PROKOFIEV: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 / Dreams, Op. 6
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Sergey Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)
Symphonies Nos. 1 \Classical" and 2
The precociously brilliant Prokofiev, high-priest of the ultra-modern, abrasive, pungent, witty, "wrong-note" pre-war avant-garde, had lessons as a child from Glière before going to the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1904, aged thirteen, to study composition and other subjects with Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov and Nikolay Tcherepnin, and piano with Anna Esipova. Graduating ten years later, he visited London where he met Dyagilev; left revolutionary Russia for America in May 1918 (via Japan); and made Paris his base in 1922, becoming a focal point of the city's cultural ferment. Unable to strike lasting roots in the West, he returned with his family to Soviet Russia in 1936, at a time when Stalin's "social realism" reforms were directly opposing, censoring, and obliterating those very progressive and imaginative values for which he had for so long stood. Even compromising his style and vocabularly, modulating his condescending haughtiness, and producing such unquestionable masterworks of "new clarity" as Alexander Nevsky, War and Peace, Romeo and Juliet and the wartime Fifth Symphony, was insufficient to save him in 1948 from being accused (with Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Shebalin, Miaskovsky and others) of bourgeois "formalism": "the cult of atonality, dissonance, and disharmony ...[of] confused neo-pathological combinations that transform music into a cacophony, into a chaotic conglomeration of sounds ...[the] total negation of musical art". Prokofiev's last years were a quiet coda of apologia and ill health, his death (from a brain haemorrhage) overshadowed by that on the same day, 5th March 1953, of Stalin. Not until the cultural honeymoon of the Khruschev era, in a resolution from the Central Committee of the Party (28th May 1958), was he officially rehabilitated.
"In the field of instrumental or symphonic music," Prokofiev told Olin Downes of the New York Times in 1930, "I want nothing better, nothing more flexible or complete than the sonata form, which contains everything necessary for my structural purpose". The traditional rigours of symphony and sonata attracted him from childhood, many of his early sketches being usefully mined for later works. He wrote a Symphony in G Major in 1902, another, in E Minor, six years later; and at least seven apprentice piano or duo sonatas (1903-09). His First Symphony proper, however - the fresh, balletic D Major, Op. 25 - was a later manifestation, from 1916-17. In the shorter of his two autobiographies (up to 1937, written 1941, published 1956), we read: "I spent the summer of [post-February Revolution] 1917 in the country near Petrograd all alone, reading Kant and working a great deal. I deliberately did not take my piano with me, for I wished to try composing without it. Until this time I had always composed at the piano, but I noticed that thematic material composed without the piano was often better... I had been toying with the idea of writing a whole symphony without the piano. I believed that the orchestra would sound more natural. That is how the project for a symphony in the Haydn style came into being: I had learned a great deal about Haydn's technique from Tcherepnin, and hence felt myself on sufficiently familiar ground to venture forth on this difficult journey without the piano. It seemed to me that had Haydn lived to our day he would have retained his own style while accepting something of the new at the same time. That was the kind of symphony I wanted to write: a symphony in the classical style. And when I saw that my idea was beginning to work I called it the Classical Symphony: in the first place because that was simpler, and secondly for the fun of it, to 'tease the geese', and in the secret hope that it would prove me right if the symphony really did turn out to be a piece of classical music. I composed [it] in my head during my walks in the country ...the Gavotte had ...been written earlier, and later on, in 1916, I sketched the first and second movements. But a good deal of work still remained to be done when I returned to it in the summer of 1917. I crossed out the first version of the finale and wrote a completely new one, endeavouring, among other things, to avoid all minor chords ..." Scored for the same classical double wind / brass, string and timpani forces of Haydn's D Major Clock Symphony, with a triple-time minuet-Larghetto in A Major (the influence of Beethoven's Second?), the first performance was conducted by the composer in Petrograd on 21st April 1918, with members of the former Court orchestra who a decade earlier (under Glazunov's watchful eye) had rehearsed his youthful E minor effort. Some years later the popular Gavotte was re-worked for the first act of Romeo and Juliet: Prokofiev, like the baroque masters, was never one to waste a good tune.
At the opposite extreme of the emotional / expressive / dynamic scale, the "modernistic", urban-constructivist, mechanically-motoric, aggressively-climaxed two-part D Minor Second, Op. 40 (Paris 1924-25), is a work "made of iron and steel", brilliantly imaged for large orchestra. "Somewhat similar in outline to that of Beethoven's Sonata Op. III," this, according to Prokofiev, "turned out to be a long and complicated piece ... After an energetic [angular] first movement I wanted to relieve the tension at least in the beginning of the second movement which I had conceived as a [Dorian-type] theme with [six] variations [and coda, a reprise of the melody] and for this I chose a quiet theme [given to oboe] I had composed in Japan [June / July 1918]. But on the whole [it was among] the most chromatic of all my compositions. This was the effect of the Parisian atmosphere where complex patterns and dissonances were the accepted thing, and which fostered my predilection for complex thinking [e.g. the apotheosis of the sixth variation where the principal themes of both movements are cyclically unified] ... The Second Symphony," he goes on, "was performed on 6th June 1925, in Paris [conducted by Koussevitzky]. It was too densely woven in texture, too heavily laden with contrapuntal lines changing to figuration to be successful, and although one critic did comment admiringly on the septuple counterpoint, my friends preserved an embarrassed silence. This was perhaps the first time it occurred to me that I might perhaps be destined to be a second-rate composer. Paris as the undisputed dictator of fashion has a tendency to pose as the arbiter in other fields as well. In music the refinement of French tastes has its reverse side - the public are apt to be too easily bored. Having taken up with one composer they quickly tire of him and in a year or two are searching for a new sensation. I was evidently no longer a sensation". "If I could not make head or tail of it, what could you expect from the audience?" he wrote to Myaskovsky (4th August). "Schluss ! It will be a long while before they hear another complicated work from me... And yet somewhere deep in my heart I nurse a hope that in a few years it will suddenly become clear that the symphony is well constructed. Could it be possible that in my old age [sic, he was only thirty-four] and equipped with my technique in composition I have made such a mess of it, and this after nine months of the most gruelling labour?". Towards the very end of his life, he still thought well enough of the music to consider revising it (in three movements). But he never did. Its huge-limbed structure and frightening decibellic level is how he first conceived it.
Dreams, Op. 6, a symphonic tableau, and Autumnal, Op. 8, a sympho