Sophia Gorlin

Shostakovich's Piano Sonata No. 2 (cont'd)

Piano Sonata No. 2—an Important Landmark
in the Evolution of Shostakovich’s Individual Style


History, Critics, Goals, and a General Characteristic of the Piano Works

Piano Sonata No. 2, op. 61, in B minor (‘the Sonata) is dedicated to the memory of Leonid Nikolayev, Leningrad Conservatory Professor and Shostakovich’s favourite piano teacher; ‘Shostakovich’s inspiration for the Second Piano Sonata was influenced by news of the untimely death of his conservatory teacher, Leonid Nikolayev, on October 11, 1942. It is safe to assume that the idea to compose a sonata in memory of his teacher was conceived during the remaining days of October 1942.’13 The Sonata was completed in March of 1943, between the legendary Leningrad Symphony and the Eighth Symphony, ‘the most tragic work of Shostakovich’ (Isaak Glikman). It was the period of the Patriotic War (1941-1945) between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which undoubtedly was one of the major factors that influenced both the symphonies (officially called the ‘military’ or ‘war’ symphonies) and the Sonata.14

Unfortunately for the Sonata, it was almost entirely overshadowed by the ‘war’ symphonies. Indeed, this alone can explain why most critics have ignored this work. There are just a few, sporadic references: Laurel Fay in her book Shostakovich: A Life mentions that ‘a critic [after listening to the first performance of the piece by Shostakovich] found it [the Sonata] an affecting work, a work profoundly influenced by the classical canon in the composer’s search for positive themes and profoundly optimistic ideological content, unquestionably the composer’s most significant piano work.15 (The statement regarding the ‘optimistic ideological content’ is, however, very questionable.) Slightly more descriptive notes by Eric Roseberry (included with the recording of the piece by Vladimir Ashkenazy) state that the Sonata ‘would seem to serve as a complete repudiation of its up-front, ‘avant-gardist’ predecessor of 1926 [the Piano Sonata No. 1]. A very different musical language begins to take shape, a language based on establishing continuity with the rhetoric and with the forms of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky and Mahler.16 There is also an article entitled Inside the Second Piano Sonata (cited above – see Endnote 13) which is focused mostly on the history of the Sonata’s composition and also includes some musical examples intended to demonstrate the influences of Nikolayev’s compositions and Shostakovich’s own First Symphony on the main themes of the Sonata.

Unlike the aforementioned article, the following detailed analysis of the Sonata focuses not only on similarities between the themes of the Sonata and other compositions, but rather on the distinctiveness of the Sonata within Shostakovich’s entire output and, more broadly, within the entire evolution of Shostakovich’s unique individual style. The following analysis is also an attempt to unravel semantically the composer’s ‘Aesopian’ language, which became an inalienable part of his musical language. As a forerunner to many stylistic characteristics that were developed later, the Sonata holds a very special place among Shostakovich’s piano works and, more broadly, in his music legacy as a whole. The following analysis is an attempt to demonstrate that claim.

In addition to examining the most important stylistic elements, special attention is given to genre interaction, i.e., the obvious influence of other genres on this work for piano. For instance, the influence of symphonic genres brings about drastic and dramatic developments, and wide-ranging textural and timbral imitations. The influence of film music is present within the illustrative functions of some sections of the work, the rapid transitions to and from contrasting episodes and in the use of popular genres such as marches. Comparison of the music to cinematographic effects is the central reason for the use of the non-musical term ‘effect’ throughout this article (the described ‘effects’ are also an essential part of the composer’s ‘Aesopian’ language).

Although an excellent pianist himself, Shostakovich was not primarily a composer for the piano. If Beethoven expressed himself to a large extent through his symphonies and piano sonatas, Shostakovich had his own favourite ‘pair’ of genres – namely the symphony and the string quartet. The majority of Shostakovich’s original piano works are written in the genre of the piano miniature, with the exception of the ‘large-scale’ cyclic work 24 Preludes and Fugues (op. 87) and the two piano sonatas. Sonata No. 1 (1926) belongs to the early period and is a one-movement work greatly influenced by the music language of other composers of the time (Stravinsky, Prokofiev). Sonata No. 2 (the Sonata) belongs to the beginning of the middle period, a period of rapid maturity in the composer’s individual style, and is the only Shostakovich’s piano work written within the genre of a multi-movement sonata cycle.

» Next: Piano Sonata No. 2: Stylistic Analysis

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13 M. Yakubov, Inside the Second Piano Sonata. (DSCH Journal No. 14, 2001).

14 S. Volkov states, though, that the Seventh Symphony was mainly completed prior to June 1941 (when Nazi Germany invaded the country) and ‘was a reflection of the pre-war fate of both the composer and Leningrad.’ (Volkov, Testimony, XXXIII).

15 L. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford, University Press, 2000).

16 E. Roseberry. Shostakovich’s Piano Music Played by Ashkenazy (Notes for the recording, 2004).

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