Composers under the old regime of the Soviet Union were both blessed and
cursed. On the one hand any halfway decent composer received a stipend
from the government. They never had to worry about where their next meal
was coming from. And they were pretty much assured that their works would
be performed in some venue or another. On the other hand composers had to
attempt to avoid criticism that their works were not proletarian enough,
too experimental, or that they were in some way critical of the State. They
had to try as best they could to walk the razor's edge.
In 1939 Joseph Stalin (or his henchman) ordered the State arrest of music
director Vsevolod Meyerhold, an event that was followed one month later
by the suicide of his wife, Zinaida Raikh. Meyerhold was thrown into prison
and tortured and, the following year, was executed. The musical community
evidently reacted in the only way they could — with grief and silence. But it
was well-known that these events were only the tip of the iceberg of a series
of Stalinist pogroms.
Prokofiev at that time began working on a group of piano sonatas that would
become known as the War Sonatas — No. 6 Op. 82, No. 7 Op. 83, and No. 8
The No. 7 sonata premiered in 1943 and in spite of its daring was well
received, even winning a prize from the State. This may be due to the
sonata's grief and anger being associated with the Nazi siege of Stalingrad,
which had ended only the year before. And in fact the work was nicknamed
the "Stalingrad" sonata. In addition it seems to have been missed that a
theme used in the second movement was from Robert Schumann's song
"Wehmut", whose verses by Eichendorf really leave no doubt as to the mental
state of the composer:
Sometimes I can sing
as if I were happy,
but secretly tears well up
and free my heart.
when spring breezes play, let
their songs of yearning resound
from the depths of their dungeons.
Then all hearts listen
and everyone rejoices;
yet no one truly feels the anguish
of the song's deep sorrow.
I guess this is one time we can be happy that many in the musical public
weren't more knowledgeable.
The volume of Prokofiev piano works in my possession features Gyorgy
Sandor on piano. Sandor's performance of the No. 7 is technically strong
and emphasizes emotion. By contrast, Valentina Lisitsa's recording of
the work (which you can listen to on her website under Multimedia/Audio)
is a historiographical tour de force emphasizing the sonata's continuity
with its Russian past but also its modernity — and a performance in
which every note "sounds." But as with all great piano sonatas, I am sure
there are a number of possible good readings.