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Length: c. 27 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tambourine), strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 13, 1930, Artur Rodzinski conducting, with the composer at the keyboard
Sergei Prokofiev completed his Third Piano Concerto while on vacation at St. Brevin-les-Pins in Brittany in the summer of 1921, shortly after the Parisian premieres of his Scythian Suite and his ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, The Buffoon. He had actually been contemplating the Concerto for a long time. He took most of its themes from material that he had been accumulating towards various ends for ten years. In 1916-1917, for instance, he had toyed with the idea of writing a “white-key” string quartet, music that can be played using only the white keys on the piano. Two themes for the finale of his concerto were retrieved from this project. The theme of the second movement dated from 1913 and two of its variations from a couple of years later, as did the opening theme of the first movement.
The result hardly sounds like a patchwork of bits and pieces cobbled together. The powers of invention and the felicitous balance of signature elements of Prokofiev’s style – irrepressible rhythmic energy, a steely percussive edge, flashes of impish wit, a vivid orchestral palette, and a warm lyrical impulse – surely explain the enduring success of the Third Concerto. After its premiere in Chicago, on December 16, 1921, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock, and the composer as soloist, it quickly became a repertory staple, both for the composer himself (it is the only concerto he recorded) and for many other pianists.
The tonality of the concerto, C major, is the quintessential diatonic “white” scale, and the lyrical, introductory melody of the first movement (as well as the first theme of the finale) does not stray from its confines. With the entry of the solo piano with the main theme, however, Prokofiev’s harmony begins to take on more shading. Piano and orchestra interact in dialogue and rhythmic play; whether leading or following, the soloist is given few opportunities to rest.
The second movement takes the form of a theme with five variations and a coda. The graceful theme, with its octave-displaced ornaments, is reminiscent of a gavotte (the one from the Classical Symphony springs to mind). The variations travel far afield – from the tempestoso of Variation II, to the lumbering syncopations of III, to the unearthly evanescence of IV, to the march strides of V – before the gavotte theme returns accompanied by the staccato chords of the piano.
The finale is a rondo. One of the subordinate themes is a melody as lovely as any Prokofiev ever wrote, but overall the spirit of the movement is propulsive; the momentum ratchets up steadily until the final chord.
During the summer he was working on his Third Concerto, Prokofiev socialized with the symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, who happened to be staying nearby. (Earlier, Prokofiev had set a number of his poems, including Seven, They are Seven, for tenor, chorus, and orchestra. Now he also wrote a cycle of five more settings of Balmont’s poems for voice and piano.) After the composer had introduced him to his Third Piano Concerto, the admiring poet transcribed his own impressions in verses full of vibrant images, ending with the lines:
Prokofiev! Music and youth in bloom,
In you, the orchestra yearned for resonant summer
And the invincible Scythian strikes the tambourine of the sun.
— Laurel E. Fay