Symphony No.1

Sergey Prokofiev

Symphony No.1 in D major

Op. 25 • “Classical”

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 (1916-17) represents the composer's earliest mature effort in a genre he returned to time and again for the remainder of his career. Though the symphony received a warm reception in Russia and abroad -- and remains one of the composer's most frequently programmed works -- Prokofiev's attitude toward it remained ambiguous, vacillating between dismissive and defensive.

The First Symphony is especially intriguing in light of the view of Prokofiev as a leading figure of the Russian avant-garde in the early decades of the twentieth century. The work's anachronistic "Classical" moniker seems particularly apt in respect to a number of its features. The symphony is in a familiar four-movement form, the two fast outer movements (Allegro and Vivace, respectively) bracketing a slow movement (Larghetto) and one inspired by a stylized dance (Gavotto); its textures are economical, its scoring appropriate to an orchestra of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century; and it is of a decidely lighthearted, even humorous character, much in the spirit of the symphonies of Haydn. Indeed, it should be noted that the "Classical" subtitle was Prokofiev's own; scholar R.D. Darell has suggested that the composer may have chosen it partly to describe the work's character, partly because he hoped that the work would one day become a classic, and partly out of pure mischief directed at critics. (In regard to the last, Prokofiev wrote that he meant to "tease the geese.")

Though the symphony is at times sharply dissonant, it maintains a steadfastly tonal basis. Certainly, the "Classical" model is stretched in the work's harmonic language, which is marked by Prokofiev's characteristic ambiguous cadences and sudden shifts between tonal centers. Still, the work retains many of the trappings of Viennese Classicism, from the sonata-allegro form of the first movement, to the Mozartean gavotte and trio of the third, to the exuberant, witty finale. Despite the suggestion of its title, the "Classical" Symphony is not really neo-Classical along the lines of contemporaneous works by Stravinsky, but rather a work of elegant simplicity that evokes the spirit of high Viennese Classicism filtered through the more adventurous sensibilities of Prokofiev's own musical language.

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