The Piano Sonata is the earliest of Blitzstein's major works. He provided the following brief note for a performance he gave of the work in New York in 1936.
He had completed it in December 1928 in Philadelphia, and gave the premiere at a League of Composers concert in New York on February 12, 1928. The piece was well received and he repeated the Sonata at a concert of the Society for Contemporary Music in Philadelphia the following month.
In calling the piece his "Opus 1", he was, no doubt, referring to the fact that it was the first work written after the conclusion of his studies with Schoenberg, and perhaps he had in mind another Schoenberg pupil's Opus One - Alban Berg's Piano Sonata (also in one movement). Yet the compositional methods (and attitudes to Schoenberg) of the two composers could hardly be more different.
The Blitzstein sonata comprises eight sections. Varying in tempo and length they present a first and second subject, which, following developments, or rather, repetitive evolutions of the material, lead to a recapitulation, coda and spectacular and virtuosic finale with sweeping glissandi.
The uneasy tranquillity of the central canonic section is in stark contrast to the savagery of the music around it. Blitzstein makes no attempt at effecting transitions between his contrasting material, but rather places a bar of silence between each section. Eric Gordon has described the effect as stimulating "a psychologically unsettling feeling as powerful as his expressionist dissonances. The overall sense is of a sparse number of musical ideas persistently reworked with barely noticeable variations."
This non-developmental "collage" technique, where contrasting musical ideas are laid next to each other, with no attempt at transition, had, no doubt, been learned from Stravinsky's SYMPHONIES OF WIND INSTRUMENTS, one of the 20th Century's seminal works. In choosing this path, Blitzstein was very firmly closing the door on the influence of Schoenberg whose opinion of Stravinsky was barely printable. And this particular compositional technique has proved popular with many important composers since, most notably Messiaen (OISEAUX EXOTIQUES, CHRONOCHROMIE), Tippett (SECOND PIANO SONATA, KING PRIAM) and Birtwistle (CARMEN ARCADIAE MECHANICAE PERPETUUM, EARTH DANCES).
Despite his often ambivalent attitude toward his earlier pre-CRADLE works, the Piano Sonata was a piece of which he was immensely proud, often citing it in any selected list of his works. When asked to give a lecture about his work at Tanglewood in 1958, the PIANO SONATA was included, alongside pieces from THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, REGINA, and JUNO as an example of his compositional style and thought.