The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, "Classical"

About the Work

Sergei Prokofiev Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
© Richard Rodda

"In the field of instrumental music, I am well content with the forms already perfected. I want nothing better, nothing more flexible or more complete than sonata form, which contains everything necessary to my structural purpose." This statement, given to Olin Downes by Prokofiev during an interview in 1930 for The New York Times, seems a curious one for a composer who had gained a reputation as an ear-shattering iconoclast, the enfant terrible of 20th-century music, the master of modernity. While it is certainly true that some of his early works (Scythian Suite, Sarcasms, the first two Piano Concertos) raised the hackles of musical traditionalists, it is also true that Prokofiev sought to preserve that same tradition by extending its boundaries to encompass his own distinctive style. A glance through the list of his works shows a preponderance of established Classical forms: sonatas, symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, quartets, overtures and suites account for most of his output. This is certainly not to say that he merely mimicked the music of earlier generations, but he did accept it as the conceptual framework within which he built his own compositions.

Prokofiev's penchant for using Classical musical idioms was instilled in him during the course of his thorough, excellent training: when he was a little tot, his mother played Beethoven sonatas to him while he sat under the piano; he studied with the greatest Russian musicians of the time -- Gliére, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov, Glazunov; he began composing at the Mozartian age of six. By the time he was 25, Prokofiev was composing prolifically, always brewing a variety of compositions simultaneously. The works of 1917, for example, represent widely divergent styles -- The Gambler is a satirical opera; They Are Seven, a nearly atonal cantata; the Classical Symphony, a charming miniature. This last piece was a direct result of Prokofiev's study with Alexander Tcherepnin, a good and wise teacher who allowed the young composer to forge ahead in his own manner while making sure that he had a thorough understanding of the great musical works of the past. It was in 1916 that Prokofiev first had the idea for a symphony based directly on the Viennese models supplied by Tcherepnin, and at that time he sketched out a few themes for it. Most of the work, however, was done the following year, as Prokofiev recounted in his Autobiography:

"I spent the summer of 1917 in complete solitude in the environs of Petrograd; I read Kant and I worked hard. I had purposely not had my piano moved to the country because I wanted to establish the fact that thematic material worked out without a piano is better.... The idea occurred to me to compose an entire symphonic work without the piano. Composed in this fashion, the orchestral colors would, of necessity, be clearer and cleaner. Thus the plan of a symphony in Haydnesque style originated, since, as a result of my studies in Tcherepnin's classes, Haydn's technique had somehow become especially clear to me, and with such intimate understanding it was much easier to plunge into the dangerous flood without a piano. It seemed to me that, were he alive today, Haydn, while retaining his style of composition, would have appropriated something from the modern. Such a symphony I now wanted to compose: a symphony in the classic manner. As it began to take actual form I named it Classical Symphony; first, because it was the simplest thing to call it; second, out of bravado, to stir up a hornet's nest; and finally, in the hope that should the symphony prove itself in time to be truly 'classic,' it would benefit me considerably." Prokofiev's closing wish has been granted -- the Classical Symphony has been one of his most successful works ever since it was first heard.

The work is in the four movements customary in Haydn's symphonies, though at only fifteen minutes it hardly runs to half their typical length. The dapper first movement is a miniature sonata design that follows the traditional form but adds some quirks that would have given old Haydn himself a chuckle -- the recapitulation, for example, begins in the "wrong" key (but soon rights itself) and occasionally a beat is left out, as though the music had stubbed its toe. The sleek main theme is followed by the enormous leaps, flashing grace notes and sparse texture of the second subject. A graceful melody floating high in the violins is used to open and close the Larghetto, with the pizzicato gentle middle section reaching a brilliant tutti before quickly subsiding. The third movement, a Gavotte, comes not from the Viennese symphony but rather from the tradition of French Baroque ballet. The finale is the most brilliant movement of the Symphony, and calls for remarkable feats of agility and precise ensemble from the performers.