Harlow Robinson describes Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 in Prokofiev’s biography as one of Prokofiev’s most accomplished compositions written since his return to U. S. S. R. It is a dramatic embodiment of the strength and driving intensity of Prokofiev’s (and Russia’s) existence during the War Years. Indeed, this sonata, the second of his three “War Sonatas” composed between 1939 and 1942, was one of Prokofiev’s works that shows the composer’s versatility and genius in the use of motivic and cyclic elements. In the first movement, one could observe the tension of worries and torments in the struggle of relentless intensity.
The opening section of the second movement with its gentle lyricism creates a mood which by contrast fills the listener with a little sorrow and anguish. The last movement, which has a strong driving force throughout, could be hardly dissociated from struggle endured by Prokofiev during the War Years. This sonata is closer to atonality than any other composition by Prokofiev while it is the most densely motivic of all his compositions. Two main Grundgestalt motives were used extensively in this seventh sonata, with most of the sonata’s motivic content being derived from them.
Thus, these two motives appear as the unifying gesture in all three movements of this sonata. The first motive, which its derivations clearly dominate the first movement, is called the “fate motive” and referred to as (c). It is the strongest unifying element throughout the first movement. The motive here is rhythmically similar to the first and famous motive from the Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The first appearance of this motive is in the first few bars of opening of first movement, placed in between the first (b. 1 – 4) and second segment (b. 7 – 9) of the opening theme.
Central to the opening theme, this motivic cell intensifies the suspense of the opening theme by prolonging the suspension between the first and second segment. The underlying rhythmic figure from the “fate motive” is reproduced with an extension of two bars in b. 32 – 35. This time, being no longer in the background, the motive is roughly shifted an octave higher with the suspension in the previous occurrence removed. A weak rhythmic derivation comes four bars after. At b. 40 – 42, the notes E? – D – F? – B? are rhythmically similar to (c) motive and they are repeated thrice within three bars.
Interestingly, the rhythmic aspect of (c) motive is presented across both hands in b. 80, under the suspension of the note B again. The first four notes (b. 124) of the meditative second theme group are also derived from the rhythmic figure of the Grundgestalt motive and. (c) motives return again as the start when the first few bars of second theme repeats in b. 144 and b. 153. Therefore, in the second theme group, the rhythmic derivations of (c) motive play a very important role because it is the start of the segment that repeats thrice in the second theme group.
In the development, derivation of the (c) motive is, for the first time, being played in fortissimo in b. 215 – 217 and this shows increasing emphasis on the (c) motive from the start of the movement, where it was to be played in piano. A rhythmic diminution of the (c) motive occurs at b. 248 – 249. The left hand has four consecutive scalic semiquaver triplet runs and the rhythm of (c) motive is emphasized by the runs’ repetitive nature. When the second theme group returns, the derivation of (c) motive also makes its appearance as expected in b. 338, starting the second theme group.
In the Coda, the rhythmic derivation of (c) acts as a release for the build-up from the beginning of Coda in b. 383 – 386. As one can see, the crescendo started all the way from pianissimo in b. 359 to a six-note chord with forte plus accent in b. 383. Derivations of (c) motive are also concentrated at the end of the piece from b. 404 till the end. Most importantly, the rhythm of last four notes is also a diminution of the “fate motive”. This shows that the motive has added emphasis on it as the motive and its derivations are nearly present right from the start to the end of the movement.
The next motive, which derivations can be found easily in the second and third movement, is present across b. 1 – 2 of second movement (F# – G – G#) and referred to as (a). This motivic cell functions either as a two-note chromatic interval or three-note chromatic cell and is exploited throughout the second movement. At b. 31, the left hand has a two-note interval (G? – G) which leads up to Poco piu animato. Here, it is rhythmically similar to motive (a) with the last note modified. Also, in b. 44, the three-note gesture (C# – D – D#) in the right hand part is derived from motive (a) by the inversion of pitches.
In b. 56, a derivation of motive (a) is also present in the heavy texture with fortissimo markings. The two notes in between the chords (G# – G) are the last two notes of motive (a). Perhaps the most important function of motive (a) in the second movement can be seen in b. 81 – 86. The notes of top line by the right hand very similar of motive (a), which is a derivation from another motive in b. 1 (G# – G# – A – G#) but now transposed down a semitone. The bottom line of the right hand is the motive (a) itself. Both lines here make the music stagnant, losing direction sense.
This is made worse by the accents on the right hand’s bottom line as it blurs the strong beat. Therefore, even though it is pianissimo, the stagnancy creates tension for a few bars, before letting it resolves to C major. B. 90 basically repeats it again, but now without the top line of the right hand. With the A section returning in b. 98, motive (a) appears again (without motivic manipulation).
In third movement, derivations of motive (a) can be seen easily. In A section alone, this motive is stated five times from b. 6 to b. 9, existing at the centre or bottom note of consecutive triads. This motive in the opening of third movement, being the interval G – A? , can be seen as a device to create pervading dissonances together with other devices such as minor second intervals, to sustain and amplify the tension in this movement. Particularly in b. 27 and 30, motive (a) is used to intensify the tension contrapuntally. The final derivation of Motive (a) occurs in b. 158(F# – G – G# – A) where the notes are the top notes of the consecutive triad.