Classical influences in the music of the twentieth century: two early examples by Prokofiev and Stravinsky

Posted on November 13, 2013


Open College of the Arts assignment, Music 1, Part Four

Tibor Kovacs, October 2013


It is certainly not an overstatement to say that the classical period (from the early eighteenth to the early nineteenth century) produced the most successful musical style in the Western tradition, with a wide popular appeal lasting for centuries, combined with a high level of artistic sophistication. The recipe for success, in a nutshell, would be a reasonably simple, elegant and flexible formal language, a fertile ground for beautiful melodies to flourish and new ideas to develop. Its ultimate goal is to find balance at every level, between grace and power, simple and complex, stability and instability, pleasing and teasing, light and dark.

For Prokofiev and Stravinsky, among other early twentieth century avant-garde musicians, a close attention to the classical style was an experience that significantly changed the direction of their creative work. To understand their fascination for the classical style we would need to take into account their disillusionment in the emotional excesses of romanticism, perhaps some anxiety facing the infinite world of new musical forms, and the absurdities and turmoil caused by the First World War. There was a desperate need for lightness and equilibrium.


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


Composing his first symphony, Prokofiev’s declared intention was to create an original piece of music ‘imitating’ the 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 reputation with modernistic pieces like his Piano Concerto No.1 or the Sarcasms for piano op. 17 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 classical 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 (a stylized 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 would be considered innovative in terms of the classical style. While there is still a basic interplay between tonic and dominant, Prokofiev would use modulations to rather distant 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.

Examples of the way Prokofiev is using modulation and variable phrase length can be identified in the way he presents the first theme in the first movement exposition. The theme is played four times, first in a neat, classical way, in the tonic key of D major. In the second display, which comes as an ‘answer’, there is a mischievous modulation to the rather remotely related C major key. This could have been a typical ‘Haydn surprise’ though. 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 structure, it becomes slightly longer in the third take and shorter in the fourth, and is modulated to the B minor key from bar 27, the relative minor to D major, a near relative. The bridge between the first and second theme will then stabilise the music in the dominant A major key from bar 36.

Another example is the development section of the first movement (starting at measure 87), where 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 trumpets 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 major (A minor to C major), mirroring the C major passage in measures 11-18, before ending in D major from measure 150.

The second movement takes a slower pace and sounds lyrical and soothing, with a graceful balance between regular and irregular, familiar and unexpected. The third movement is the one with closest resemblance to a classical dance movement, but it is more concise and economical, bringing to the minimum the musical elements representing the content.

The fourth movement is a bright, virtuosic, fast pace movement, composed around major chords. Along with techniques similar to the ones described in the first movement, I noticed some especially artful tonal transitions, e.g. the way the tonality changes from D major to C major (as in the first movement) through A♭ major progression in measures 21-22. 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. The third melody seems to unify the two in one single phrase, with an interesting internal symmetry.


Igor Stravinsky – Pulcinella (ballet)


Stravinsky “fell victim” to the charm of classical music when he stumbled into a project initiated by the choreographer Léonide Massine and Sergei Diaghilev. Their intention was to bring to life the Neapolitan commedia del arte play Pulcinella in the form of a Ballets Russes production.

To understand the nature of this piece, I think it is important to look into the process of its creation, which was teamwork of modern artists. According to the comprehensive research summarised in his volume Stravinsky’s Pulcinella: a facsimile of the Sources and Sketches Maureen A. Carr cites Massine describing his fascination for an open-air marionette theatre play of Pulcinella in Tuscany, Italy in 1914:“I was intrigued by their grotesque masks and their jerky, loose-limbed movements”. Diaghilev took up the idea and convinced Stravinsky to compose the music, working jointly with Massine and Pablo Picasso, the latter creating the costumes and stage design. The piece is essentially a collage, which is a technique widely used in cubist and other modernist visual design by Picasso and Braque. For this piece Stravinsky used musical material attributed to the enigmatic Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Much of the music was actually composed by other early eighteenth century composers, such as Domenico Gallo, Count Unico Wilhelm Wassenaer and Carlo Ignazio Monza, falsely attributed to Pergolesi. Stravinsky welded together 21 excerpts from these early musical pieces, reproducing some of them in their original form (e.g. Serenata, Gavotta, Tempo di minuetto), and re-composing others with a great deal of creative freedom (e.g. Presto, Tarantella and the Allegro Assai ending). The result is an enchanting piece of ballet music, balancing the sweet-melancholic charm of early classicism and the expressive intensity of modernism.

Taken altogether, the piece is built on a modern conception, framework and orchestration. It is scored for an expanded orchestra of 33 instruments. The small musical pieces following each other provide a sense of permanent change. They seem to be placed in a way to emphasise contrast between them, in terms of differences between tempo, tone colour, regular or irregular rhythms, and straightforward or complex tonality.

The content is represented by galant music, with modernistic alterations, which are sometimes as subtle as a few added dissonant notes to the triadic chords or a few measures of irregular rhythmic patterns (e.g. in the no. 4. Allegro). Transitions from one piece to another sound strange at times, due to unusual changes in tone colour (e.g. using the trombone at the end of no. 6 Allegro and no. 17 Allegro). Other pieces sound more like modern music, only vaguely resembling the source, like no. 8 Allegro Assai, with its irregular phrase structure, sudden dynamic and rhythmic changes, intensive, turbulent, disjunct melodies and a wide range of tone colour displayed in a short time. Also, no 15 Tarantella boasts with a very colourful orchestration, and in no 19. Vivo the original cello and basso concerto is completed with additional effects from the brass section and harsh glissando. This sounds raw and grotesque, but fits very well the action on the stage, a fight scene between four competing Pulcinella’s. There is frequent use of techniques like ostinato, glissando, pizzicato or staccato, uncharacteristic to the classical style.

The modern compositional techniques, together with the creative assembly of the musical material supports very well the storyline presented in the ballet, with added dramatic effect. The charming melodies, with their classical purity, the simplified geometrical design of the stage and costumes as well as an innovative and expressive choreography create a playful, slightly humorous-grotesque feeling, a piece of commedia del arte able to entertain and dazzle a modern audience.



Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., Palisca C. V. (eds.) (2005) A history of Western music. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Rosen, C, (2005). The Classical style. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. 4th ed. Great Britain: Faber and Faber Limited

Lebrecht, N. (2000). The Complete Companion to 20th Century Music. 2nd ed. Great Britain: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.  

Morgan, R. P. (1991). Twentieth-century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America. London: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd.

Carr, M. E. (ed.) (2010). Stravinsky’s Pulcinella: a facsimile of the Sources and Sketches. USA: A-R Editions, Inc.

Greenberg, R. (2011) How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. 3rd ed. United States of America: The Teaching Company

Green, E (2007) Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and the abiding question of sincerity in music. Three Oranges Journal. 13. Available from Serge Prokofiev Foundation website: [Accessed 28 October 2013]

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.

Stravinsky, I. (1920). Pulcinella. J. & W. Chester, London. Musical socre.

Wikipedia (2013) Sergei Prokofiev [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed 26th September 2013]

Wikipedia (2013) Symphony No. 1 (Prokofiev) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed 27th September 2013]

Wikipedia (2013) Pulcinella (ballet) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed 02nd October 2013]

Wikipedia (2013) Igor Stravinsky (ballet) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed 02nd October 2013]


Posted in: Part 4