Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 “Classical Symphony”

Posted on October 9, 2013


Composing his first symphony, Prokofiev’s declared intention was to create an original piece of music in classical style, drawing inspiration from the works of Joseph Haydn and other classical composers, such as the Mannheim group. But how could a composer who made a name for himself with modernistic pieces as his Piano Concerto No.1 or the Sarcasms for piano op. 17 could remain faithful to his own spirit while composing in the old style? This is a task for a genius, resolved elegantly by Prokofiev. While elements of the old and the new styles are intermixed, the piece creates an overall sense of balance, lightness and brilliance so characteristic to the galant style. In the same time, the tricks discovered by modern music make it sound daring and mischievous, just as Haydn would have liked it.

Looking more closely to the form and content of the piece, we can notice clear resemblances with classical symphonies. It has four movements, first and last in sonata form, the second is a slower lyrical one and the third is a Gavotte (French folk dance). The melodies are brought forward crystal clear, prepared and supported by a vibrant and dynamic texture. Soft and loud sections are alternating, linked by masterful transitions fashionable in classical times, such as Mannheim rockets (e.g. first movement measures 1-2, 140- 141 and 205-206). However, the tonal language of the piece is innovative. While there is still a basic interplay between tonic and dominant, Prokofiev would use modulations to rather dissonant keys.  Another difference is in the way Prokofiev handles phrase length. Although Haydn would alter phrase length to create a surprise effect, Prokofiev is doing it much more freely and frequently.

Prokofiev Symphony No. 1, Danmarks Radio SymfoniOrkestret – conductor: Thomas Søndergård

Movement I

The first movement preserves the basic elements of the sonata form, but the overall structure is more concise than the average classical sonata movement. While in the classical style we would expect repetition (e.g. in the exposition) here nothing is repeated, we get more variety, in terms of harmonic modulation and rhythm. Also, pitch organisation is more disjunct, jumping and rolling very bravely between high and low notes. It starts with an energetic, spectacular classical introduction – a full orchestra crescendo – Mannheim Rocket.

The first theme (theme A) is played four times, first in a neat, classical way, in the tonic key of D major. In the second display there is an “un-classical” modulation to the rather remotely related C major key. Then the theme returns to D major, but this time the phrase length is altered, sounding quite irregular. Where we would expect an 8 measure hypermetric structure, it becomes half measure longer in the third take and half measure shorter in the fourth, and is modulated to a minor key. The bridge between the first and second theme will then stabilise the music in the dominant A major key.

Bridge – after all this tonal and rhythmic instability the bridge seems to stabilise the music in a few rhythmically regular measures, leading us through another Mannheim crescendo to the second theme presented in the dominant A major key.

Second theme – it displays a beautiful melodic line, eight measures, with regular structure in its first presentation. However, in the second presentation, after seven-and-half measures another three and a half measure sequence is stitched to the theme, in a weird F major key. In the third statement we are introduced a seventh chord, leading to a vigorous and electrifying codetta with spectacular dynamic effects.

The following few chords from the second theme provide an example of a chord progression unusual to the classical period:

mm46 – 47: Am

mm48 – 49: G♯m

mm50 – 51:  Fm

mm52 – 53: BM

mm54 – 55: Am

mm56 – 57: G♯m

mm58 – 61: FM

mm62: F♯m

m63: G♯M

m 64: Fm

In an eighteenth century symphony such a progression would be highly unusual, as they would work around the dominant, subdominant, mediant or relative minor, occasionally including a seventh chord to create dissonance.

In the development section (starting at Measure 87) short sequences of the first and second themes are presented kaleidoscopically in keys tonally un-related to the tonic (A♭ major, E major, C major, G major). The rhythm gets out of balance and unexpected changes of tone colour occur, e.g. when the trombones join in with a quintuplet figure in measure 127. For a while we feel like travelling in a car where the driver lost control. But then control is restored by a firm Mannheim crescendo, unifying all the instruments under the key of C minor.

In the recapitulation there is a strong tendency to reach the dominant D major. First the first them transposed to C major leads to a restatement in D major, then again from B Major getting to D major. The second theme now is firmly established in the tonic key and is followed by a short and concise coda in perfect classical style.

Movement II

The second movement takes a slower pace and sounds lyrical and soothing, with a graceful balance between regular and irregular, familiar and unexpected. It is built around two major melodic themes, just like the first.

The first theme (Theme A) is presented after a brief introduction (mm1-4) played on the violins (mm 5-12) in the key of A major, lasting 8 measures. It is followed by a second version (mm13-19) lasting 7 ½ measures, played by violins and flutes.

Theme B is presented by the bassoons (mm 20- 26), it is fragmented between different instruments and modulated to different keys – starts in A major (m27 bassoon), passed to G major and doubled by the lower strings (m28) and switched to C major (m29- 30) and finally to Bb major. It is played against a dense texture, featuring homophonic and antiphonal arpeggios

Movement III

The third movement – a French Gavotte is the one with closest resemblance to a classical dance movement, presenting two melodies embedded in an ABA structure. This movement is very short, concise and economical, an experiment to reduce the musical elements to the minimum that can deliver the musical content.

Movement IV

The fourth movement is a brilliant, vibrant, virtuosic movement with a fast pace. It is centred on the D major key and is written in sonata form, featuring three main themes.

First theme (A) – there is no introduction, it starts with a tutti D major chord head jump into the first theme (A) based on a D major arpeggio. We are presented three variants of theme A, again, the first one lasting eight measures, in a perfect classical style. This passage is gracefully linked by a small chromatic step to the second variant of the theme, transposed to G major, which comes this time with more variation in tone colour, as the flutes and oboes join in. The third variant returns to D major, and after 6 bars it suddenly changes direction, and after two artful measures based on G♯major scalar progressions, we are landed in the bright and brilliant world of C major. This is a longer sequence (bridge) that leads to the second theme.

Second theme (B) – it has an irregular phrase structure and is based on a three bar conjunct melodic phrase first presented in measure 50 by the wind section, while the 7 measures between m43 and m49 prepare this moment, generating tension by sustaining the dominant in a dense orchestral buzz. This pattern of preparation followed by melody would remain the pattern for the entire cluster of theme B, but before we could realise the rule, it is already broken by a sudden, unprepared modulation of the melody to E major in measure 54. Also, the preparatory sections vary in length between 7 and 4 measures.

Third theme (C) – after the second theme cluster, from measure 75 it seems to me that a third theme emerges, played by the flute. Regarding the melodic content, this movement gives me a strong impression of symmetry. There are ascending and descending figures following each other in quick succession. I noticed three major melodic themes, first presented as starting in measures 1, 50 and 75, respectively, with a certain degree of symmetry and similarity between them. For example, in the first theme there is a small figure with two eighth notes and a quarter note, followed by a figure of two quarter notes, while in the second theme two quarter notes are followed by a figure with two eighth notes and a quarter note:

– in theme A there is a small figure with two eighth notes and a quarter note, followed by a figure of two quarter notes:

Theme A

– in theme B there is a symmetrical pattern, a figure of two quarter notes, followed by one with two eighth notes and a quarter note

Theme B

– in both theme A and B we find sequences of four quarter notes, such as:

Quarter notes 1 or Quarter notes 2

– the third melody seems to unify the first and second in one single phrase, as it contains figures similar to the ones in the first two themes, although they are not perfect copies, avoiding a sense of mechanical repetition. There is also an element of intrinsic symmetry inside the third theme, although, again, this is not a perfect one:

Theme 3

The consequence of these similarities is that when the third theme occurs, it sounds perfectly natural and well prepared. Also, it shows us Prokofiev’s ability to ingeniously expand short rhythmic and melodic patterns into a full movement. And because he permanently modulates them, passes them between different instruments, combines them in many ways and presents them on different backgrounds they would always sound fresh and interesting.

Tibor Kovacs


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Prokofiev, S. (1917). Symphony No. 1, ‘Classical’ op. 25 In: S. Prokofiev: Collected Works vol. 14A. Muzgiz, Moscow, 1963. Reprinted in Melville, NY: Belwin Mills, n.d.(ca.1975). Plate 5038. Musical score. Score available from IMSLP on,_Op.25_%28Prokofiev,_Sergey%29

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