Igor Stravinsky really only came into his own as a composer during the composition of The Firebird in 1909 and 1910, and it is safe to say that his earlier works afford us only occasional glimpses of the things to come (though, in all fairness, the orchestral color-pieces Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks have a great deal of chromatic charm and show how thoroughly the young Russian had absorbed the orchestration lessons of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov). During his early twenties, Stravinsky struggled with problems of traditional formal organization and melodic flexibility, not yet having come to the conclusion that in order to establish his own musical identity he would need to do what no other major composer had yet really done, namely, ignore those very ideals almost completely. The eventual change of attitude is clarified by examining his gradually shifting musical allegiances: as a young man he idolized the music of Alexander Glazunov for its extreme architectural clarity and suave melodic cleanliness, but when he began to emerge as his own musician, it became clear that his own strengths lay elsewhere. In the Piano Sonata in F sharp minor that Stravinsky wrote in 1903 and 1904, this struggle is at its peak.
For a long time it was thought that this early Sonata had been lost, though as it turned out the manuscript was merely being held, quietly, in the Leningrad Public Library. Faber Music finally published the work in 1973, late enough that the composer never had to be troubled by its continued existence. The work is dedicated to pianist Nicola Richter, who gave the first performance at one of Rimsky-Korsakov's private musical gatherings in February of 1905.
The Sonata is in four movements: Allegro, Andante, Scherzo, and Finale. While Stravinsky's creativity irrepressibly engages many piquant twists of harmony, in most cases these are so ineptly rendered that the real issue becomes the young composer's inability to construct a rational, compelling melodic/harmonic flow. Stravinsky himself was so troubled by this failure that he ultimately spent almost two weeks in seclusion with Rimsky-Korsakov to try to work out the problems.
Examining the piece with the benefit of hindsight, it is not surprising that within a few years of its completion, Stravinsky would begin to shift musical gears altogether. The incessant dotted rhythms of the opening Allegro and quick shift to Piu lento recitando arpeggiations are perhaps too much an "inept imitation of late Beethoven" (Stravinsky's own description of the piece, as recorded in his Memories and Commentaries of 1960) to not cause him artistic anguish, and the bombast of the Finale, though hinting at an altogether different aesthetic model (more in the Russian tradition, surely), opens no doors for its composer. On the happy side of it, however, Stravinsky's youthful grapple with Classical formal structures eventually wound up providing him with the background and knowledge to reshape those same stylistic criteria into a new form of musical expression during his so-called Neo-Classical period.