Prokofiev and Haydn: Sparkling Classics
Sergey Prokofiev 1891-1953
Sergey Prokofiev
1891-1953
Sergey Prokofiev
Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, Classical

Prokofiev was a composer caught between two cultures. Born into an affluent musical family, he left the Soviet Union in the summer of 1918, shortly after the 1917 Revolution. For the next 17 years he lived in Paris and toured the United States, returning to his native country in the mid-1930s never to leave again.

The year 1917 was a traumatic one for Russia. The February Revolution had deposed the Tsar, and the October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power. Meanwhile, on the international front, Russia was losing disastrously in its war against the central powers, Germany and Austria. In the spring and summer of that year Prokofiev retired to a village not far from Petrograd (now and formerly St. Petersburg) and, as if oblivious to the earth-shattering turmoil around him, composed at a furious pace. Among the creations of that period was his sunny Symphony No. 1, which he subtitled “The Classical.”

The Symphony was an experiment. An accomplished pianist, Prokofiev routinely composed at the piano, although he noticed: “…thematic material composed without the piano was often better in quality…I was intrigued with the idea of writing an entire symphonic piece without the piano…So this was how the project of writing a symphony in the style of Haydn came about…it seemed it would be easier to dive into the deep waters of writing without the piano if I worked in a familiar setting.” This delicate, nostalgic Symphony premiered in Petrograd in April 1918 amidst civil war and social upheaval with the composer on the podium.

The overall Classical style of the Symphony makes it easy to forget that it is a twentieth-century creation. The opening Allegro conforms to the standard first movement sonata allegro form, with occasional twentieth-century harmonies. Example 1 The second theme is a caricature of the eighteenth-century Rococo style, played on the tips of the violin bows “con eleganza” like a mincing dancing master – but with a less than elegant surprise sforzando at the cadence. Example 2 The graceful Larghetto theme in the second movement, introduced first by the violins then joined by a flute, shows what a little musical creativity can do with a simple descending scale. Example 3 A middle section introduced by the solo bassoon and pizzicato strings emphasizes the constant sixteenth-note pulse that pervades the entire movement before the full orchestra joins in, then slowly fades to return to the opening theme. Example 4

The short Gavotte replaces a traditional minuet/trio movement. Prokofiev’s is a clumsy dance, whose melody contains awkward octave leaps and strange grace notes in the bassoon. Example 5 The Trio is accompanied by a bagpipe-like drone. Example 6 Prokofiev loved this movement, recycling and expanding it some 20 years later in Act I of his ballet Romeo and Juliet.

The Molto vivace finale is in sonata form, rather than the usual rondo, but has the same persistent dynamic drive as the finales of so many Haydn symphonies. Like the opening of the Symphony, the first theme is certainly accessible but lacks the "singability" of Prokofiev's classical models. Example 7 The brief second theme, which serves also as a closing theme, provides the sole "tune" in the movement. Example 8 In composing it, Prokofiev played a game with himself, trying to eliminate all minor chords, a restriction that makes it extremely difficult to do much with a development section. So he didn't.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
1756-1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major, K. 207

There is some controversy among scholars whether Mozart himself actually gave the first performance of his five known violin concertos, but there is no question that he was already a master violinist in his childhood. In fact, his father, Leopold – ever the "backstage parent" – was frequently after him to show off his skills by writing a virtuoso concerto for the instrument: “You yourself do not know how well you play the violin,” he wrote to his son. When Mozart finally did write concerti for the instrument in 1773-75, he wrote a bunch of them, his five concerti only 12 Koechel numbers apart. At that time, Mozart was in Salzburg, in the employment of Prince Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo for whom he both composed and served as violinist in the court orchestra. Mozart hated his employer who was a strict taskmaster and had no truck with his young musician, however talented. Although Mozart was more than seven years in the Archbishop’s employ, he spent nearly three of them on furlough, performing around Europe and, none too diplomatically, looking for another job. By 1773 he was apparently quite negligent about his violin playing and possibly wrote the concertos for his friend, the court violinist Antonio Brunetti, whose abilities were limited and who had difficulty playing them – he commissioned him to compose an alternative finale in rondo form (Now known as Rondo K. 269) for the Concerto No. 1. After 1775 Mozart occasionally performed the concerti himself.

The violin concerti are relatively modest works by a youthful master, written at a time when the genre was somewhat neglected. After the flourishing of the Baroque violin concerto by such masters as Vivaldi and Tartini, the violin concerto went into partial hibernation until Beethoven awakened it with a new kind of virtuosic writing that was to set the stage for the great romantic concertos of Mendelssohn, Bruch and Tchaikovsky, among others. Mozart left no cadenzas but most players either write their own or borrow one from the pen of any number of great violinists.

Although Mozart’s structure is entirely classical, he retains the Baroque custom of having the soloist play along in all the tutti passages. It was Beethoven who completely detached the soloist from the rest of the orchestra, freeing it to develop its own voice.

The first movement of the Concerto is traditional in structure, opening with a classic double exposition, in which the orchestra plays through the major themes and is then followed by the soloist. Example 1 The development, however, is quite a surprise as the mood suddenly darkens with a switch to the minor mode in a distant key plus new thematic material for the soloist. Example 2

Most Mozart slow movements are some kind of ABA form, but this one is in sonata form with double exposition. In the first exposition, in which the soloist plays the first violin line, the orchestra presents a series of themes Example 3, while the soloist begins the second exposition with a new one Example 4. The murmuring accompaniment that pervades the movement features the second violins.

Mozart rounds out the Concerto with another sonata form, instead of the customary rondo Example 5. This movement is the flashiest of the three for both the soloist and the violins as a whole.
Franz Joseph Haydn 1732-1809
Franz Joseph Haydn
1732-1809
Franz Joseph Haydn
Symphony No. 94 in G major, “Surprise”

The long life of Franz Joseph Haydn spanned one of the great upheavals in the economics of the musical profession. It marked the demise of the aristocratic “ownership” of music and musicians and the rise of the middle class as patrons, supporters and chief consumers of the arts. No one bridged this transition more effectively than Haydn, who spent most of his career as the valued erudite servant of an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat to become in his later years the darling of London's merchants – without offending either.

In early spring 1791, Haydn made the first of two extended trips to London at the invitation of the impresario Johann Peter Salomon and actually considered settling there for good. Salomon, violinist, conductor and concertmaster of his own orchestra, had been writing to Haydn for some time in an attempt to get him to come to London, but to no avail. When Haydn’s lifelong patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, died and the family disbanded the orchestra, the composer was suddenly a free agent. Capitalizing on the situation, Salomon personally went to Vienna to “fetch” Haydn with a princely lure of 1200, and Haydn bit. He composed numerous works for performance at Salomon’s concerts, primarily his last twelve symphonies (Nos. 93-104, known today as the “London” or “Salomon” symphonies). These performances, like most concerts of the time, went on for hours and were a mixed bag, including vocal, chamber and orchestral pieces. For the decade of the 1790s, their star attraction was Haydn’s music.

The Salomon concerts were so successful that a rival organization, the Professional Concerts, tried to seduce Haydn away from Salomon with even higher fees than he was already getting. Always a man of principle, Haydn refused, and the Professional Concerts hired his former student Ignace Pleyel to provide a new work for every concert, now openly suggesting that Haydn was past his prime anyway. But by 1793, the Professional Concerts had gone under, and the old man reigned supreme.

Haydn arrived for his first season in London armed with a number of new works, but his huge popularity demanded more and more from his pen. In the summer of 1791 he retreated to the countryside to compose; the Symphony No.94 was actually the fourth of the twelve to be finished. Premiered in March, 1792, it was a tremendous success, with one newspaper stating: “The second movement was the happiest of this great Master’s conceptions. The surprise might not be unaptly [sic] likened to the situation of a beautiful shepherdess who, lulled to slumber by the murmur of a distant waterfall, starts alarmed by the unexpected firing of a fowling-piece. The flute obbligato was delicious.”

The reference was to the second movement, Andante, a theme and four variations in which an unexpected fortissimo accompanied by the timpani interrupts the repeat of the first strain of the theme. Example 1 The rumor, now legend, that Haydn had written in the famous chord to “wake up” the English audience – or one member thereof – who fell asleep at his concert became immediately so widespread that Haydn himself had to refute it. Instead, he claimed that he had wanted to make a grand statement to ensure that his concerts would outshine those of his student Pleyel, whose rival series had opened the previous week. It is clear, however, that Haydn was speaking tongue-in-cheek, as he maintained a close friendship with Pleyel while the two were ostensibly slugging it out.

But there are more surprises than that single fortissimo outburst. The Symphony begins with Haydn's customary slow introduction. Example 2 For the Allegro, Haydn resorted to one of the clever little touches that kept his music so fresh. The movement is written in sonata form but with only one true theme, rather than the usual two. Example 3 The whole exposition is built on the melodic ideas within the single theme. Although in most hands, the result would have been monotonous indeed, Haydn spins out every fragment of the melody, using surprising key changes and transitions. Example 4

The Andante theme and variations packs more than one surprise. While the first variation goes without a hitch, the second goes off on a musical tangent, beginning in the minor and suddenly changing key. Example 5 The third variation is business as usual, featuring flute and oboe solos. Variation 4, however, once again goes off the rails upon the repeat of the second strain into a little development/coda. For twenty-first century listeners, this kind of diversion seems trivial, but if we listen with the ears of Haydn's audience, we understand their delight at having their expectations thwarted.

Haydn's minuets were always the least bit clunky – more like the peasant Ländler than a court dance. With the help of the timpani, No. 94's is particularly so. Example 6 The little Trio is probably the weakest part of the Symphony, in not providing significant contrast either in melody or instrumentation. Example 7

The Finale is another sonata form, a flexible structure that Haydn was partial to. After stating the rondo theme, Example 8 Haydn takes his time getting to the second one using the typical episodic structure of the rondo. Example 9 There is a significant development before the return to the rondo theme. The surprise in this movement is the long coda, which, with its surprising key changes is more like another development section. Example 10

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2014