As much as I enjoy his first sonata (I’m more familiar with it than this one, actually), it was hard to write about. It is so full of despair, and the more you look into it, the more you understand that.
This piece is a nice contrast to that first work. Perhaps he got all that out of his system (for the time being) in the first one and was ready to write something far more romantic. It also seems that streak lasted, because right after this piece, he wrote his piano concerto.
While the first sonata smacked of Chopin, and danced around the idea of Romanticism, it is, at least in my opinion, overshadowed by his overwhelming despair and darkness, such that the style or flavor of the piece weighed more to Scriabin’s voice than his imitation of Chopin’s style.
Thankfully, we have something far less dark here, although it is still Scriabin. It is almost surprising how Chopin-ish this sonata is. Really. There are a few things to note in this
piece. While I’m not sure of how long it took the composer to write his first sonata, it clocks in with its four movements at around 20 minutes. The second sonata, on the other hand, is only around 11 minutes in two movements, and took him five years to complete, finally being published in 1898 due to pressure from his publisher. It is, however, still quite a dense work. There’s a lot that happens in this piece, but it is also the first inkling we get that this composer will not always adhere to the standard three- or four-movement form for his sonatas. In fact, only no.s 1 and 3 are in four movements, 2 and 4 in two, and the rest in one, but those are separate discussions.
There is kind of a program to this work, but it is not essential to enjoying or understanding it. It does however, give us some understanding of the underlying structure of the piece. This website states
Scriabin provided an oceanic program for the work, condensed as follows:
the first section of the Andante is a calm southern night on the seashore, the movement of the deep sea is given in the development, while an illuminating E major passage offers the first rays of moonlight. The agitated Presto movement is a rendition of a terrifying ocean storm.
This explanation is poetic and clear and simple, and shows the ’story’ of a piece that may seem to be simple at first listen, and this can be a great aid to a first-timer to a piece, or someone not used to listening to classical music. Imagery helps. I would certainly go read Johnston’s entire write-up. It is concise and clear.
The first movement is the longest, and in a two-movement work, it is the quieter of the two, but only at first. It begins with echoey sort of solemn ringing bell-like chords, but these develop into the first of a number of themes. It builds thunderously but has a certain persistent quality to it, and after repeating the opening idea again, it rolls into what feels almost like a Chopinesque nocturne; perhaps it reminds me more of the lyrical middle section of the funeral march movement of Chopin’s second piano sonata, but not that solemn. It is wonderfully fluid.
As the theme grows and swells, it develops a voice unmistakably particular to Scriabin. There’s something busy, or a certain kind of energy in the expression that is peculiarly him. It’s gorgeous, but also incredibly intricate and ornate. If the first sonata was characterized by pain and sorrow, this one is beauty and lyricism. The first movement’s closing is marked pianissimo and smorzando (dying off), and that it does.
If the first movement was a Chopin nocturne or something, this is assuredly a four-minute beast of an étude. It’s in 3/2 and marked half note = 96-100 (presto) and it is eighth note triplet figures literally non-stop until the final sforzando chord. It very much is the storm from the earlier description. It is, however, a “sonata-fantasy”, and the latter part of the movement (after the thunderous high point) IS dreamy and ethereal (despite the fact that it sounds like a nightmare to play). Again, Johnston comments on part of the structure of this movement:
Scriabin feels no need to force his Andante into a conventional harmonic mode, and the movement ends without ever regaining the darkness of G sharp minor. The almost perpetual motion of the Presto, and its occasional outbursts of real fear, are poured back into an exuberant G sharp minor sonata allegro design.
Some of the triplet action is marked sotto voce, and there is a lot of depth to this movement. Not only is it a technical feat, but I would imagine it is very difficult to interpret meaningfully and ‘make sense’ out of what’s going on. It’s gorgeous, no doubt, but incredibly dense.
The movement comes and goes with four minutes of pretty intense action and then it’s done, similar to the dramatic brevity of one of Chopin’s études.
What I find most interesting about this piece is its place in the canon of Scriabin’s sonatas. It’s only his second, and early in his career, but already we’re getting glimpses that he’s finding his voice and moving away from traditional treatment of sonata form and things like that, which, arguably, are important characteristics of his single-movement sonatas from no. 5 onward.
The expressive and fluid nature of this piece reminds me in some ways of Ravel’s Gaspard, which similarly has very strong imagery and programmatic elements, though more so than I find here in Scriabin’s piece. It’s interesting even to compare these first two sonatas of this genius pianist, and will continue to be so as we compare no.s 3 and 4 later, which I kind of liken to their counterparts in the first two sonatas here. We’ll get to that in due time.
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