Symphony No 1

Op. 25, ("Classical"), Sergei Prokofiev

In his 25th year, Prokofiev decided that he would write  “a symphony as Mozart or Haydn might have written it…had either one of them been a contemporary… I christened it the Classical Symphony first, because it sounded much more simple, and second, out of pure mischief ‘to tease the geese’ in secret hope that eventually the symphony would become a classic.” He succeeded in both intentions.

The composer stemmed from two musical cultures, the Soviet Union and the West. He was a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he was known as an iconoclastic, cheeky, arrogant young man who dared to and enjoyed breaking the rules. During his time at the school, he often performed his own “shocking” compositions outside the conservatory at the St. Petersburg Evenings of Contemporary Music, dazzling some and horrifying others.  In fact, he was following his own voice which he had formulated as a child. As a youngster, he liked to compose small piano pieces he called “ditties” in which he experimented with his personal, unique musical language: a language which was dissonant, utilized unusual phrasings, toyed with different time signatures and melodic structures. He was a bold little musician, and at age eleven even tried to write a symphony. This boldness was not to be quelled.

His mother had provided traditional musical training for her son throughout his life; therefore, he was well acquainted with the standard classical musical forms and content, but often found them corseting and unsuitable for his imagination. In the “Classical” Symphony, he uses traditional sonata-allegro format, but pours dramatic new content into the mold. For example, spikey, non-lyrical themes replace the congenial, elegant, lyrical music of Mozart and Haydn. Prokofiev’s tunes are filled with unexpected digressions and “wrong notes.” Pungent harmonies and dissonances replace the comfortable, expected sounds of the past.

In what he saw as the future of music, especially his own music, he explained, “I could not approve of adopting the idiom of another man and calling it one’s own… I think the desire which I and many of my fellow composers feel, to attain a more simple and melodic expression is the inevitable direction of music of the future.”  The simplicity and clarity of Mozart and Haydn were refreshing to him, but in his Classical Symphony he was doing far more than writing a caricature or a cartoon. “Out of bravado,” he stated, “I wanted to stir up a hornet’s nest.” For all its jocularity and fun, his “Classical” Symphony is more than a good joke. As Prokofiev had hoped, the symphony became a classic, a sophisticated, enduring, appealing work which has stood the test of time. As his first symphony it was also a harbinger of things to come.

The entire symphony is written on a small scale— each movement is brief and to the point. Its first movement begins with a tiny introduction, consisting only of two measures, and the immediate presentation of two contrasting themes, sounding a bit like a very modern Haydn. In a bow to tradition, he tosses in a Mannheim rocket, a fast ascending melodic line which “takes off,” one of the novel effects of the Mannheim school of the eighteenth century. His second theme contains grace notes reaching a span of two octaves. Formerly, grace notes were nestled more closely to the notes but now he is playing with the whole idea of decoration in a new way. A bar of silence (again a bow to the Mannheim school which inserted from time to time a “grand pause” of silence before resuming vigorously) also appears. In this case, the pause announces a witty development section, after which Prokofiev concludes with a “traditional” recapitulation section, but this recapitulation begins in the “wrong key” and only eventually recovers itself.  A few extra beats here and there and unexpected tonal behavior fasten this symphony firmly in the twentieth century and in his oeuvre.

The second movement spins a long, lyrical melody in the violins which is quickly restated by the flute. Prokofiev’s placement of the melody in a high register is a humorous touch; a classical symphonist would probably not have written music at this height. A second theme in sixteenth notes invokes winds, brass and timpani before closing with a small coda.

The third movement offers a burlesque of the stately classical minuet.  Prokofiev substitutes a heavy and old leaping dance called a gavotte, which in its origins featured a lot of foot stamping.  For good measure he includes a drone trio in the middle section.

The fourth movement is exuberant, and continues the witty parody. Prokofiev’s music takes off in a brilliant pattern, exploring unusual modulations and quirky turns before dashing to the close.

His light heartened escapade was written during a convulsive time in Russia. The czarist government was imploding; the military catastrophes of World War I were bearing down and political /social revolution was at hand. One month after completing the score, the Bolshevists threw over the Kerensky government. Six months after the coup, Prokofiev conducted the premiere of the “Classical” Symphony in Petrograd on April 21, 1918.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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