Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 5 in C Major: Cool and Classical

An enticing coolness and classicism surrounds Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 5 in C Major, Op. 38.

Brilliant and austere, it is the music of a composer who, early on, developed a reputation as a brash enfant terrible with piano-playing fingers of steel. Here, as in much of his music, Prokofiev, the cunning and aggressive master chess player, plays the game of quirky extended melodies, which often seem to reach a harmonic dead end only to arrive, suddenly and thrillingly, at a surprise resolution. Prokofiev considered the Sonata to be among “the most chromatic works I have written,” and a piece which appealed to his love of “complex thinking.” Pianist Yefim Bronfman hears it as “a very experimental, neoclassical work,” and cites the influence of Poulenc and Stravinsky.”

Of Prokofiev’s nine piano sonatas, the Fifth, which precedes the three “war sonatas,” is the only one to have been written outside Russia. It was composed in 1923 near Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps, which Prokofiev found to be “a picturesque and peaceful spot, ideal for work,” following years of nomadic concertizing throughout the United States and Europe. Years later, just before his death in 1953, Prokofiev revised the Sonata and recategorized it as opus 135. The changes were minimal, and mostly involved the final movement.

The first movement (Allegro tranquillo) begins with an amiably wandering melody. It is accompanied by a flowing Alberti bass, a type of arpeggiated figure commonly used throughout the Classical period. Sudden parallel chords bring dizzying modulations, and echo jazz and the hazy harmonies of French impressionism. At the end of the development section, a “false recapitulation,” a favorite device of Haydn, is interrupted by murky falling lines.

The second movement (Andantino) is a dry, sarcastic waltz. As with the blues-inspired second movement of Ravel’s Second Violin Sonata, the stage is set with a vamp in one key, and the melody enters in a new key, creating a moment of ear-wrenching bitonality.

The final movement  (Un poco allegretto) begins with a dreamy oscillating vamp, over which a spirited exotic theme springs to life. As the music progresses, it becomes increasingly playful and clouded by dissonance. One passage resembles the mighty clang of Russian bells (4:35). The coda section accelerates, and the final bars drift away, with only the vamp remaining.

Here is the original version of the Sonata, performed by Yefim Bronfman:

I. Allegro tranquillo:

II. Andantino:

III. Un poco allegretto:

The Revised Version (Op. 135):

In this concert performance, featuring Boris Berman, we hear the Sonata in its revised form. Here the harmonies are warmer, and the final bars continue to build towards a decisive C major resolution:


  • Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 5 in C Major, Op. 38, (original version) Yefim Bronfman
  • Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 5 in C Major, Op. 38 and Op. 135 (original and revised versions)

Featured Image: “Collective Farm Worker on a Bicycle” (1935), Aleksandr Deyneka

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

1 thought on “Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 5 in C Major: Cool and Classical”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this; I immensely enjoyed giving this sonata a few re-listens. P is my favorite composer, I love learning more about his life.

    But the real reason I am commenting on this post is because of the artwork, which goes perfectly well with the music and the composer 🙂


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