Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25 “Classical”
b. Sontsovka, Ukraine / April 27, 1891; d. Moscow, Russia / March 5, 1953
One of the teachers with whom Prokofiev most enjoyed studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory was Nikolay Tcherepnin. “Thanks to him I found myself acquiring a taste for Haydn and Mozart,” he wrote. “It was because of this that I conceived the Classical Symphony, although that was five or six years later.”
He composed it between 1916 and 1917. “It seemed to me that had Haydn lived in our day he would have retained his own style while accepting something of the new at the same time,” he wrote. “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 it was simpler, and secondly for the fun of it, to ‘tease the geese,’ and in the secret hope that I would prove to be right if the symphony really did achieve the status of a classic.” He conducted the premiere in Petrograd on April 21, 1918, launching what has become, as he hoped, one of his most beloved and frequently performed works.
The first movement opens with a flourish and a pert, cheeky theme. The second subject, appearing on the violins, is equally saucy and impudent, underpinned by poker-faced bassoon commentary. A dreamy slow movement follows. At a gentle walking pace, the first violins sing the sweet, restful main theme, bedecked with bird-like, rococo-style trills.
Prokofiev poked gentle fun at aristocratic figures in powdered wigs in the brief, pungent gavotte (a dance dating back to the baroque period). At the close it fades gently away to end pizzicato and pianissimo. The symphony wraps up with a joyful, breakneck finale, filled to the brim with demanding writing for the entire orchestra.