Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), like Liszt, was a piano virtuoso. In fact, his talent at the keyboard and his reputation as a musical “enfant terrible” sustained him after he fled the Soviet Union following the Revolution of 1917. The “Classical” Symphony has little to do with any of this – there’s nothing particularly “terrible” about the Prokofiev we encounter in this work, and there’s no piano in sight. In fact, the composition of the Symphony marked an attempt by the composer to liberate himself from his instrument.
“The idea occurred to me to compose an entire symphonic work without the piano,” Prokofiev remembered in his 1948 autobiography. “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… 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 own style of composition, would have appropriated something from the modern.”
The Symphony follows Haydn’s blueprint: opening Allegro in sonata form, a slow movement, a dance movement (Haydn used minuets instead of gavottes, but Prokofiev’s choice retains an 18th-century flavor), and a finale. Prokofiev also calls for an orchestra that wouldn’t have shocked Haydn in the least. Everywhere, though, the Russian composer uses it to achieve a sense of Haydn transplanted, updated, and rethought. Harmonies are pungent, rhythms are clean and driving, and melodies are clever in Prokofiev’s most intriguing manner. The elegance and rustic humor of the man of the 18th century become the bustling intellect and self-awareness of one of the 20th in Prokofiev’s hands.
John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He has also annotated programs for the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles Opera, and Hong Kong Arts Festival.