Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reading Prokofiev's 1st

Sergei Prokofiev, best known to Westerners for his fairy tale for narrator and orchestra Peter and the Wolf, was one of the most important Soviet composers, if not the most important. He began as the enfant terrible of modern music, writing music of such steely hardness that Glazunov once famously fled from a performance of his music fearing that it would damage his hearing. Now, 55 years after his death, his music has mellowed with age, so that even casual listeners can assess its greatness and enjoy its beauty. For against the whole background of the vast and rapid changes of the 20th century, Prokofiev's music continues to impress us with its solid craftmanship, emotional profundity, inspired tunefulness, intelligible complexity, and idiosyncratic charm.

In some ways, Prokofiev could be regarded as the 20th century's Beethoven. For one thing, both composers were idiots when it came to ideologues. Beethoven suffered a harsh disillusionment in Napoleon, withdrawing the dedication of his Third Symphony when the Frenchman declared himself Emperor. Prokofiev, on the other hand, fled the Russian revolution to become the darling of Paris and the international music scene. But Stalin lured him back to the USSR, where he spent the rest of his life trembling at Party denunciations of his "formalist tendencies," struggling against ambitious rivals in the state-backed Composers' Union and sudden reversals in the criticism of his work by the state-run press. He was forced to dance to Stalin's tune in his public statements and musical projects, altering some of his music and withdrawing others from public performance in order to satisfy political decrees. Prokofiev's first wife disappeared into Siberia on espionage charges and was never heard from again. Tragically, Prokofiev never lived to see a relaxion of Stalin's repressive policies, since both men died on the same day in 1953.

In spite of all this, Prokofiev was a highly prolific composer, producing many fine film scores, concertos, ballets, operas, keyboard and chamber works, and seven symphonies. His First Symphony in D major (op. 25) is titled "Classical" because of its affinity with the style of Haydn. This piece may, in fact, be the beginning of the "neo-classical movement" in 20th century music. Prokofiev's aims in writing this piece appear to have been twofold: (1) to "get inside" Haydn's method of composition, in order to better understand how to conduct Haydn's symphonies; and (2) as an exercise in composing without pounding on a piano, a habit he wanted to break. It is a brisk, brief symphony bursting with attractive, accessible music. Three of its four movements clock in at around 4 minutes each; the third-movement "Gavotta" lasts a mere minute and a half. This is one symphony that leaves you hungry for more!

Prokofiev launches directly into the Allegro (Movement I) with the first of a number of loud chords spread throughout the movement like structural pillars. The first theme is bright, playful, and guileless. After he pulls it apart into its constituent motives and plays with them for a little, we find that we have moved unawares to the dominant (the tonal area of the second theme), a flirtatious little number that leads with very little ado to an emphatic codetta. The development adds a little shadow to the bright first theme and weightiness to the second, building up a perfectly-placed climax just in time for the recap where all is light and carefree again. The movement ends with a brilliant little coda.

Movement II, Larghetto, begins with several bars of accompaniment that elicit feelings of ancticipation. Don't worry, Prokofiev doesn't cheat you. He soon unspools an odd but beautiful theme in phrases that seem to go on for yards. This is followed by a tiptoe passage that reminds me vaguely of a Sibelius slow movement I'm going to tell you about in my next post. After some judicious key changes, the sun comes out again, and Prokofiev reminds us of his long-unspooled theme. The movement ends as it began, with quiet accompaniment-music.

Movement III takes longer to describe than to perform. It is a dance in courtly cadence, but with angular melodies leading to harmonic surprises. After a brief middle section that reminds me of hens roosting, the movement ends with a brief and quiet reprise of the opening tune.

Movement IV, marked "Molto Vivace" (very lively), is a madcap race decorated with cheerful tunes and hints of bird song, including one of the longest series of the same note repeated over and over that you will ever deem "totally enjoyable." This kind of music may remind you that this same Prokofiev made children's eyes dance with the magic of Peter and the Wolf.

IMAGES: Prokofiev, Prokofiev, and Prokofiev. Everyone starts out as a child, you know!

EDIT: Here is Russian conductor Valery Gergiev conducting the last two movements of this symphony, with the Vienna Philharmonic:

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