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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.
Prokofiev first set pen to manuscript on the Classical Symphony in 1916, just two years after completing his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Although he listed such masters as Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov as his mentors, Prokofiev's relationship with the establishment was abrasive at best. The enfant terrible nature of his character carried over into his adventuresome compositions, drawing more scorn than praise from a faculty he deemed too conservative. A recalcitrant Prokofiev did remain at the school after completing the composition course; however, he decided to focus on his piano skills and even extended his stay by enrolling in an organ program to avoid military service. There was one supportive mentor, Nicholas Tcherepnine, who was Prokofiev's professor of orchestral conducting. The little gems of insight into eighteenth century repertoire mined by the professor would be set onto Prokofiev, who described himself "acquiring a taste for Mozart and Haydn, which later found expression in the Classical Symphony."
Asides from exploring the Classical period with modern ears, Prokofiev's other motive for writing his first symphony was to exercise his compositional technique away from the piano. He observed that "thematic material composed without a piano was often better" and believed that "an orchestra would sound more natural" without the temptation to over-orchestrate at the keyboard. Retreating into his noetic neoclassical quest, and undoubtedly seeking respite from his intense keyboard studies, Prokofiev lived alone and pianoless when working on the symphony. He began with the third movement (Gavotta) and quickly sketched thematic materials for the rest. The following summer, he discarded his original Finale, rewrote the fourth movement, and fine-tuned the entire work. Once the work gained some cohesion, he christened it Classical "in the secret hope that in the end I would be the winner if the symphony really did prove to be a classic."
The first performance of the work took place in St. Petersburg on April 21, 1918. In the audience was the new People's Commissar for Education representing the Bolsheviks which had seized power the preceding November. The success of the work enabled Prokofiev to leave Russia with official permission and within three weeks he left on a tour which eventually led him to the United States. In his baggage he took along an album of piano compositions, the Scythian Suite, his first piano concerto, and the Classical Symphony. The U.S. premiere of the Classical Symphony was given by the Russian Symphony Orchestra in New York City in December 1918. Since its premiere, it has become one of Prokofiev's most beloved and performed works, proving "to be a classic" as he had hoped.
Excerpted from Classical Symphony by SERGEI PROKOFIEV. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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