There was no right way to title this category, and I think that’s a testament to how wonderfully complicated and diverse concert music has become in the last hundred years or so. I could have called the category “20th Century and Beyond,” but there was some downright Romantic music composed in the twentieth century, and I already covered Romantic. “Contemporary” feels like a cop-out, since most of the repertoire I surveyed was from the 1940’s, but it’s the best I can do. Honestly, the funniest thing about ranking the best contemporary piano sonatas is that it doesn’t fully represent the advancements in piano music during this time. Many composers abandoned the old stuffy trappings of titles like “Sonata” altogether.
The diversity of music also meant that I had a lot to listen to, and a lot of really tough choices to make. There may still be great contemporary sonatas out there that I would have put on this list, but either I didn’t seek them out or they didn’t grab me enough on a first listening. At the end of this first entry I’ll list my theoretical #6-10, if this was going to be a top 10 list. I don’t mind giving a little extra time to the contemporary section; I just want people to know more about this literature. But anyway, here’s the first ranking:
#5: Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1910)
Alban Berg’s sonata is a really great piece to recommend to listeners who are taking their first step past Romanticism. All of the heaving emotion and expressiveness is there, but the chromaticism and dissonance of the language is turned up a few notches. It’s not at the extreme of late Scriabin, but Scriabin had sort of his own vocabulary anyway. Another factor that helps this piece succeed is its compositional rigor. The musical logic is absolutely clear at every turn, and it’s cast in a traditional sonata movement form that even has an exposition repeat.
Berg had been studying composition with Arnold Schoenberg since 1904, and this can be considered his “graduation piece.” Berg reportedly confessed to his teacher that he could think of no more ideas for the other movements of the sonata, and Schoenberg said something to the effect of “You’ve already said it all.”
The strange, transitional harmonic language is clear right from the outset. From the first sonority, a non-triadic chord, a descending progression leads down to a first cadence in B minor. But that tonal resolution turns out to be a tease, because we don’t really get a true tonal cadence again (not counting the same moment in the exposition repeat) until the last measure of the whole piece. The first couple of gestures following that B minor triad play on augmented intervals, and some motives start to become clear. There’s a little descending thing that usually appears in the bass or tenor, a horn-call triplet figure that’s usually more of a top melody, and some other smaller figures. The music is anxious, never sitting still, always with an undercurrent of some gesture wandering in the bass. Berg builds to a climax on nicely dissonant chords that still imply tonal harmony, then settles into a quiet, languorous second subject with phrases that come in waves. The key gesture is a descending sixteenth-note motive that Berg elaborates to gather energy for the next climax, bringing us to the end of the exposition. Twice he sneaks in some F-sharp dominant chords, but wisely does not resolve them to B minor. That would be too easy! In the development, we first hear a few bars of mostly two-voice counterpoint, peeling away layers of texture to let the lines play. As the development builds, it’s worth looking at the score to see the extent to which all the material derives from the thematic content. Berg also shows his mastery of pitch, with really well-judged movement to higher registers. The storm reaches a fever pitch at some increasingly huge climaxes, with the last at an eyebrow-raising dynamic of ffff.
The recapitulation is a curious thing, beginning with a fragmented yet rhapsodic version of the second subject. Then it revisits the other exposition motives, but with enough alteration to feel like we’re still in the development. It alternates between rhapsodic extensions of the material and quieter muttering as it settles down and finds its way to a miraculously neat final cadence in B minor.
Head and heart are perfectly joined in this piece. It manages to be passionate, romantic, and psychologically restless, while also rigorously composed, more motivically cohesive than most music I know, and a successful experiment in chromatic harmony. If you haven’t set aside ten minutes yet for this small masterpiece, it’s really worth the trip.
Where to find it:
HL51480819 Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (Henle Urtext Edition)
OK, here are my theoretical entries for #6-10, in alphabetical order by composer:
A powerful reaction to the horrors of World War I that marked a significant change in Bridge’s style. The music churns with fear and anguish, with some bittersweet reflection along the way. Every listen reveals more details and more subtle emotion.
Rhythmic vitality and cool bitonal harmonies throughout. Both inner movements are memorable: a Presto misterioso that murmurs in the extreme registers of the piano and an Adagio with daringly spare textures. The explosive finale is a toccata that alternates between 6/8 and 3/4 to capture an Argentinian gaucho flavor.
Alternately nostalgic, boisterous, and mystical. There’s a great love for America that bursts out of this piece, especially in its myriad tune quotations. Mov. IVb builds to a wacky barnstormer of a climax.
Memorable themes, acidic harmonies, pervasive sense of dread. The sentimental second movement is quite affecting. The popular (and notoriously challenging) finale is a classic Prokofiev machine that achieves massive, orchestral effects.
Sorabji is a truly fascinating composer who I’ll have to write more about at some point. Several of his piano pieces exceed four hours’ duration. So consider this 22-minute sonata a reasonable sampling of his style, which combines influences of Scriabin, French impressionism, and something personal, to achieve unprecedentedly dense textures and some luxurious nocturne-like sections (in some pieces, he spins these moods out as long as an hour). The music has a sense of momentum and logic that doesn’t always sustain in his longer, later works, and it’s pretty fun to follow the score and sit back and admire his prolific imagination.