While writing his SYMPHONY No.1, also known as “Classical”, SERGEI PROKOFIEV marked: “It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived to the present day, he would have kept his style of writing and at the same time would have adopted something of the new times. I wanted to write a symphony just like that.” That’s how he envisioned his work – having a light texture and transparent orchestration in the style of Haydn, combined with innovative harmony.
The idea was probably conceived in his student years at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire during conducting classes in the class of Nikolai Tcherepnin, who often gave Haydn works for practice. After the completion in 1916 of the opera The Gambler, based on Dostoevsky’s novel The Roulette Player, the young composer decided to turn to another, different large-scale genre. So he began work on the symphony as early as 1916, when he composed Gavotte, which later would become the third movement, at the same time he made some sketches for the first and second movements. But his main work came in the summer of 1917, when he retired to his villa in the village of Sarbino, not far from St. Petersburg. There he walked for hours and, enjoying the beautiful scenery, composed – for the first time without a grand piano – the main thematic material. The date he put on the last page of the score was 10 September 1917. The turbulent social events that followed delayed the premiere performance of the work under his baton until 21 April 1918, and on 7 May he was already out of Russia for some 18 years.
Prokofiev explained the choice of the title Classical: “First, it’s more simple that way; second – out of mischievousness, to annoy the geese, and in the secret hope that I would be right in the end, if the symphony really turned out to be classical in the course of time.”
Indeed, this Symphony ranks among the first opuses of the new stylistic wave in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century – neoclassicism. Its appearance came as a surprise to his contemporaries, accustomed to his bold, defiantly epic style of the two piano concertos, the barbaric Scythian Suite based on material from the ballet Ala and Loli, and the sharp harmonies and rhythms of the keyboard Sarcasms and Devilish Suggestion. They astonishingly characterize the work as “classically clear and Mozartianly sunny.”
The author’s text to the first performance of the symphony included a note: The composer seeks to resurrect the ‘good old days’, the days of crinolines, powdered wigs and braids. But there is not the slightest element of museum restoration in the music; it is full of bright cheerfulness, but also a slight irony with the piquant harmonic combinations, bright accents and unusual leaps in melody characteristic of Prokofiev’s handwriting. He retains the small ensemble of the Haydn orchestra, as well as the traditional Viennese device of abrupt changes of transparent pianissimo and dense fortissimo.
The opening Allegro is built on the traditional juxtaposition of two themes for the classical symphony – the first is light, rolling, with transparent orchestration, the second brings a somewhat humorous effect with its wide broken melodic leaps and stabbing accents in the violins (with the author’s remark – ” elegantly!”) and with its imagery of change it seems to resemble carnival masks. The second movement, Larghetto, is set to the rhythm of a polonaise, the graceful melodic line and unrelenting pulsating ‘step’ creating an almost visual suggestion of the ancient court dance. In the Gavotte genre is the third movement, with even more emphasized dance movements and “bows” (years later this musical excerpt would be heard in the famous ballet Romeo and Juliet). The sparkling whirlwind Finale, with its dance-like themes, transparent texture, slender form and serene vitality, completes the symphony’s overall sense of classicism.