Piano Sonata No. 3 op. 36 (1916-1917)

The last of Szymanowski’s piano works from his second creative period, marked by the influences of impressionism and expressionism, and also, in the wider perspective, by the search for inspiration in antique or oriental cultures, is his Third Sonata. This work does not, however, continue directly the trend set by Masques or Metopes; instead, it brings a synthesis of the tools of the composer’s craft, summing up in this way the whole of his earlier output, including that influenced by late Romanticism. A turn toward the tradition of absolute music, which affirms “pure form”, free from programmatic content, is linked here with a return to the Beethovenian formal model of the sonata as a cyclic form, progressing towards culmination in its finale and integrated by common thematic material. On the other hand, a characteristic feature of the Third Sonata is its thorougly original and avantgarde harmonic lanaguage, based, in spite of presence of tonal roots, on the twelve note scale.
Although Szymanowski’s Third Sonata is a one-movement composition, like, for instance, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, or Scriabin’s last sonatas, one can distinguish in it four parts, contrasting in tempo and expression. The first one is a complicated sonata allegro without recapitulation; one is struck by the contrast between the impressionistic first theme with its oriental features, and the diatonic second theme, with references to D flat minor tonality. The theme of the second part of the work (Adagio. Mesto), romantic in its expression, has even more radical clothing; it is so densely saturated with chromaticisms that even in its first four bars we find all the twelve notes of the scale, and in the following chain of sonorities there is no single consonant chord. The following part (Assai vivace. Scherzando), which might be regarded as a counterpart of the traditional scherzo, is a short episode which prepares the ground for an impressive finale in the form of an extended four-voice fugue. Its clear, atonal theme determines the style of the whole part, which provides perhaps the most exquisite example of Szymanowski’s mastery in the art of polyphony. Quartal and secundal harmony, combined with the motoric rhythmic pulse and dense texture produces here the effect of a particular, modern vitalism, which brings to mind contemporary works of Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Bartók.
Szymanowski dedicated his Third Sonata to Alexander Siloti, who at that time was the director of St Petersburg Concert Society, and was supposed to conduct the performance of the composer’s orchestral works in Russia. As we know, the project fell through. However, the Sonata became a core item in the repertory of many world-famous pianists, in particular Zbigniew Drzewiecki who was the first to play it.