Symphony No. 1 in D major, op. 25 (“Classical”)

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          Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich are the two composers who stood above the rest of those who labored during the years of the Soviet Union.  Unlike Shostakovich, however, Prokofiev enjoyed part of his career living and composing in the West, returning to the USSR in 1936 voluntarily.  Like his compatriot, he must be counted as one of the great composers of the twentieth century, although unlike Shostakovich, his direct influence on composers outside of the Soviet sphere was minimal.  He was a virtuoso pianist, but who also composed from the beginning, graduating from the St. Petersburg Conservatory shortly before World War I.  His musical style was based in the Russian romantic tradition, but he established early on a personal idiom that was characterized by pungent dissonance, soaring lyrical melodies, a facile manipulation of motoric rhythms, and kaleidoscopic harmonic changes.  Part and parcel of his musical personality was an acerbic appreciation of satire, parody, and even the grotesque.

          Although he travelled widely early on, he returned to the Soviet Union from time to time for extensive concertizing; his works were performed frequently there, and he always kept his Soviet passport.  He was never a political naïf regarding the life of artists under that political system, and it must be surmised that his eventual removal to the USSR was made with open eyes.   His musical language had been gradually moving to a simpler, more accessible style—a necessary condition for artists who wished to serve a collectivist state and appeal to the masses.  So, when he and his family arrived in Russia in 1936, he adapted readily to political requirements by composing works that addressed the necessary content of  “socialist realism.”   This primarily meant patriotic subjects, in a traditional musical style, that served political ends. 

          Never really playing his political cards, he managed to survive the incredibly difficult times during the 1940s by adroit artistic gamesmanship with the harshly repressive Stalinist state.  He never joined the Communist Party, and made few public statements.  He struggled to survive, maintain his artistic integrity and continue composing in an authentically personal style.  But, alas, the difficulties of the extreme, repressive measures beginning in 1948 ultimately got the best of him.  His death on 5 March 1953 ironically garnered little recognition—Joseph Stalin’s demise on the same date preëmpted the stage.

          His “Classical” symphony is a charming example of “what if.”  That is to say, what if one of the great twentieth-century modernists had decided to compose a symphony using many of the essential characteristics of Haydn and Mozart, while also employing his own ideas of melody and harmony?  Prokofiev’s unique answer has long been part of the standard orchestral repertoire, owing to its adroit, successful combination of what would seem to be antithetical elements.  Written in the summer of 1917, while the composer was a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, it is cast in the traditional four movements of the classic model:  fast movement in sonata form, slower movement, dance movement, and fast concluding movement. 

          By the time of World War I there had arisen in musical composition a counter approach to the dense complexities of late romantic music, and the equally dense dissonance of the works of those who pushed past the limits of tonality.  It sought solutions in an opposite approach that featured simplicity of harmony, melody, and rhythm, along with an adaptive reuse of the forms of times past.  Dubbed “neoclassicism” by music scholars, it became an important way of composing during the period between the world wars.   The preëminent composer of the century, Stravinsky, adopted these principles around 1919, and stayed with them for three decades.  Other luminaries dabbled in the techniques, but went on in other directions.  

          Prokofiev’s Symphony is considered perhaps the earliest foray into neoclassicism, or at least a harbinger, but Prokofiev later dismissed the stylistic significance of it in terms of his own development as simply “an experiment.”   Indeed, he never again wrote anything quite like it, and quickly moved forward into his familiar modern, but personal, style.   It’s important to keep in mind throughout this work that the key word is “experiment,” for in its simplicity, it’s far more “classical” than “neo.”  Most works of other composers more committed to so-called neo-classicism used the older elements somewhat more sparingly, and employed newer approaches with commitment.

          The first movement is about as simple as one can get: almost all of the notes are either eighth notes or quarter notes, the rhythms are straightforward and clearly right out of the middle of the eighteenth century.  Even the melodic lines are definitely “in a clear key,” but with one decided exception:  A lifelong proclivity of Prokofiev was to write an apparently simple diatonic melody, but jumping around from distant chord to distant chord in a most refreshing manner, only to land right back on the tonic chord just in time!  And thus it is here.   The first theme, a busy, dynamic one, is heard right at the beginning.  The clear, mincing second theme, is a delicate affair, composed of soft, short notes that drop a whole two octaves, accompanied by the bassoon.  Some busy closing material takes us to the end of the exposition—all in a “textbook” sonata form.   Lots of surprising changes of harmony clearly tell us that we’re in the development, and the recap is as straightforward and as easy to follow was one could wish.

          The second movement contains another “life-long” signature of the composer:  a delicate melody in the violins, scored very high above the prevailing texture, sounding ghost-like, wan, and thin.   It’s basically the main theme here, and after some contrast in the middle, the gentle interlude ends as it began.

          During the classical period the third movement was almost always a minuet, only later did the likes of Beethoven speed it up to become a scherzo—but almost always in triple meter.  But here, our stalwart—and always sly—Prokofiev reaches back one more historical period (to the baroque) and selects a common dance from that time that is in two—not three—beats to the bar.  The gavotte traditionally has the accent on beat two, rather than the conventional downbeat of one, so listen for trills, accents, and other ways of emphasizing beat two.   Prokofiev knew his historical dances.

          Rondos are common ways of shaping the last movement during the classical period, but here, the composer eschews that in favor of a quick, little sonata form that sparkles and scintillates—to the point that the material zips along so much that it’s rather hard to follow the form.   The first theme is hardly more than figuration—at least to the ear, until finally a clear tune emerges as the second theme.  The development jumps around harmonically, as you may expect, except observe:  there are no traditional dark clouds harmonically speaking in this development.  It’s overwhelmingly major chord after major chord.  The recap whips in before you know it, and the race to the end of this sparkling little movement is over.  This effervescent, diminutive symphony may have been an “experiment,” but the positive results have been clear for a century, now.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan