Program Notes By Eric Bromberger

Piano Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Opus 29

Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Ukraine
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow

While still a teenager, Prokofiev became friends with the composer Nikolai Miaskovsky, ten years his senior, and the two would show each other their music as they were writing it.  Prokofiev, a virtuoso pianist, turned out a whole series of piano sonatas while still just a boy, and he later recalled what Miaskovsky said of these youthful efforts: “‘I don’t think you ought to bother numbering your sonatas,’ Miaskovsky once said to me with a smile. ‘The time will come when you will cross out all the numbers and write Sonata No. 1.’” Miaskovsky was right: as he grew older, Prokofiev abandoned these youthful sonatas and began fresh with an official Piano Sonata No. 1 in 1909, when he was a mature eighteen years old.  But Prokofiev did not forget those early efforts, and he borrowed themes from them for his later music.  When he began what would be his Piano Sonata No. 4 in 1917, Prokofiev based the new composition on what had been his student Sonata No. 5 and an apprentice symphony, both originally composed in 1908 when he was 17.  For this reason he gave the Sonata No. 4 the subtitle “From Old Notebooks.”

The year 1917 was one of the most fertile of Prokofiev’s career.  In addition to the Fourth Sonata, it also saw the creation of his “Classical” Symphony, First Violin Concerto, Third Piano Sonata, and the set of brief piano pieces he called Visions fugitives.  It was a difficult year politically: the Communist Revolution boiled over as Prokofiev wrote this music, and there was fighting all through the spring of 1918.  Prokofiev played the première of his Fourth Piano Sonata in Petrograd on April 17, 1918.  Twenty days later, he was on his way to America, and it would be fifteen years before he would return to make his home in Soviet Russia.

Based as it is on early sketches, the Fourth Piano Sonata shows none of the tensions swirling around Prokofiev as he wrote it.  The sonata’s three movements conform roughly to classical form (sonata-form first movement, lyric second, and a rondo-finale), and the surprising thing about this sonata is its gentleness.  As a young man, Prokofiev had taken delight in outraging audiences (once when one of his aggressive new works produced an avalanche of boos and catcalls, Prokofiev walked onto stage, bowed deeply to the jeers, and sat down and played an equally abrasive encore), but in the Fourth Piano Sonata he seems more interested in charming an audience.  This is music built on attractive melodies and a striking piano sonority, and Prokofiev’s  markings tell the tale: throughout, he instructs the pianist to keep the performance light and gentle.

The Allegro molto sostenuto begins very quietly, and there is a restrained, almost suave quality to this opening; the singing second subject is marked espressivo, and Prokofiev repeats that admonition throughout this movement.  An unusual feature of this opening movement is Prokofiev’s nearly extravagant use of gracenotes.  Sometimes these are single gracenotes, but more often they come in groups of two, three, and four notes, creating an almost baroque luxuriance of sound.  The movement eventually reaches a great climax, then falls away to the emphatic chords that bring it to a close.  The Andante assai (originally based on the first movement of the symphony Prokofiev had composed in 1908) is sectional, proceeding from its serioso opening through some glittering passagework and moments of great delicacy.  If the marking espressivo had dominated the first movement, the repeated instruction here is tranquillo, and at one point Prokofiev even wants the music played tranquillissimo.  The final movement is a genial rondo.  It opens with a great upward rush of sound, and Prokofiev plunges quickly into his dancing rondo theme; there is a playful contrasting episode, but finally the energetic opening spirit prevails and drives this sonata to its sudden final chord.  It should be in C major, but Prokofiev spices that chord with a few “wrong” notes.

Piano Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Opus 82 Prokofiev liked to plan his new music long in advance, and in 1939 he projected a series of three piano sonatas.  These were completed over the next five years, though the catastrophic Nazi invasion in the summer of 1941 doubtless had an impact on the second two sonatas that Prokofiev did not anticipate when he planned this music.  He got the first of the set, the Sonata No. 6 in A Major, done before that invasion, however; it was completed it in the spring of 1940.  Prokofiev played the sonata privately for friends and colleagues before he gave the official première, a radio broadcast in Moscow on April 8, 1940.

This is an imposing sonata–its four movements span nearly half an hour–and it is full of Prokofiev’s characteristic keyboard brilliance, yet it is also remarkable for its adherence to classical form.  The Allegro moderato opens with a stuttering, asymmetric main theme, an idea full of nervous, mechanistic energy.  In utter contrast, the second subject is flowing and restrained, almost pure in its clarity.  From the collision of these dissimilar ideas, Prokofiev builds a long movement, full of pounding dissonance before it fades out on a sharp fragment of the opening theme.

As the marking Allegretto implies, the second movement is not a true fast movement.  It has been called a “quick march,” and after the fury of the first movement it feels quite orderly, proceeding steadily on its 2/2 meter; the music speeds ahead at the close, where the main idea returns in embellished form.  The third movement is a slow, ghostly waltz that dances along on a 9/8 meter.  Its angular middle section moves into 3/4, and when the opening material returns it seems to have taken on some of this spirit, for now the dance is more extrovert.

The concluding Vivace opens with one of those wonderful Prokofiev piano themes: energetic, muttering, and flickering between different tonalities.  The other themes sing with a similar brilliance, and then near the end comes a surprise: Prokofiev brings back the opening subject of the first movement and combines it with the opening theme of this movement–it is on this fusion of themes that the Sixth Sonata drives to its powerful close.

Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Opus 97 “Archduke”

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

The archduke of this trio’s nickname was Archduke Rudolph von Hapsburg, youngest brother of Emperor Franz.  Rudolph studied piano and composition with Beethoven, beginning about 1804, when he was 16.  A contemporary portrait shows a young man with fair hair and the full Hapsburg lips; he appears to have been blessed with a sense of humor.  Beethoven remained fond of Rudolph, who was destined for the church, throughout his life; it was for Rudolph’s elevation to archbishop that Beethoven composed the Missa Solemnis, and he dedicated a number of his greatest works to Rudolph, including the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the Hammerklavier Sonata, and the Grosse Fuge, as well as this trio.  For his part, Rudolph became one of Beethoven’s most generous and reliable patrons, furnishing him with a substantial annuity for many years and maintaining a collection of his manuscripts.  Rudolph, however, did not long survive his teacher–he died in 1831 at age 43.

Beethoven sketched this trio in 1810 and composed it during March 1811, shortly before beginning work on his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.  He was 40 years old and nearing the end of the great burst of creativity that has come to be known as his “Heroic Style,” the period that began with the Eroica in 1803 and ended in about 1812 with the Eighth Symphony.  Beethoven was growing increasingly deaf at this time–an unsuccessful performance of the “Archduke” Trio in 1814 was his final public appearance as a pianist–and he would soon enter the six-year period of relative inactivity as a composer that preceded his late style.

The “Archduke” Trio seems well-named, for there is something noble about this music, something grand about its spacious proportions and breadth of spirit.  At a length of nearly 45 minutes, it is longer than most of Beethoven’s symphonies, but–unlike the symphonies–this trio is quite relaxed: it makes its way not by unleashing furious energy to fight musical battles but by spinning long, lyric melodic lines.  It is as if Beethoven is showing that there is more than one way to write heroic music.

The nobility of this music is evident from the opening instant of the Allegro moderato, where the piano quickly establishes the music’s easy stride (it is characteristic of this music that both outer movements should be marked Allegro moderato rather than the expected Allegro).  The piano also introduces the slightly square second theme, and this sonata-form movement develops easily over its lengthy span.  Strings open the huge Scherzo, with the piano quickly picking up their theme.  Particularly striking here is the trio section–its deep chromatic wanderings alternate with an exuberant waltz and furnish the material for the coda.

The gorgeous Andante cantabile is a set of variations on the piano’s expressive opening subject.  These variations proceed by making this simple melody more and more complex: the music appears blacker and blacker on the pages of the score before it falls back to end quietly, proceeding without pause to the concluding Allegro moderato.  Full of energy, this rondo-finale is also full of good humor and imaginative rhythms.  The music flies to its close on a coda marked Presto.