he's not widely celebrated as such, Prokofiev was a child prodigy, and his
catalogue of juvenilia begins with works written at the age of five. Throughout
his life he was full of surprises, both as an artist and as a man. His early
reputation was built on those elements of his style which he identified as grotesque and motoric, and which, easily and predictably, raised the hackles of
conservative listeners. But while still in his twenties he showed a readiness
to undertake chameleon-like changes.
His First, Classical Symphony [1916-17] took a totally unexpected
direction for an enfant terrible. It was influenced by 18th-century models. The
spectacular dissonances of many of his works from the 1920s were followed in
the mid 1930s by one of the most successfully tuneful of 20th-century ballets, Romeo and Juliet. Although Prokofiev left
his native Russia after the Revolution of 1917, unlike Rachmaninov and
Stravinsky, he did not stay away, but returned of his own volition to spend the
last seventeen years of his life in the Soviet Union, with all that implied in
terms of managing a relationship with a state intent on imposing very limiting
strictures on the freedom of creative artists.
In Prokofiev's case the intrusions went rather further. In 1947 he petitioned
for divorce from his estranged wife, Carolina Codina, known as Lina. In the
wake of his petition, the marriage was declared illegal under Soviet law (the
specifics of the case are like a bureaucratic nightmare), and in 1948 Lina was
arrested on trumped-up charges, convicted, in the words of her son Sviatoslav,
of espionage and betrayal of the homeland,
and given a twenty-year sentence, of which she actually served eight years.
(She went on to outlive Prokofiev, and died in 1989.)
Prokofiev came to know the writer Maria-Cecilia Abramovna Mendelson (known as
Mira) in 1939, and it was at that time that the seeds of his marital troubles
were properly sown. Two years after meeting Mira, who was 24 years his junior,
he left his wife and two sons to live with her, although he continued to
support his first family.
Mira has left accounts of how the composer returned to the genre of the piano
sonata in 1939 after a 16-year gap. She remembers him as having been influenced
by the Nobel Prize-winning French writer Romain Rolland's book on Beethoven
(this has been credited with sparking a heroic streak in the music), and also
how he began working on three piano sonatas, his Sixth, Seventh and Eighth at
the same time. He liked to have a number of pieces on the go at the same time,
and, according to Mira, was happy to flit between all ten movements which make
up the three sonatas.
The sonatas are often viewed as a war trilogy, although Germany didn't actually invade the Soviet Union until June 1941, more than a year after the
première of the Sixth Sonata. The association with war has filtered into many
commentators' views on the three pieces. Writing of the Eighth Sonata's first
movement, Leslie Gerber suggests that The
emotional content of this movement is bleak and desolate, almost like a
meditation on the destruction wrought by war. There is however nothing in
the composer's markings to suggest this or any other specific associations.
The Eighth Sonata won Prokofiev a Stalin Prize, first class — the Seventh
Sonata had been awarded a Stalin Prize, second class. But all three of the
so-called war sonatas were included in the official condemnation of Prokofiev's
work in the Zhdanov-led clampdown of 1948. Nestyev, whose biography carefully
represents Soviet sensitivities, notes that while the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth
Sonatas were interesting to seasoned
professionals, they were not always easily grasped by the average listener, who
had come to love the best examples of Prokofiev's piano style, which he
lists as the Second to Fourth Sonatas and some shorter pieces. The wider public
verdict, however, gives pride of place to Sonatas Six to Eight.
The first two performances of the Eighth Sonata, with the composer himself at
the piano, were given in the confines of the Composers Union in Moscow. Sviatoslav Richter
left a description of the occasion. It
was difficult for Sergei Sergeyevich to play. He didn't have his former
confidence and his hands flutter limply over the keys. After the second hearing
I definitely decided that I was going to play the sonata. Some people
sniggered: 'What outdated music, don't tell us that you want to play that?!''
But Richter's commitment to the work was firm: It is the richest of all of Prokofiev's sonatas, he said. It has a complex inner life with profound
contrapositions. At times it seems to freeze, as if listening to the inexorable
march of the times. The sonata is somewhat heavy to grasp, but heavy with
richness — like a tree heavy with fruit.
The first public performance was given by Emil Gilels, on 30 December 1944,
which, by extraordinary coincidence, was the day on which Romain Rolland died.