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Symphony No. 1, Classical

In his sunny First Symphony, Prokofiev channeled the airy style of Classical-era composers Haydn and Mozart.

Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, Ukraine, on April 27, 1891, and died in Moscow on March 5, 1953. He began composing the Symphony No. 1 in Russia in 1916 and completed the full score on September 10, 1917. The first performance was given by the State Orchestra (later renamed the Leningrad Philharmonic) in Petrograd on April 21, 1918, with Prokofiev conducting.

The score of the Classical Symphony calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The symphony is about 15 minutes long.

Prokofiev composed his most cheerful and sunny symphony, the Classical, during one of the darkest and saddest moments in modern Russian history. At the World War I front, the Tsar’s soldiers were dying by the thousands. The Russian army was so poorly equipped that new recruits were instructed to take weapons from the dead. Back in Petrograd (whose original name of St. Petersburg was judged too German with a war on), people were starving and desperate. In February 1917, the last of the Romanov rulers, Tsar Nicholas II, abdicated and a weak new Provisional Government took power. On October 25, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks ousted that regime, seized the Winter Palace, and established the world’s first socialist state. A few months later, a bloody civil war began that plunged the country into prolonged and violent chaos, and sent most of the members of the artistic intelligentsia (including Prokofiev) into emigration.

Spared from military service as the only child of a widow, Prokofiev was not to be found at the barricades. Instead, he sat and composed a work as far removed from the politics of the moment as it could be. This tribute to the spirit of Mozart and Haydn, and by extension to the spirit of that great builder of St. Petersburg, Catherine the Great, became Prokofiev’s sassy answer to the 1917 Revolutions, and also his parting gift to the city that had given him so much. As he wrote in his diary:

When our classically inclined musicians and professors (who in my opinion are really nothing more than false-classics) hear this symphony, they will start shouting about yet another impudent act committed by Prokofiev, and that he can’t even leave Mozart in peace in his grave, but had to disturb him with his dirty hands, sprinkling dirty Prokofievian dissonances among the pure classical pearls—but my real friends will understand that the style of my symphony is really Mozartian and classical, and then will appreciate it, and the public will probably be glad that it is uncomplicated and merry, and of course they will applaud.

Prokofiev finished his work on the Classical Symphony in autumn 1917 in the countryside outside Petrograd, where he found inspiration for the joyfully brisk finale (Molto vivace) strolling alone through the fields. He decided to write the movement without using a single minor triad, even though he was concerned that “its gaiety might border on the indecently irresponsible.” To his diary, he confided his uncertainty about the rapidly changing political and military events, and admitted:

I am neither a counter-revolutionary nor a revolutionary and I do not stand on one side or the other....I was amazed that during a time of war, revolution, civil war, and famine it was possible for a young man eligible for military service, and who was not wealthy, to live so well and so easily, without cares. It was Schopenhauer and his truths which gave me this spiritual world and the consciousness of happiness: don’t chase after happiness—strive for the lack of sadness. How many possibilities this truth bestows upon us! And how many exquisite surprises does life present to a person who recognizes and embraces this truth!

In his first completed symphony, Prokofiev took the rigorous instruction he had received at St. Petersburg Conservatory from experienced symphonic masters like Alexander Glazunov and deconstructed it. What he produced was a sort of “anti-symphony,” a mini retro-masterpiece that bypasses late-Romantic rhetoric by returning to the style of Haydn (slyly and irreverently updated). Less than fifteen minutes long, the Symphony No. 1 is by far the shortest of Prokofiev’s seven. The third-movement Gavotte, a charmingly clumsy dance with grotesquely comic grace-notes in the bassoon part and ungainly octave leaps in the melody, lasts barely more than a minute. This movement, so reminiscent of the small solo piano pieces that first made Prokofiev’s reputation as the “bad boy of Russian music,” was actually the first of the four to be written, and seems to have set the joking, tongue-in-cheek tone for the whole composition.

Prokofiev gave it the title “Classical,” he later wrote, partly out of “naughtiness” and a desire to “tease the geese.” Knowing how thoroughly he had irritated his conservatory professors with raucous works like the exuberant First Piano Concerto and the cacophonous Scythian Suite, both perceived as an aggressive trashing of the rules of classical decorum, he wanted to confuse and taunt his critics with a brilliant musical commentary on the Viennese style. That “neo-classicism” was an important feature of the Modernist movement (later adopted by Prokofiev’s frenemy Igor Stravinsky) is by now hardly a revelation, of course, but there are few examples fresher and more distinctive than Prokofiev’s First Symphony, which would eventually become the best-known of his seven, and one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all 20th-century symphonies.

Usually Prokofiev (a brilliant pianist) began his composition process at the piano, but this time he decided to proceed without the help of the keyboard, since he thought “a composition written this way would probably have more transparent orchestral colors.” It was the technique of Haydn, a composer whose music he had recently been studying with his professor Nikolai Tcherepnin, that he had most in mind as he worked. The Classical Symphony is also the first of numerous works that show Prokofiev’s particular fondness for the genres and spirit of the 18th century; others include his operas Love for Three Oranges and Betrothal in a Monastery, the Lieutenant Kijé Suite, and the ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella.

In form, the symphony is traditional, with four movements. The orchestration is also what one would find in Haydn, for paired wind instruments without trombones. Characteristic features of the pre-Beethoven symphonic style abound: lots of scales and arpeggios, octave leaps, trills and grace-notes, sudden shifts of volume from piano to tutti fortissimo, repeats. But Prokofiev gently exaggerates these elements and inserts purely modern harmonic twists, especially in the Gavotte, where he playfully juxtaposes clashing major triads. His use of the timpani also displays a bumptious irreverence. But the exaggeration is never carried too far; this is a tribute rather than a parody.

In October, Prokofiev left Petrograd for Kislovodsk, his favorite resort in the Caucasus. He planned to stay a month, but was stranded there because of the October Revolution until spring 1918. In April, he finally returned to Petrograd and made arrangements to embark on a voyage to the United States via Siberia and Japan, having decided that he needed to leave Russia (temporarily, he thought) for a fresh perspective. On April 20, the dress rehearsal for the world premiere of the Classical Symphony (several times postponed) took place in the Capella inside the Winter Palace complex. In attendance was Anatoly Lunacharsky, culture commissar for the new Bolshevik government, who gave Prokofiev the necessary permission and documentation to leave the USSR. “I conducted well and the orchestra played with animation and accuracy, although not with as much subtlety as I would have liked. When I got up to the podium, a ray of sun fell on my head from the window up above. I saw purple circles in my eyes, but my bow gave the message that this was the sun’s greeting to my sunny symphony and to me.” The sun shone the same way the following day for the premiere, a matinee performance. “The Symphony went marvelously and was a huge success.”

Twelve days later, Prokofiev left for Moscow to catch the trans-Siberian express. He intended to return to Russia within a matter of months, but would stay away—in the United States and Europe—for nine years. Despite its cheery personality, the Classical Symphony turned out to be a kind of musical requiem for the imperial, refined city of Prokofiev’s youth.

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He has contributed essays and reviews to the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Symphony, Musical America, and Opera News, and program essays to the BSO, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival, and Metropolitan Opera.

The first American performance of the Classical Symphony was given by the Russian Symphony Orchestra under Prokofiev’s direction, in December 1918 in New York.

The first Boston Symphony performances of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony were given by Serge Koussevitzky on January 28 and 29, 1927; it remained one of the works he programmed most frequently, both in and out of town between 1927 and 1948.