second subject, played sharply and with each note repeated twice. It’s a two voice affair, with a second voice entering at a dissonant interval just as the first voice finishes at 03:15 (such a device is called ‘stretto’, meaning ‘narrow, tight’ in Italian, and, I’m guessing, related to ‘straits’). This second voice scurries up and down from 03:16 on, and the left hand makes its appearance with two quiet but tense chords at 03:19. This is followed by a quick exchange of repeated notes between the two voices at 03:20-03:23 (one could imagine two mechanical constructions communicating with each other).

This exchange leads directly into another stretto entrance at 03:23, this time higher in pitch and a bit louder (the second stage of what is to be a very long buildup). This time the scurrying up-and-down runs (from 03:25 on) are spread over a bigger area of the keyboard, and are accompanied/accentuated by slaps as they reach their highest points (03:26, 03:29, 03:31) and by the same two quiet but tense chords we had at 03:19 at their lowest points (03:28, 03:30, 03:32). Yet another exchanges of repeated notes takes place 03:32, more complicated this time, as at 03:35 it shifts half a tone higher and goes on for a bit longer (a more complex communication, if you wish). This leads into –

03:38 – the third stage of the buildup. The right hand continues with yet another stretto entrance, but this time it’s just the backdrop to a melody in the middle voice (which makes us suddenly realize we had no proper melody in the development prior to this; I really love the way Prokofiev does it – moving aside what previously was more than enough material to occupy center stage and making it but the accompanying layer to a new voice; it’s as if the focus has shifted and we understand the true proportions of things – or so we think). This melody, heard clearly from 03:39, is a fuller version of our second subject melody – the one which the repeating-notes stretti in the right hand are based upon – and it’s constantly accompanied by a motoric right hand, filling the gaps between the notes. After it’s finished, at 03:43, the right hand plays one more stretto entrance, to which an old acquaintance is suddenly and forcibly added at 03:45 – the main motif of the sonata. Just to sum up the levels of complexity at this point: a harmonic chord in the bass, a melody in the lower middle voice, two voices with repeating notes above it, and at the apex the opening motif of the movement (cool, isn’t it?).

03:46-04:00 – this entire section is a chaotic mess mixture of the various motifs: repeated notes in the middle voice, forcible notes in the bass, two appearances of the stretto motif (03:48, 03:52) and numerous appearances of the opening motif, both in the four-note and the shorter three-note version and also in an expanded five-note version, with the first note repeated one extra time (03:49, 03:51, 03:54, 03:59 for a few examples). All of this over a very big crescendo, which finally leads us to –

04:00-04:10 – and we thought our focus had shifted at 03:38 with the introduction of the melody in the middle voice… The second subject now appears in its full horrible splendor in the right hand, high above the rest of the proceedings and twice as slow (a device called ‘augmentation’), while all around it the rest of the motifs battle among themselves – I find the effect terrifying. You’ll recognize the various motifs by now, but note the augmented main motif at 04:00 and 04:04 (left hand) beside the usual shorter versions which abound. At 04:10 there’s a lull at the melody and the lower voices take over, going first up then down, followed by two quick upward arpeggios at 04:12-04:13 (snarls to me) and a final shriek by the main motif high above, at 04:13.

This leads us to 04:14-04:36 – the biggest climax so far. The full second subject (04:00 had just the first part of it) appear in the middle voice (played by the thumbs of the two hands in unison), gaining even more in weight and presence, while all around them chaos reigns. Note the quick upward runs at 04:15-04:16 and 04:20-04:21, each followed by a crashing chord at 04:16 and 04:22. These chords are marked by Prokofiev col pugno, meaning ‘with the fist’ in Italian, and they are literally to be smashed with your right-hand fist on the keyboard as a cluster of notes (and I find that they startlingly resemble the sound of dropping bombs or shells, especially after the whistle of the runs preceding them). Also worth noting is the barrage of repeating octaves in the left hand (04:24-04:26) hammered out for extra aggression, and the keyboard-crossing upward run at 04:31-04:34, capped with yet another shriek of the opening motif – which then closes the section with one last appearance deep below, at 04:35-04:36.

04:36-05:01 – a heavy-plodding section based on two motifs: the second subject melody appears once again, but this time it’s coupled with the bridge section motif – remember that quietly slithering line from 00:49? Well, it’s the same one at 04:38-04:41 and from 04:46 onward, just much louder, heavier and badder. This is all incredibly aggressive (just listen to the angry twirl at 04:45 or to the thuds at 04:54), and while performing it makes me feel like as if I were playing heavy metal – you really vent all your anger in a place such as this (something we rarely get to do as classical musicians; it’s a lot of fun). It gets even louder toward the end of the section, and then we get to –

05:02-05:11 – a shrieking section, based on the four-note descending motif of the closing section of the exposition (02:26), with bits of the second subject woven in (05:05, 05:08, 05:10). As aggressive as the one before (though it’s all sharp and biting here), there are even two glissandi (quick slides over the keys) at 05:06 and 05:09 for extra effect. There’s an obsessive, repeating quality to those shrieks, as if coming from an animal trapped in a cage and unable to break out.

Things start to calm down (though real calmness is still far away) at 05:12, with three repeats of the four-note descending motif embellished with trills (05:12-05:15), which then continue into a descending chromatic line surrounded by several repeats of the opening motif (05:15-05:20). The chromatic line then takes over, becoming calmer yet and getting accompanied by a softer series of chords (05:21-05:25). But then things explode one last time at 05:26. We hear a new motif, which is one very typical to Prokofiev – the ticking clock. Loud at first, it soon subsides and makes place to several melodic appearances of the opening motif (05:28, 05:33, and more slowly and cautiously at 05:41). Note the change of harmony at 05:38: becoming slightly inquisitive, as if questioning that these horrors could really have just happened. From 05:44 things begin to fall apart – the clock motif becoming fragmented and slowing down. And then, at 05:53 appears our old malicious friend, that last motif of the exposition (02:59), framing the development on both ends – whatever meaning we attribute to it, I find this idea wonderful as a storytelling technique. At 06:00 the right hand joins in, doubling the left, and together they slow down completely by 06:03.

And at 06:05, after two seconds of silence, all of the aggression of the opening is once again unleashed onto our ears – we’ve arrived at the recapitulation. 06:05-06:28 is a full repeat of the first 15 seconds of the movement, with two changes: the more obvious one is that the first sentence (06:05-06:13) is played one octave lower than in the opening, a darker, more condensed sound, which makes the return to the normal pitch at 06:20 seem all the more triumphant (even radiant, in an ugly way). The less obvious change is that at 06:05-06:13 Prokofiev swaps the first two beats in the left hand, the downbeat now being a harsh dissonance, and the second beat becoming a pure consonance. This leads to a skewed feel, as if the marching soldiers were now limping along lopsidedly (though things right themselves at 06:20).

06:29-06:54 corresponds to the Mordor horns section of the exposition (00:25-00:41), but with quite a change of mood. The melody is in the upper voice, and the marching feel is gone completely; the melody is accompanied instead by what was a calmly flowing line in the second subject section (02:02). Melodically this section consists once again of two short sentences (06:29-06:37, 06:42-06:49), but the buffer parts between those two become much more interesting – both sentences grow in volume and end up with an explosive chord (06:37, 06:49; relatives of those bomb-like ones from the development, though not played with the fist this time). After these chords there’s a gradual climb up back to the melody, first hardly discernible, then becoming clearer, as if dust were settling down after an explosion.

06:55-07:14 – this section is based at first on the second subject melody (you’re probably recognizing it by now), with the same flowing line for accompaniment we’ve had in the previous section, but already by 06:59 things start to go sour in the middle voices, and starting from 07:02 Prokofiev abandons his melody completely and embarks instead on one last buildup, towards one last climax. The hands grow more and more apart, as the right hand keeps climbing higher and the left hand keeps crawling down chromatically. Tension steadily rises, there is a slight slowing down in tempo as we get to the extremes of the keyboard (07:11-07:14), and then here it is –

07:15 – the final climax of the work. Prokofiev completely breaks away from the sonata from structure by this point and instead of making the recapitulation a simple repeat of the exposition, he lets it bear what is probably the heaviest, most ponderous moment of the entire movement. Those heavy chords are based on the clock motif from the end of the development (05:26), with bits from the second subject melody thrown in (in its loud and high-pitched version from the development). Things seem to quieten down at 07:21, only to return with full vengeance at 07:28. The sequence is repeated then: a semblance of a calming down at 07:31 (with a haunting, pale specter appearing at 07:34: a ghost-like reminiscence of 05:21), but the war is not to be done away with, and it returns yet again in full force at 07:43, followed by what seems once again to be a calming down (07:45-07:51). You’ll probably doubt its truthfulness by now, and you’ll be right: at the very end of the movement the opening motif returns for one last, triumphant appearance (07:52), and this highly dissonant movement ends with on a highly dissonant chord (07:55), which is left to fade away, unresolved.


Well! That’s it :-). I hope you’ve enjoyed, though perhaps this is not the right word here – but I do hope that this guide managed to make this really complex and sometimes opaque music clearer. And if you’re then able to listen to this movement once again and get some enjoyment from it, then I’ve totally done my job.

I’ll end with a plug – should you like to get the CD, it’s on sale on all Amazon websites (both in a physical and a downloadable copy) among others, as well as on iTunes and other music distribution networks. And it’s not all aggression – though harsh sounds do appear throughout the three sonatas, the movement we’ve just discussed is probably the most dissonant of them all. In some of the others, plenty of softer, even lyrical music is to be found. And taken together these three sonatas have likely not been surpassed in Prokofiev’s piano output in terms of depth, colors, imagination and some incredible writing for the piano, all combined for a very strong effect..

See you next time! BG.

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.)