Music Monday: Moroi: Piano Sonata No. 2

Moroi Saburō (諸井三郎 for those who read kanji) was born just to the north of Tōkyō to a wealthy, industrious family in August of 1903. He was very close to his older brother Kanichi, and looked up to him as something of an inspirational figure. Said brother was reasonably educated in the arts, and gave Moroi his first piano lessons. (Kanichi would also take him to see the pianist Sueko Ogura perform the Beethoven piano sonatas — I haven’t been able to tell if this was his first exposure to said sonatas, but given the influence of Beethoven’s style on Moroi’s work, it seems an occasion well worth mentioning.) Moroi continued to pursue his musical studies — both on piano and in composition — both in high school and college, frequently working from books instead of studying with teachers in person.

On graduating from the Tōkyō Imperial University (where he studied aesthetics and art history), Moroi went to Berlin in 1932 to pursue further compositional studies at the Musikhochschule there, a period in which his knowledge of and dedication to Germanic styles of composing only intensified. (Japanese composers, at the time, were largely divided between those who were more taken by French composers and those who were more fond of the Germans. Moroi was one of the core figures in the latter camp.) He returned to Japan in 1934, which marked the beginning of his most prolific period, a period that ended in 1944 when he was conscripted into the Japanese army. It is unclear from the sources I’ve found whether he actually fought in battle, and there’s also little to indicate what, if anything, he thought about the policies of the regime he was living under. Luciana Galliano says that he “kept his distance from nationalist ideologies” [p 133 of this Google book], but every other source I’ve found has been mum on this topic.

Regardless, after the War was over, Moroi stayed in Japan and taught many private students while holding a variety of governmental and administrative musical positions, but wrote almost no music whatsoever until his death in 1977. Today’s piece, unsurprisingly, comes from that fertile decade between Berlin and the army.

Or at least I think it does. Wikipedia, without citing any sources, says Moroi wrote nine piano sonatas: Two unnumbered ones, five numbered ones, and then two with opus numbers labelled No. 1 and No. 2. The Grove Encyclopedia of Music gives a very abbreviated works list that indicates eight total sonatas by giving a list of composition dates only, a list that does not include the year 1939, the date Wikipedia gives for the third piano sonata No. 2. So there are either two or three works that could be referred to as his second piano sonata, and since Spotify doesn’t include liner notes, there’s not a lot of help on that end either. (I even tried looking the CD up on Amazon, but the back cover sadly does not include the composition dates for any of the works on the recording.) Given the nature of the music, I strongly suspect that this is the last of the possibilities, the sonata No. 2 Op 20 from 1939, but I don’t actually know for certain, and if any of you reading this happen to be a Moroi Saburō expert, please let me know what’s what.

If the piece’s genesis is murky, its opening is not: It begins with a stark, thunderous figure that plunges down into the very depths of the instrument, releasing waves of chords that waft upwards in response. These waftings gain in intensity to the point that they take on a life of their own, tho the stark figure cuts them off before they can fly too far. A quiet, distant theme follows, pensive and unsettled, sparsely accompanied by rising and falling lines. The jagged fully-fledged wafting music then returns to launch the movement’s tumultuous development, a development almost exclusively occupied with wave after wave of similar activity. After building to a thunderous climax, a patch of relative calm emerges once again, with the quiet, distant theme returning along with its sense of unease. In its unease, it meanders, and gradually gains in intensity as it does so, tho not always in a purely linear way. At long last, the jagged music returns to inspire one last cataclysmic outburst and bring the movement to its imposing close.

Shorter in duration (if maybe not in number of notes) is the blistering scherzo that forms the middle of the sonata. There are a couple of false starts, but once it gets under way for good, it unfolds in a lithe, sinuous stream of rapidly shifting, flickering milieus, each one shot thru with relentless, anxious forward motion. Towards the midpoint, the running lines break down into distressed, panicked chords that bounce back and forth between the hands, but after a rather miasmatic transitional passage, the opening undulations return in rather abbreviated form.

After that is the finale, which is nearly as long as the previous two movements combined. It starts moody, low, and grim, and that weary, treading pace hardly varies for the movement’s entire span. A fraught initial outburst peters away into the upper register, and this seems to inspire several waves of copycat motion from the depths to the upper reaches. Eventually the music settles into a less volatile pattern, tho one that is hardly sedate for all that. There is a half-hearted effort at a tender, lyrical theme, one that almost seems to want to be a jazz ballad, but it is thwarted by harmonies that don’t quite fall in line, rendering it always a little off-kilter. After the chords and the melody swap places several times, things loosen up a little, and the melody doubles its speed against the still insistently repeating background chords. As if defeated by this monotony, the music peters out, once more subsiding into the lower registers, from which the opening music is reborn. There is a long, slow, determined ascent, both in register and intensity, and the regular meter finally breaks apart under the strain, producing a cadenza that unexpectedly segues into a return of the jagged music from the first movement. Just as in the final moments of that movement, it leads swiftly and decisively to a shattering climax, leaving us unexpectedly — almost eerily — with a final glittering major chord.