The War Sonatas

Prokofiev’s letters to opera and theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold make clear the depth and enduring importance of their occasionally turbulent friendship. Their professional collaboration began in 1916 and lasted until Meyerhold’s disappearance in 1939. It was to emerge that Meyerhold was brutally tortured over a three-year period before signing a confession to being a follower of Leon Trotsky’s teachings, and executed by firing squad in 1940. Meyerhold’s wife, Zinaida Raykh, a close friend also of Prokofiev and his wife, Lina, was, a month after her husband’s arrest, tortured and stabbed to death in her Moscow flat.

Shortly after Meyerhold’s arrest and Zinaida Raykh’s murder, Prokofiev was requested to compose a homage to Stalin to celebrate his 60th birthday. That cantata, Zdravitsa, was performed to official acclaim at the end of the awful year.

This post is the second in which I’m sharing pieces that have shaped my love of music, if not quite a personal canon, then those proverbial Desert Island Discs perhaps.

Prokofiev’s deeper, darker response to those events of 1939 is, perhaps, embodied, not of course in the trite Hail to Stalin, but in the War Sonatas that followed, and particularly No. 7, which includes a musical allusion to the Schumann song, Wehmut: “I can sometimes sing if I were glad, yet secretly tears well and so free my heart. Nightingales . . . sing their song of longing from their dungeon’s depth . . . everyone delights, yet no one feels the pain, the deep sorrow in the songs”.

There are several fine, very different performances but, for me, no one quite ‘translates’ Prokofiev, especially this sonata, like Sviatoslav Richter.

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