Opus 12: Piano Sonata No. 1 (1926)

Piano Sonata no. 1, op. 12 (1926)
CD: Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 1, etc., Konstantin Scherbakov, piano (Naxos 8.555781)

I listened to the first piano sonata a couple of times, on Friday and again on Sunday morning. This fudges a little bit my declared one-piece-a-day process, although I don’t think it deviates from my intent, i.e. not burning out on Shostakovich and listening through his works in more or less chronological order, without skipping ahead of the piece I want to write about at the moment. Besides, multiple hearings and a weekend to think about it gave me more of a foothold on the sonata than my first impression gave me. In fact, I’ve owned this Scherbakov album for a couple of years, but though I must have listened to the piece since buying it (I’m not the type to buy music and then abandon it on a shelf, neglected and still shrink-wrapped) I found going into it this time that I had absolutely no memory of what it sounded like.

In fact the sonata, although it stands out from Shostakovich’s later, more famous, considerably better known style, doesn’t offer much in the way of melody or obvious structure to grab on to. Following in the path of the Scherzo from Opus 11, he makes a running leap away from the more tradition-bound first symphony into a dissonant, freely developing space — whatever the mood of the music at any given moment, his giddiness at escaping the strictures of his conservatory education beams through. The work is fifteen minutes long and through-composed, though a semblance of a four-movement structure forms out of it: an energetic opening leads into a satirical dance, something like an elephantine polka; an extended, quietly low-rumbling section in the second half leads into a bigger finale. The theme introduced in the first bars is developed throughout and other material appears and mutates as the sonata progresses, but melodic development is submerged below a constantly moving musical surface. Its brashness provides its charm, but it’s not very winsome music, even beyond the fact that it doesn’t try to be pretty: Composers outside of Russia at the time had already walked further away from Romantic, traditionally tonal music (Alban Berg’s landmark atonal opera Wozzeck would appear shortly; in America, Charles Ives, though his work was little known in his lifetime, was already playing with a deeper form of controlled musical anarchy) and in any case Shostakovich’s thrills at rejecting musical tradition seem to me to have faded over the decades, the sonata’s style being a transitional state rather than a viable destination in itself. It’s neither that grabby nor, in the broad view, that far out. It is worth noting that a piece like the first sonata was publishable in the Soviet Union of the time — the concept of an acceptable, non-“formalist” musical art accessible to the working-class masses had not yet congealed, nor had the arbiters within the Soviet bureaucracy begun to insist, as they would with varying degrees of aggression over the following decades, on a thoroughly conservative musical language. But although I like the piece as an expression of the energy and possibilities of the young Shostakovich I don’t find it too appealing otherwise.  I will guess that it’s more fun in concert, when all the clanging around on the piano (especially at the low end) would have more of an effect acoustically and the moment-to-moment surface of the music would feel more immediate.

A couple of stray notes on the music: On my second pass through the music I noticed that the shape of the first eight notes of the main theme — an upward jump, descending triplet, another upward leap, a short drop-off —

— bears a passing but (I have to presume) completely coincidental resemblance to the wider-intervalled and more heroic title theme John Williams used fifty years later in his Star Wars score (about 0:15 to 0:20 in the famous title crawl, after the fanfare). I find this connection both meaningless and, once I’ve heard it, impossible to shake.

Also — although I won’t jump ahead in my listening to verify this, since it would certainly violate my artificially cultivated, chronological context for hearing Shostakovich’s music — a downward-running figure appears within the dance-like segment of the sonata which is, I think, reproduced more or less verbatim by the soloist in one of Shostakovich’s cello concertos:

At risk of seeming perversely self-constrained, I’ll make a note to revisit this point several months from now, when I’ve reached the works of the 1950s and ’60s.

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