The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26

About the Work

Sergei Prokofiev Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
© Robert Markow

Sergei Prokofiev began work on his Third Piano Concerto in St. Petersburg (Leningrad) in 1917, and, after a long interruption to concertize in America, completed it in October of 1921. He incorporated into it musical ideas he had jotted down over the past several years. For example, the parallel triads in the recapitulation of the first movement came from 1911, when he was planning a piano concerto "full of virtuoso passages." The main theme in E minor of the second movement comes from 1913. Other themes from the years 1916-18 were absorbed into the concerto. The first performance took place not in the composer's native land but in Chicago, on December 16, 1921, with the composer at the piano and Frederick Stock conducting. Neither in Chicago nor in subsequent New York performances did the concerto arouse much enthusiasm-Prokofiev said the American public "did not quite understand the work." Nevertheless, it went on to become one of the half dozen or so most popular piano concertos of the entire twentieth century.


Prokofiev provided his own program note for the work:

"The first movement opens quietly with a short introduction (Andante). The theme is announced by an unaccompanied clarinet and is continued by the violins for a few bars. Soon the tempo changes to Allegro, the strings having a passage in sixteenth notes, which leads to the statement of the principal subject by the piano. Discussion of this theme is carried on in a lively manner, both the piano and the orchestra having a good deal to say on the matter. A passage in chords for the piano alone leads to the more expressive second subject, heard in the oboe with a pizzicato accompaniment. This is taken up by the piano and developed at some length, eventually giving way to a bravura passage in triplets. At the climax of this section, the tempo reverts to Andante, and the orchestra gives out the first theme ff. The piano joins in, and the theme is subjected to an impressively broad treatment. In resuming the Allegro, the chief theme and the second subject are developed with increased brilliance, and the movement ends with an exciting crescendo.

"The second movement consists of a theme with five variations. The theme is announced by the orchestra alone. In the first variation, the piano treats the opening of the theme in quasi-sentimental fashion, and resolves into a chain of trills, as the orchestra repeats the closing phrase. The tempo changes to Allegro for the second and the third variations, and the piano has brilliant figures, while snatches of the theme are introduced here and there in the orchestra. In Variation Four the tempo is once again Andante, and the piano and orchestra discourse on the theme in a quiet and meditative fashion. Variation Five is energetic (Allegro giusto). It leads without pause into a restatement of the theme by the orchestra, with delicate chordal embroidery in the piano.

"The finale begins with a staccato theme for bassoons and pizzicato strings, which is interrupted by the blustering entry of the piano. The orchestra holds its own with the opening theme, however, and there is a good deal of argument, with frequent differences of opinion as regards key. Eventually the piano takes up the first theme and develops it to a climax. With a reduction of tone and slackening of tempo, an alternative theme is introduced in the woodwinds. The piano replies with a theme that is more in keeping with the caustic humor of the work. This material is developed, and there is a brilliant coda."