Our music for this week is the Piano Sonata #8 by Sergei Prokofiev, performed by the superstar Russian pianist Daniel Trifonov. We will be listening to the second movement of this sonata.
Prokofiev is one of Russia’s most famous twentieth-century composers. He is most widely known for his ballet Romeo and Juliet and his second violin concerto, but he was incredibly versatile. Among the number of piano works he composed are what we’ve come to know as the “Three War Sonatas.” These three works – his sixth, seventh, and eighth sonatas for piano – were written during World War II and reflect Prokofiev’s despair, fear, and – sometimes – hope.
The thematic material for this second movement comes from one of Prokofiev’s abandoned movie scores. You’ll notice that he creates a dreamlike quality with the dichotomy between the running right hand and the plodding, entranced left hand. Listen closely at the 3:28 mark; you’ll hear a delightfully Prokofiev-esque melody emerge from the dreamy texture in all of its polyphonic glory. Listen as well for the jolting atonal chords he inserts near the end before resolving the movement in perfect tonality. Pure genius.
Our music this week is an old favorite of ours here at This Week’s Music: String Quartet No. 8 by Dimitri Shostakovich, performed by the Borodin Quartet, one of the greatest ensembles in history.
The inscription on the front of Shostakovich’s manuscript for this quartet reads: “In memory of victims of war.” He wrote it while visiting Dresden, a city that had been destroyed in WWII. More lives were lost in the bombing of Dresden than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Shostakovich was so deeply affected by this experienced that he penned this entire quartet in only three days.
The quartet has a central harmonic motif that you will hear right away at the beginning. It is referred to by the composer as DSCH. Translated from the German tradition of calling B “H” and E-flat “S,” this becomes D-E flat-C-B. This is the same tonal structure Shostakovich uses in several of his other works, including his First and Tenth Symphonies.
The quartet has five movements. One can hear in the first movement the sombre, reflective shock of Shostakovich’s confrontation with death and loss. This gives way to a violent second movement (at 5:18) that depicts the fury and devastation of the Blitzkrieg. The third movement is a spooky, erie dance reflecting Shostakovich’s jarring experience of watching Jewish children dance in the streets of an obliterated Dresden. Shostakovich creates this unsettling atmosphere by constantly juxtaposing a B-natural (in the cello) against a B-flat (in the viola). The fourth movement, which begins at 12:31, expands into a powerful elegy laced with hope. Listen for the harmonic reprieve at 13:09 – this is one of those few moments of hope. After being repeatedly struck with these abrupt sets of foreboding chords, Shostakovich inserts a major chord that lifts the listener out of the pain of war and into the hope of the future. My personal favorite part of the quartet is the elegy, which starts at 15:12. I am hard pressed to think of a more powerful moment in all of music.
Our music for this week is La Valse by Maurice Ravel, performed by the Orchestre Nationale de France with the legendary Leonard Bernstein conducting.
Ravel initially composed La Valse as a piano duet for his friend Arnold Schoenberg (whose music we’ve heard a couple times before here at TWM). He had often thought of turning it into an orchestral work, but World War I interrupted those efforts. After serving as a driver in the French motor transport corps in the war, Ravel returned to composing in the 1920s. In 1928, he collaborated with ballet choreographer Ida Rubenstein to transpose it for orchestra and create a ballet set in “an imperial court, about 1855.”
One can hear the nostalgic grandeur of the mid-19th century Viennese waltz era combined with the “movie music” modernity of Ravel’s contemporary context. However, the ending of the piece is particularly un-Viennese. Ominous timpani, Brahms-like slides in the strings and brass, and frenetic trumpet lines combine to form an intense and shocking finale. One wonders if this is a result of Ravel’s experiences in World War I and his misgivings about the upper-class “waltz culture” that had contributed to World War I.