Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50
Haydn spent some 30 years in the service of the Esterházy family; he bitterly
lamented that they lived for the majority of the year in a cultural wasteland,
located well outside of Vienna. Nevertheless, Haydn managed to build an
international reputation, and when Prince Nikolaus died in 1790, his successor
granted Haydn the freedom to pursue an independent career. Concert promoter
Johann Peter Salomon seized the opportunity to book a London tour for the
composer in 1791, followed by a second in 1794.
Sonata in C Major is a late work composed for pianist Therese Jansen, a
personal friend, whose playing he admired. Judging by this sonata, along with
two others composed at the same time and also dedicated to her (Hob. XVI:51 and
Hob. XVI:52), Jansen was a formidable performer on the exceptionally modern fortepiano of that time period.
A Closer Listen
The first movement combines the tripartite structure of sonata-allegro form—exposition, development, and
recapitulation—with a theme-and-variations structure. The
laconic main theme hops along in the right hand, with abrupt answers in the
left; a first variation follows with rolled chords and little frills that fill
in the silences. There is no second theme (Haydn is known for his monothematic
sonatas), but a new key emerges that is marked by a skipping octave motif that
moves to the left hand. After a brief nod
to the minor mode, the exposition section is capped by decisive-sounding
chords. Variations continue throughout the development section, starting out in
the minor key and then modulating to a remote major key. Three chords close the
section, and the recapitulation repeats the sunny opening.
The second movement also relies on variation procedures and showcases Haydn’s
skill in embellishing simple material with
lavish ornaments. The unusually
brief finale, in triple meter, is a scherzo of good humor and “Beethovenian vigor,” according to musicologist
László Somfai. Haydn manifests his famous musical wit in the odd phrase
lengths, indecisive repetitions, and unexpected pauses.
© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5
“Sooner or later,” composer Robert Schumann imagined in 1853, “someone would
and must appear, fated to give us the ideal expression of the times.” Indeed
the time had come: Beethoven’s heir had arrived. “His name is Johannes Brahms,
from Hamburg,” Schumann declared of the young pianist and budding composer in
an article for his influential music journal. At the time, Brahms was just five
years past his solo debut, and his earliest extant
compositions date only from 1851. He worked first in the more intimate
genres of the piano sonata and lieder, saving the most exalted public forms of
the string quartet, concerto, and symphony for later. The F-Minor Piano
Sonata—his third and last in the genre—was
composed under the sway of Schumann’s remarkable endorsement.
Brahms’s piano sonatas make a case for the continued life of the genre after
Beethoven, whose 32 sonatas cast a long shadow across the entire 19th century. In
the Third Sonata, Brahms adapted Beethoven’s Classical model, but updated it by
adopting the newer Romantic idiom, most notably expanding the form to five (instead of the usual four) movements.
The second movement, a typically Romantic character piece, is prefaced by lines
from poet Otto Inkermann:
The evening is coming, the moonlight shines,
Two hearts are united in love
And embrace each other blissfully.
A friend and admirer of Brahms described
the music as “one of the most beautiful moonlight poems ever created.”
The fourth movement Intermezzo looks back to this movement, wrapping its theme
in funereal garb.
A Closer Listen
The opening movement presents two closely related themes: The first, aggressive
and insistent with dramatic leaps, is repeated immediately in a more
restrained, meditative vein; the second theme is introduced after a turn to the
major mode. The leaps persist in the accompaniment, but above is a rich, dark
chorale with a poignant echo in the higher register that leads to a songlike
melody. A sweet cadence in the major is all too brief; the stormy opening
The Andante looks at once both forward and backward:
forward to Brahms’s own major works (particularly
the Fourth Symphony) in building a theme
from a simple series of intervals, and backward to Bach with the
delicate trills that cap the descent.
The third movement Scherzo is nearly Lisztian in its technical demands and
volatile virtuosity. The fourth movement returns to the theme of the
second—hence its title, Rückblick (“look
back”). And as in the opening movement, the Finale features a stark contrast
between a dramatic, impetuous first theme and more lyrical material.
© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
Sonata No. 8 in
B-flat Major, Op. 84
In March 1936, Prokofiev relocated to Soviet Russia, a fateful choice more
pragmatic than political. Having endured a peripatetic life as a concert
pianist, composing on the fly while in transit, he saw the steady stream of
commissions promised by the Soviet government as the means to devote himself to
composition full time. He seized the opportunity to shift his base of
operations, thinking he could simply exchange one (Paris) for another (Moscow).
For a time, this strategy worked. In 1937 and 1938, Prokofiev was allowed to
travel to the United States, where he was most warmly met in Chicago.
Thereafter, the composer found himself trapped, forbidden to travel abroad, and
unable to compose freely. Though valued by the Stalinist regime and supported
by its institutions, he suffered correction and censorship, the result being a
gradual sapping of his creative energies. While his late ballets and operas
often received harsh criticism from cultural bureaucrats, he had much greater
success with his piano music and symphonies, receiving numerous official prizes
Shostakovich and Prokofiev each composed a wartime trilogy: the former of
symphonies (nos. 7–9), the latter sonatas (nos. 6–8). Yet these sonatas, conceived as a set in 1939, address
musical and spiritual conflicts—not
worldly ones. Musicologist Simon Morrison presents the Sixth Sonata as a
“fusion between violent impulse and classical discipline … a dialogue between
Neo-primitivism and Neoclassicism,” Romantic
passion and Classical logic; the
same may be said of the Seventh and Eighth. All three, Morrison writes, “are united in the radiant discord
of their melodic and harmonic language, and the willfulness of their rhythmic
Prokofiev appears to assert in music the tenets of his faith: The composer was
a committed Christian Scientist who believed in the divinity of his own talent
and dismissed the evils of the temporal world as mere illusion. He believed
that traditional structures could not contain the creative impulse; the spirit
of music superseded the materiality of its own earthly logic. As Morrison
suggests, “the three sonatas transcend their own structural and syntactical
constraints, revealing those constraints to be the false postulates of false
reasoning” (or false consciousness, if Marx might be invoked alongside Mary
Baker Eddy). Always, however, Prokofiev sought to serve the world, not forsake
it, and so aspired to the better. Above the stuff of harmony and melody lay
The first and third movements abound in conflicts of all sorts—rhythmic,
melodic, tonal, textural—as typical of a sonata in the tradition of Beethoven.
(The “Appassionata” was an inspiration.) The first theme of the first movement
owes its dreamy sweetness to a different—and better—inspiration: It came to the
composer while walking with his second wife, Mira.
The second movement, a fantastic mazurka, is something otherworldly, seemingly
imagined, slightly unhinged. The bass plods along steadily enough at the
opening (although the harmonies are subtly off-kilter), but is soon jolted, as
if pushed off balance by an unseen hand. Even as the melody repeats exactly,
the bass is offset; melody and accompaniment do not match. Another harmonic
shift introduces a new, contrasting section that seems a non sequitur. The
opening theme returns with an even more bizarre, serpentine accompaniment, but
ultimately the melody itself dissipates altogether. The music comes unmoored
from formal constraints as well as from reality.
Although the delusional qualities of the mazurka might be ascribed to spiritual
forces or wartime circumstance, the music in fact attaches to fictional events.
The second movement of the sonata originated as incidental music Prokofiev
composed for Eugene Onegin. There the
dance is part of a name-day celebration for Tatyana, who has confessed her love
to Onegin. He rejects and admonishes her as drunken dancers swirl around them,
oblivious and uncaring. Humiliated by her own heart, she chokes back bitter
The third and final movement begins with a
series of little gestures that build up to a furious blur, recalling the
composer’s early, feverish Op. 10 Toccata. The texture thins in the slower
middle section, which features repeated patterns in the bass continued from the
first section (now sounding either ominous or capricious, depending on the
interpretation) and chilling quick gestures above that quote from the tragic
love theme from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. The contrast between the
two modes could not be greater; Prokokiev is simply showing off his
expressive—and pianistic—range. The pace quickens as the opening material
returns, and the music drives farther and faster to a brilliant end.
© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation