Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony with Pekka Kuusisto
- March 28, 2020
Bach’s scores elaborated on the template developed a generation earlier by the Italian composer Archangelo Corelli, who pioneered these “grand concertos” for groups of soloists (usually two violins and cello) working within an accompanying ensemble of strings and basso continuo. Each of Bach’s examples tests a different configuration of soloists, including the radical example of the Third Brandenburg Concerto, in which every instrumental part functions as an independent solo voice, apart from the shared basso continuo foundation.
The Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 uses three violins, three violas and three cellos, and the first movement sends a three-note motive cascading through all the voices. (The spiritual significance of the number three in Christian theology was surely not lost on Bach, a devout Lutheran.) Instead of a full slow movement, Bach only notated two linking chords, leaving the performers the option of inserting an improvised cadenza. The concerto closes with a barreling Allegro finale, its tempo and character matching the reeling gigues that conclude most of Bach’s dance suites.
Aaron Grad ©2018
The Kings Theatre, Haymarket, London, was far more than a mere playhouse to the general public in the 1780s and 1790s. It represented a starry, ambitious, headstrong, inspiring and — doubtless — foolhardy spirit of artistic enterprise. For decades it had been home to the best Italian opera London could offer, attracting Europe’s finest singers. Its management changed often, but was consistently dynamic. They attempted to persuade Mozart to be a composer-in-residence, just as Handel had been earlier in the century. When the building burned down in 1789, they simply rebuilt it. When the Lord Chamberlain refused to license the new building, they simply ignored him and continued to present shows. And when the debts mounted to phenomenal heights . . . they simply watched them rise further, decade after decade. Even as the papers were publishing cartoons of the company’s performers begging in the streets, the Kings Theatre had all the glamour of a buzzing hub of cultural life. Mozart never came, but many major figures of the day did. Some we no longer recognize (Giovanni Andrea Gallini and Gasparo Paccheriotti, both celebrities in their time), but many are still famous: Cherubini, J.C. Bach, Sir John Soane and, of course, Haydn.
Haydn launched his second London residency with this symphony, presenting it at the Kings Theatre on February 10, 1794, just a week after his arrival. His first trip to London 18 months earlier had proved such a huge financial success that he needed no encouragement to return. (His London visits more than doubled the life savings he had accumulated throughout all his years as a servant of the Esterhazy family.) But Haydn also returned because of the sheer enthusiasm with which the public received him. For almost his entire professional life, Haydn had worked in relative obscurity, but now, in his late 50s he was being treated like a superstar. Even aristocrats paid homage. Haydn adored it enough to risk crossing a very unstable Europe to reach England.
Haydn did not write this symphony in London, but in Vienna. Upon his return from the first London trip, he had been saddened by news of Mozart’s recent death. Tremendous mutual respect and affection had united the two men in the later 1780s. They studied each other’s work and learned from each other’s example, and you can hear that here. It is often suggested that Haydn emulated Mozart’s liberal use of wind instruments. At the time, reliable wind players were a scarce commodity, leading many composers to deploy the barest minimum (two oboes and two bassoons, sometimes with two horns) and even then to make these optional extras; strings and continuo were the real core of any orchestral performance. In his music, Mozart gave the winds such a high profile that they became indispensable, almost like an autonomous chamber ensemble within the orchestra. In London Haydn had at his disposal an orchestra with excellent wind players, including two clarinets. He calls for them in all but one of his last six symphonies, and they add a soft mellowness to the sound. In this symphony, they act almost as soloists and offer many magical moments of arresting beauty.
Svend-Einar Brown ©2005
The external trappings of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1—its compact four-movement structure, friendly D-major tonality, and, of course, the Classical moniker—amount to something of a Trojan horse. An example of the composer’s Neoclassical style, the Classical Symphony is in fact a work of biting modernism, rife with Prokofiev’s characteristically devilish wit. (The Classical subtitle was Prokofiev’s idea: a bit of fun, perhaps, echoed years later by Britten’s harmonically restless Sonata “in C” for cello and piano.) “I thought that if Haydn were alive today,” Prokofiev remarked, “he would compose just as he did before, but at the same time would include something new in his manner of composition. I wanted to compose such a symphony: a symphony in the Classical style.” Prokofiev’s orchestration (double winds, no low brass) is perfectly Haydn-and-Mozart-sized. As per the Classical style, the opening Allegro and concluding Molto vivace are tightly wrought sonata-form movements. The third movement, a gavotte, even harkens back to the Baroque. Yet the Classical Symphony’s lasting impression is indeed of something unmistakably new.
Though based in traditional tonality, the music’s tonal center is a constantly moving target. The D major starting pistol fired at the top of the Allegro is heard again in the eleventh measure, in C major (close in proximity, but harmonically quite remote from D). The opening melody of the Gavotte wends its way from D major to G major in short order—then takes an even stranger route, via C-sharp major, back to the home key.
Consider, too, Prokofiev’s melodic contours: triadically based, as per the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, but with a sly wink nevertheless. The Allegro’s second theme, uttered con eleganza by the first violins, is decorated with cheeky two-octave grace note leaps. The Larghetto’s featherweight opening melody, set against gossamer string textures, seems at first to nod to the sublime slow movements of Mozart’s piano concerti—yet as it unfurls, the long-breathed tune seems giddily erratic, dawdling like a carefree youth flouting a missed curfew.
Packaged in a symphony of Haydn-esque proportions, the mischievous strokes that give the Classical its spice are made all the more startling. The wolf comes in sheep’s clothing, its bite made fiercer as a result. A century later, among audiences who continue to disdain the early twentieth century’s most audacious scores, the seemingly harmless Classical remains a perennial favorite. Prokofiev’s subterfuge is complete.
Patrick Castillo ©2014