Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1 in D Major, otherwise known as his “Classical Symphony,” is one of the few works in his repertoire that does not clearly fit into a 20th century stylistic framework. It is considered to be one of the bridges between the Romantic and the Modern eras of classical music, and many refer to it as the original “neoclassical” symphony.
Prokofiev wrote the Classical Symphony while on vacation in the summer of 1917. He was in his twenties and was already an international sensation, having composed his first opera at the ripe old age of 9. After studying with the great Rimsky-Korsakov himself, he embarked on a spree of piano competitions around the globe, winning many and garnering numerous awards.
The symphony is based on the compositional style of Joseph Haydn, an aristocratic violinist and composer from the early years of the Classical era (1600’s). While a student at the St Petersburg Conservatory, Prokofiev was exposed to the symphonic works of Haydn and was struck by their deceptively complex structure. A naturally inquisitive and exploratory personality, Prokofiev decided to challenge himself to write a symphony in the style of Haydn – entirely in his head. In other words, he would not compose at the piano in order to test out harmonic structures, and he wouldn’t write down his compositions until after he had formed them in his head. The Classical Symphony was thus composed on day-long walks that Prokofiev took, wandering around the Russian countryside and composing in his head.
One of Haydn’s favorite things to do was surprise the audience. He understood that our minds subconsciously become rooted in the tonal center that the piece centers around, and any deviation from that center is received as dissonance or alteration of the norm. He would therefore throw in random surprises that jolted the audience for reasons they could not consciously identify. For instance, he would spend several measures creating the harmonic context for a recapitulation of the original theme, building tension that implied an impending return to the main melody. However, just when the audience expected the melody to reappear, Hayden would introduce a new theme or, better yet, bring in the original theme but in a totally different key. Prokofiev does something very similar in the opening movement of the Classical Symphony, repeatedly introducing familiar themes in unfamiliar keys.
Homage to Haydn can also be seen in the types of movements that Prokofiev included in the symphony. Rather than sticking to the usual stylistic conventions of the late Romantic period, he incorporated a Gavotte, a Baroque dance that is most commonly heard in the music of Bach, Handel and Haydn. Yet in this instance, Prokofiev is unwilling to stick exactly to Haydn’s style. Instead of using a Gavotte in 3/4 time, as Haydn would have done, he creates a Gavotte in 4/4 time and thereby introduces an entirely new conception of the dance. As if in apology to Haydn for not completely recognizing his stylistic conventions, he inserts a few bagpipe lines into the Gavotte as a homage to Haydn’s 88th Symphony.