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ClassicsOnline Home » PROKOFIEV: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 / Dreams, Op. 6
Sergey Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)
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 symphonic poem for small orchestra, both date from 1910, between the composition of the A major Sinfonietta and the First Piano Concerto. Dreams "was intended for full orchestra. This was a 'pensive' opus, and rather limp. 'Such unsuccessful music can only be composed in one's sleep, quipped the critic of the Theatre and Sport magazine. Dreams was dedicated 'to the author who began with Reverie', an allusion to Scriabin's first orchestral composition. I had a great admiration for Scriabin at this period, especially for his Third Symphony, the first part of which I even arranged for the piano. However, there is no Scriabin influence in the music of Dreams. Autumnal is also written in a pensive mood, more sombre than Dreams. This can be traced to some Rachmaninov moods, mainly to his Isle of the Dead and the Second Symphony, to which it is related in key [E minor] as well. Like the Sinfonietta, Autumnal was revised twice [1915, 1934] and took final shape only twenty [sic] years later". The first performances of both works were given in 1911 in Moscow's Sokolniki summer park -"but with little success" Prokofiev tells us.
1996 Ates Orga
The quotations from Prokofiev's Autobiogpraphy are from the © translation by his son Oleg Prokofiev - Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings (Faber & Faber London 1991), reprinted by kind permission.
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, known under several different names in the present century, has long had a special relationship with the music of Prokofiev. Once his international reputation was established, he often returned to his native Ukraine, whether as soloist or conductor or as a musician whose works formed the principal repertoire of a concert. There are those who still recall his return in 1927 as an accomplished composer, now sitting in the audience and listening to young David Oistrakh perform his Violin Concerto No. 1 for the first time. So upset was the composer by what he heard that he immediately went on stage, when the work was finished, and spent several hours sitting at the orchestra piano, criticizing the minutest details of the performance by both soloist and orchestra. In spite of this, Prokofiev returned again to Kiev until the circumstances of the Second World War and his final illness prevented him from doing so. Nevertheless musicians who were responsible for the first performances of many of Prokofiev's works during the final ten years of his life often travelled to Kiev to work with the orchestra. Mravinsky came with the Sixth Symphony, as did Samosoud with the Seventh. Other conductors and soloists involved in first performances of music by Prokofiev and who worked with the Kiev orchestra include Gauk, Malko, Neuhaus, Oistrakh, Rachlin, Richter and Rozhdestvensky.
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and Theodore Kuchar have continued the long association with the orchestral works of Prokofiev both in concert in Kiev and on tour. In addition to recording the complete cycle of Prokofiev symphonies, the orchestra has given the first performance in Kiev of a number of works by the composer that remained rarely performed under the Soviet régime as a result of their "Western" origins, works that include the Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies and the ballets The Prodigal Son and On the Dnieper, all of which have subsequently been recorded for Naxos.
The Ukrainian conductor Theodore Kuchar is currently artistic director and principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, continuing an association that began in 1992 with his appointment as principal guest conductor of the then Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra. He is also artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, a position he has held since 1990. His professional career began as a principal violist in leading orchestras of Cleveland and Helsinki, followed by appearances as a soloist and chamber musician in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America and the former Soviet Union. In 1980, at the age of twenty, Theodore Kuchar was awarded the Boston Symphony Orchestra Paul Fromm Fellowship, allowing study at Tanglewood with Leonard Bernstein, Colin Davis, Seiji Ozawa and André Previn. After international appearances as a guest conductor, he was appointed, soon after his Australian début in 1987, music director of the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra in Brisbane, while also serving until 1993 as music director of the West Australian Ballet in Perth. In 1989 he was awarded a bronze medal by the Finnish government for services to Finnish music, while in 1994 he played in the world première of Penderecki's String Trio in New York. His recordings as a conductor include a number of important works for Naxos and Marco Polo, among which his recording of the second and third symphonies of Lyatoshynsky for Marco Polo was declared International Record of the Year in 1994 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Under his direction the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine has become one of the most frequently recorded of the former Soviet Union, with recordings of the complete symphonies of Kalinnikov and Prokofiev, in addition to those of Lyatoshynsky and of major works by de Bériot, Dvorák, Glazunov, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Shchedrin, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, as well as the symphonies and orchestral works of Ukraine's leading contemporary symphonist, Yevhen Stankovytch.
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PROKOFIEV: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 / Dreams, Op. 6