About this work
Much of Sergei Prokofiev's compositional output in the early and mid-1910s consisted of stylistically bold keyboard compositions written for his own use as a pianist. The composer's Toccata (1912) belongs to this period, as do works like Sarcasms (1912-1914) and the First (1911-1912) and Second (1913) Piano Concerti. The advanced, aggressive musical language of these works led to Prokofiev's reputation as Russian music's enfant terrible, yet each demonstrates a mastery that clearly transcends mere bravura showiness.
The Toccata has a well-deserved reputation as a work of formidable difficulty. Unfortunately, while the piece has been popular over the years, attracting performances from pianists like Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich, it has been looked upon in certain circles as a mere knuckle-buster, devoid of serious musical substance. True, the piece contains sonic effects, such as the bell-ringing sounds that climax the middle section, and the Toccata often appears as an encore, but this work is better-crafted than its Lisztian reputation might suggest.
The piece is built upon motoric rhythms in a perpetuum mobile framework that lets up only slightly in the middle section. The Toccata's two main themes are a part of the same energetic and somewhat sinister fabric, the anxiety in both auguring a forthcoming explosion in the music. After the themes are developed, there is a reprise, and the coda that ensues contains the promised explosion: the main theme is hammered out frenziedly in the upper register against motoric bass notes.
Because of the enormous popularity of the Toccata, it has become one of the most influential piano compositions of the century. Many composers have written their own versions of the Prokofiev Toccata and have employed its motor rhythms and driving energies in other piano works as well.
The work was first published in Russia in 1913, however it was not played publicly until three years later (by the composer, in St. Petersburg on December 10, 1916).