Prokofiev piano sonata no. 1 in Fm, op. 1

performed by Yefim Bronfman


It’s funny how life is. I’d planned the writing of this piece at least a month ago as a lead-in to another set of works for piano (the actual lead in was last week’s Satie piece, but this one sets up for what is to come later), and it was for a few reasons that now seem… less important than some others that have since surfaced. 
This piece is perhaps not as exciting to many as his other, later, more substantial works, but in a lot of (perhaps intentional, contrived ways), may have a lot to say about the intentional directions Prokofiev chose and how he wanted to be heard.
I’d originally figured this piece was a good place to start because as of a tally a few months back, Prokofiev was (somewhat surprisingly) the most featured performer on the site thus far. I say surprisingly because if asked who my favorite composers were (of various types of works: concertos, symphonies, etc.), Prokofiev wouldn’t be one of the first on the list. I greatly admire his work, and he (to me) has a very distinct voice, but I feel I would be remiss in calling him one of my favorite composers because I’m still quite unfamiliar with a lot of his work. As an example, none of his piano sonatas have yet been featured. The things that have made him the most featured composer here are his symphonies (1, 4, and 7, if I recall) and piano concertos (1-3). That’s only six works, which doesn’t sound like a ton. Mahler is second, with five (at the time of writing. There’s been at least one more since then, but after this post, Prokofiev will still be ahead). So I figured it was appropriate to get into his sonatas, and as I feel is appropriate, we start with the first. 
It is also his first, his opus no. 1, but it is not the first work of his to have been written or composed or anything. I’d like to quote just the entire notes section of the above video on YouTube, because it gives a lot of information about the piece, more than Wikipedia’s incredibly measly entry, which isn’t saying much. Wikipedia states that the piece was written in 1909, while the notes for the above video suggest it was perhaps only pieced together or finished or chosen as the first sonata at that
time, and that it was based on a movement of the second of more than half a dozen sonatas the composer had already written by that point. A fellow student of his, one Nikolai Myaskovsky (who’d go on to be quite famous or perhaps was already), suggested he not bother numbering them at the time because the current order wouldn’t matter. Apparently he wrote a letter to Myaskovsky to tell him “I’m completing my revision of the first movement of my F minor Sonata. It will be magnificent, and I even intend to allow it to see the light of day as my Op. 1.” There is another quote, possibly unrelated to the letter, that has the composer saying of the piece:

As a rule, the publication of a composer’s first opus, compared with his early immature works, marks something like the opening of a new page in his creativity. With me it was different: the first sonata, a naive and simple little piece, marked the end of my early period; the new one began with the Etudes Op. 2.

It’s a seven-minute (almost to the second, for most of the recordings I’ve heard) single-movement work in… what I suppose is some kind of sonata form… at least there’s a main theme with a different middle bit with the main theme recurring at the end. It feels like a strong op. 1, but I can’t speak to the difference in style or approach contrasting with the ‘new period’ that started with op. 2, but it reminds me a bit of Scriabin. I say that not to mean that the music itself reminds me of Scriabin’s music, although perhaps it does in some ways, but that the idea of the music reminds me of some of what I thought about when listening to Scriabin’s first piano sonata and its relationship to an earlier era of music (although not as far removed from that era as Prokofiev was by that point). Scriabin’s first sonata felt kind of… spiritually connected to Chopin, for me… but in a way that not only paid homage to someone he admired but also established his own voice, contained a unique quality or style that would only become apparent later. I feel like, although Scriabin’s first sonata wasn’t his opus one, as a listener, it had that kind of significance to me, and Prokofiev’s piece here, of only one small, quick movement, is quite dense but conveys a (perhaps quite calculated) balance between those two things. I can hear in it, maybe, some of the later fury of the war sonatas, but also the classical (well, not actual Classical, but Romantic, so maybe just ‘classic’) nature of the piece.
As I’ve done before (and will do again), this is just me overlaying my own… thoughts or fictionalized perceptions of a piece onto the snippets of reality that I’m aware of. If Prokofiev’s choice of this piece was as calculated as it perhaps seems to be, one can imagine there were perhaps some solid reasons for it. Depending on the ‘climate’ of the time, one can see how a piece like his seventh sonata, or third symphony or second piano concerto may not have been so well received, or just needed a good first impression of sorts. I don’t know.
It’s only a seven-minute work (I started this sentence earlier), but it’s really quite dense… There is a lot going on throughout most of the piece. What is it that seems so… typically Prokofiev and also so Romantic about the piece? There’s a display of musical prowess, lyricism, attention to detail, moving Romanticism, lively expressive passages, but also a kind of energetic fire about the piece. I wouldn’t mistake it for Chopin, unless Chopin lived to be another like, 80 years old and spent most of that time not in France or Poland. Something I really love about this sonata is the voices in it. There’s never really a dull moment, and there’s almost always something going on behind the main line that your ear is drawn to. It has real depth, and while, to my hear (and my hands if I tried to play it), it appears virtuosic and difficult, I heard (read) from somewhere that is delightfully not as difficult as it sounds.
While Scriabin’s one-movement sonatas later in his career feel wholly and wonderfully self-contained and complete, I want more from this single-movement work. I feel that perhaps any additional material added to Scriabin’s single-movement sonatas could maybe detract from their existing level of perfection. That’s not saying I feel like Scriabin would have messed up his own works or had bad judgment; I’ve just come to love them as they currently exist. Prokofiev’s work isn’t necessarily lacking anything, it’s just that I’d be curious to see what else came of a continuation of the work, or rather, what the other movements would be like if there were any to accompany this piece. I say that with almost zero knowledge of his second, third, or fourth sonatas, but a vague recollection that they are at least to some degree, as ‘traditional’ as this one. I liked them when I listened.
In any case, the reasons I mentioned at the opening are of something I’m a bit… shy about even admitting. I feel like a fake for even making attempts to compose, but… I’m composing. I should say that I’m learning to compose, and that everything that’s going on right now is actually just homework, practice, and nothing of any caliber that puts me in the realm of even thinking about thinking about publishing. That being said, all the thought and reading a few months ago about Prokofiev’s deliberation surrounding his opus one was far more interesting when I began to put (figurative) pen to paper (iPad) last month for the first time in ages. There’s a little project I am/was working on that I’ll probably talk about later, but suffice it to say my efforts at composition are much easier than they were last year. That is not to say I’m composing better stuff or better ideas, but that I’m doing a better job of getting an idea onto paper and that it takes less trial and error to do so. Anyway, it was something interesting to think about while listening to Prokofiev’s first sonata, and that on an entirely different level, in an entirely different caliber of actual reality, he was also ‘doing his homework’ and preparing small pieces to pick one out for publication. He went on to do many amazing things. I feel sure I will not; it’s just a hobby.
In any case, this is Prokofiev’s first published work and first piano sonata, and I quite like it. It’s simple, straightforward, but not insignificant. It’s quite a satisfying listen, and that, coupled with its brevity, means that I almost always listen to it twice. Enjoy.

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