Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Symphony #1 in D major, "Classical," Opus 25 (1917)

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Sergei Prokofiev (April 23, 1891–March 5, 1953)

  1. Allegro
  2. Larghetto
  3. Gavotte: Non troppo allegro
  4. Finale: Molto vivace

Sergei Prokofiev, who contributed more pieces to the standard symphonic repertory than any other composer after World War I, was born after the premature death of his two elder sisters. His parents, not surprisingly, gave him exceptional care and love. He was first taught by his mother, an excellent pianist and wise teacher. She and his father taught at the local school, but instead of sending him there, they taught him themselves. Prokofiev began to compose at age 5, and had written 100 works by the end of his student years. All of these early works remain unpublished at his behest.

Prokofiev was a very talented and successful pianist. By the time of his graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he had won the concerto competition, overcoming many obstacles to play his own composition and first mature work, the Piano Concerto #1.

Prokofievís music is often described as mischievous, mocking, sarcastic, satirical, and ironic. At the beginning of his career, his work was widely criticized for these characteristics. His early works, notably The Gambler (an opera), and Scythian Suite, were labeled as “futuristic,” because of their innovative harmonies. Medtner, a respected composer and fellow Russian, said of the Scythian Suite: “if that is music then I am not a musician.”

The Classical Symphony may have been written as a sarcastic response to Medtner. In this work, classical symmetry and form underly modern sounds. In the words of Prokofiev, the Classical Symphony is “as Haydn might have written it, had he lived in our day.” The symphony is called “classical” because it was written using the musical idiom and orchestration of an eighteenth-century symphony. Yet it is neither dry nor studied. Composed between 1915 and 1917 and premiered in 1918 when he was about 27 years old, the Classical Symphony was the first significant composition Prokofiev wrote without using the piano.

Despite the political turmoil resulting from the February and October revolutions in Russia, 1917 was one of Prokofievís most productive years. Oddly, the works of from this troubled time are much softer in mood than the earlier Gambler and Scythian Suite. It yielded not only the Classical Symphony, but also Violin Concerto #1, and Piano Sonatas #3 and #4. The turmoil of Prokofievís country is nowhere depicted in these works. He had moved on, and would not return to Russia for 20 years.