An essay commissioned by The Bridgewater Hall for the recent St Petersburg Philharmonic concert.
Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 ‘Classical’
Serge Prokofiev completed his Classical Symphony in 1917, the most productive year of his creative life, in which he also composed his First Violin Concerto, his Third and Fourth piano sonatas, his Visions fugitives for piano, and began work on his ever-popular Third Piano Concerto.
In the early years of his career, Prokofiev seemed to have established a reputation for himself as the new bad-boy of Russian music. His Second Piano Concerto had caused a something of a riot at its premiere in 1913. Serge Diaghilev had seen in Prokofiev a possible successor to Stravinsky, and, hoping for a succes de scandale worthy of the Rite of Spring, had commissioned Prokofiev to write a new ballet, Ala and Lolli. His Ballets Russes were in the midst of difficult times- Diaghilev’s star performer, former lover and choreographer Nikinsky, had suddenly abandoned the troupe and married. Diaghilev hoped Prokofiev, his new discovery, would re-engergize the company, but, although he and Prokofiev came to be friends, he rejected Ala and Lolli, which Prokofiev then fashioned into his purely orchestral Sythian Suite. The premiere of the Scythian Suite at least validated Diaghilev’s original instinct- it was a succes de scandale. Even before the premiere, Prokofiev joked that “the price of rotten eggs in Petrograd has gone up,” and on the night, Glazunov stormed out before the end, and the work was greeted with a mixture of cheers and boos. According to biographer Daniel Jaffé, Prokofiev “relished the furoré.”
Prokofiev may have relished the furoré, but it clearly annoyed him that his substantial melodic talents were not being appreciated, complaining that his “lyric line was not noticed until late. For a long time I was given no credit for any lyric gift whatever, and for want of encouragement it developed slowly. But as time went on, I gave more and more attention to this aspect of my work.”
1917 would prove to be a watershed in this respect. There are many extraordinary melodies in Prokofiev’s early scores—the melancholic first theme of his Second Piano Concerto is worthy of Tchaikovsky—but it seems his forays into explosive sonority and searing dissonance drew attention away from the lyric line. The First Violin Concerto and the Third Piano Concerto show Prokofiev moving towards a more stylistically cohesive voice, one in which he largely abandons using harmony and color for shocking effect.
It was in the midst of this transitional moment that Prokofiev completed his Classical Symphony, a work he may have been considering as early as 1913, when he first conducted a Haydn symphony. In his autobiography, Prokofiev says he began the piece as a way of breaking himself of his dependency on the piano:
“Until then, I had always composed at the piano, but I noticed that the thematic material composed away from the piano was often better… I had been playing with the idea of writing a whole symphony without the piano, thinking that such a piece would have more natural and transparent colours.
“So that is how the project for a symphony in the style of Haydn came about. I had come to understand a great deal about Haydn’s technique from Tcherepnin [a the St Petersburg Conservatory] and thought it would be less scary to embark on this piano-less journey if I were on familiar stylistic ground.
“It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived to our day, he would have retained his own style. This is the kind of symphony I wanted to write: a symphony in classical style.”
Prokofiev’s achievement in writing a symphony that sounds both classical and of its time is striking. Again and again, he comes up with fresh takes on the most standard classical formulae. The symphony’s first movement, Allegro, opens with one such classical formula- the Manheim Rocket, an explosively rising arpeggio, but Prokofiev’s 20th c rocket flies by a more circuitous path than the 18th century models did. There are harmonic shocks, as well, such as the sudden lunge from the home key of D major to C major a few bars in. This, and many other similar bits of harmonic mischief show Prokofiev managing a very shrewd compositional balancing act. While his specific harmonic twists and turns remain specific to the 20th c., the constant undermining of harmonic expectation is, in fact, the most Haydnesque aspect of the work. Prokofiev’s early music consistently sounds more radical and provocative than it really is. The Classical Symphony inverts this paradigm in a way Haydn would have truly appreciated- this is music that has a charming and harmless surface layer which belies the layers of mischief and provocation that lay beneath.
The Larghetto which follows is study in elegance and wit, and is conspicuously free from the kind of overt profundity and soul-searching that listeners raised on Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff symphonies would have expected from a symphonic slow movement. The stratospheric writing for the first violins builds on the frisky athleticism demanded of them in the first movement. In fact, this work is widely considered to be the ultimate test for any violin section- it is both jaw-droppingly virtuosic and ruthlessly exposed.
It is believed that Prokofiev composed the third movement, a rustic Gavotte marked Non troppo allegro first, possibly as early as 1913. It is one of the shortest movements in the symphonic repertoire, about one-fifth the length of the Scherzo of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. Slight it may be, but Prokofiev clearly had a soft spot for it, and later recycled an expanded version in his ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1935. Some conductors import the later, longer version from the ballet to the symphony, while others think the concise original is more in the spirit of the whole work.
Prokofiev’s breezy Finale is a lightly worn virtuoso display piece for both orchestra and composer. Perhaps as a result of his breaking himself of his dependence on the piano, his instrumental writing here seems to consciously be taking the musicians to the edge of what is possible. Likewise, the musical jokes fly fast and furious, but always with a sense of sly understatement. Haydn would have approved.
The work has always been one of Prokofiev’s most popular, but whether it marked a turning point in his evolution to a more lyrical and integrated style, or one last act of mischievous provocation remains a question left intentionally open by the composer, who, like Haydn, seemed to believed that expectations exist to be undermined. In spite of his overall shift to a more lyrical style in 1917, his next symphony was to be his Second, possibly the noisiest piece he ever wrote.