Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thinking Classical Symphony; Memory in Prokofiev's first movement

"It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived to our day," wrote Prokofiev in his memoirs, "he would have retained his own style while absorbing something new at the same time."

Prokofiev had studied the music of Haydn intensively with Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945) at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. At this point in his career, Prokofiev was part of the anti-romantic modernist world. "At this moment," wrote William Austin in his lovely account of this work, "the idea of his classical symphony was a joke--a bit of esoteric irony. But to cap the irony, his joke became a popular classic of 20th-century music."

The symphony begins with a short rocket figure. This momentary loud gesture ushers a quiet theme in D major [0:07] in a contour that generally wants to fall. The metric structure is set in two 4-bar phrases. At [0:17] there is a collision by which the music is restated in C major. Not Haydn. This music is exactly parallel to the first theme--it is also set in two four-bar phrases. At [0:27] the music jumps back to D major for a lengthy and thematic transition. The D major tonality at [0:27] allows us to understand the passage in C major as being a prolonged lower neighbor. Compare the ideas of Prokofiev with the opening of Haydn's Symphony No. 56 in C major: The juxtaposition of loud and quiet ideas--one introductory and the other thematic is similar. Haydn uses a descending contour in his fanfare and a generally rising line afterward.

The recapitulation of the Prokofiev begins seamlessly out the development with the rocket figure at [2:58]--but this figure is in C major not D major.

The lyrical passage that follows [3:01] is parallel to the exposition but also stays in C major. The length matches the exposition; two four-bar phrases. And at [3:11] we are bumped up again to D major--but this is the music of transition. Prokofiev creates turbulence by omitting one pillar of the figure. This changes our expectations. It creates an accent on the transition.

It also makes us believe that the key of the recapitulation has been altered. The recapitulation "is reaping what was sown in that tiny excursion to C in the first few measures of the piece," writes the ever-perceptive Michael Steinberg.

Our memory of the opening passage leads us to believe that the recapitulation is exactly parallel to the exposition. The very mark of Haydneque construction is that a perception of significant structural change can be created simply by omission.


  1. I always thought of Haydn in this symphony by Prokofiev--but you truly bring it out in this comparison. Amazing!

  2. This piece always makes me wish that Prokofiev had become obsessed with the neo-classical like Stravinsky..can you imagine Prokofiev filtering Machaut?


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