Sergei Prokofiev / April 23, 1891 – March 4, 1953
Classical Symphony in D-Major
Musicologists credit Franz Joseph Haydn with the crystallization in the late Eighteenth Century of the musical form we call the symphony: a four movement instrumental work constructed around a standard architectural framework. The first movement is a fast episode featuring two distinct themes and their musical development. A contrasting second movement follows in a slower tempo, sometimes in the form of a theme and variations. The third movement, a dance, markedly alters the pulse of the piece; and the rapid and upbeat finale, called a rondo, headlines one musical thought surrounded by dissimilar but complementary interludes.
The symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven represent art for art’s sake, not personal statements of the artist such as predominated in the following Romantic Period when composers wrote notes with the blood of their bleeding hearts and tortured souls. The unifying musical hallmarks of the Eighteenth Century symphony as composed by Haydn and Mozart are clarity, discipline, self-control, balance, restraint, logic, and a focus on beauty, melody, and harmony. The form may have been standard, but it gave unlimited latitude to composers boldly creatively, and imaginatively to pursue their muses.
Nowadays, we call the symphonic package “classical,” but if Haydn had been asked how he felt about writing “classical music,” he would not have understood your terminology. The term “classical music” did not develop until the 19th Century when musicologists were looking back at Haydn’s, Mozart’s, and early Beethoven’s music in an effort to put it into a category. What the musicologists recognized was that characteristics of the music they were measuring displayed the same characteristics as the art of the ancient Greeks and Romans, for which the accepted label was “classical.” Hence, they affixed the understood term “classical” to the music they were studying.
The point of this background is to illuminate what Sergei Prokofiev meant in 1921 when he called his first symphony “classical”: It is a witty and an affectionate homage to Haydn. He recounts the story in his memoirs: “I spent the summer of 1917 alone in the country near Petrograd all alone. Until this time I had always composed at the piano, but I noticed that thematic material composed away from the piano was often better. . . . I had been playing with the idea of writing a whole symphony without the piano, thinking that such a piece would have more natural and transparent colors.”
So that is how the project for a symphony in the style of Haydn came about. It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived to our day, he would have retained his own style while absorbing something new at the same time. This 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 pan out I called it the Classical Symphony. I called it that 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 turn out to be a piece of classical music.”
Take particular note of two of Prokofiev’s gestures to the past. The first is his use of the “Mannheim Rocket” to open the piece, a bold effervescent chord rising rapidly in the air. The Mannheim Orchestra pioneered this engaging effect as well as the use of clarinets. In 1778, Mozart called the Mannheim Orchestra “undeniably the best in Germany.” The second is Prokofiev’s use of Gavotte, an 18th Century dance of French peasant origin, for the dance movement instead of a traditional minuet. A Gavotte has four beats to the bar instead of the Minuet’s three, and is considerably weightier.
In Prokofiev’s later years, he penned these insightful observations: “Can the true artist stand aloof from life and confine his art within the narrow bounds of subjective emotion? Or should he be where he is needed most, where his words, his music, his chisel can help the people live a better, finer life? In my view, the composer, just as the poet, the sculptor, or the painter, is in duty bound to serve man, the people. He must beautify human life and defend it. He must be a citizen first and foremost, so that his art may consciously extol human life and lead man to a radiant future. Such, as I see it, is the immutable goal of art.”
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy / February 3, 1809 – November 4, 1847
Violin Concerto in E Minor
Felix Mendelssohn is a rarity among famous composers. He was not afflicted by progressive hearing loss (Beethoven); he did not lapse into insanity (Robert Schumann); he was not exploited by his father (Mozart); he did not tremble at the thought of persecution (Tchaikovsky); he did not die of alcoholism (Mussorgsky); and he did not live in fear of death (Mahler). No, Felix was the well-educated and cultured handsome son of one of the wealthiest bankers in Europe, Abraham Mendelssohn, who counted the Czar of Russia as one of his clients. Name an advantage, and Felix had it — including the kind of musical talent that caused his contemporaries to compare him to Mozart.
Mendelssohn was a virtuoso pianist and organist as well as an excellent conductor — the first to use a baton — who revived the long forgotten works of J.S. Bach. He excelled at writing, dancing, gymnastics, and painting. And, as you might guess, he wrote music for the love of the art, not to scratch out a living.
Although Mendelssohn knew how to play the violin, he was no virtuoso. Accordingly, when he decided in 1838 to try his hand at a concerto, he turned to a close friend for technical assistance: Fernand David, one of the best violinists of the Nineteenth Century. Mendelssohn came up with the virtuosic music, but David helped him ensure that it was playable. The result was an evolutionary masterpiece that combines the restraint of classical form with the elegance of the French tradition and the technical fireworks introduced by Paganini. David remarked about the work that “There is plenty of music for the violin and orchestra, but there has been only one big, truly great concerto, Beethoven’s, and now there will be two!” History has validated David’s opinion.
Mendelssohn’s concerto is pure music. It neither tells a story nor paints a picture. But in its own skin it has everything in prodigious measure: soul, song, passion, joy, and jaw-dropping technique. No wonder that one musicologist proclaimed that it expresses the “charm of eternal youth.”
Jean Sibelius / December 8, 1865 – September 20, 1957
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major
At 5 years old, young Janne Sibelius delighted in crawling around and under the piano whenever it was played. Soon, he began to study the instrument with his Aunt Julia, and before long, he assembled his own small “orchestra of friends” which he conducted from the piano. The other instruments in the band besides the piano? Harmonica, ocarina, triangle, and chimes — hardly anything for the ages.
At 14, Janne began violin lessons with the local military bandmaster. “The violin took me by storm,” he later recalled, “and for the next 10 years it was my dearest wish, my greatest ambition to become a great virtuoso.” Frequently he would perch on a boulder overlooking a lake near his home. There, with only the water and trees to hear him, he would play his violin in peaceful communion with nature. He poured heart, soul, sweat, and tears into his dream, but he failed to achieve it. He had started too late and with inferior instruction. Finally, he came face to face with the reality that he just did not have the “chops,” neither the hand coordination nor the extroverted assured temperament required of a star performer.
For a time, we almost lost to law school the young man who would grow to become Jean Sibelius, the beloved artist. Why law school? As he explained, “What else could I do? I had to do something!”
Fortunately, as he came to despise school, his gift for music got the better of him, and he started down the path to becoming Finland’s greatest composer.
Sibelius wrote music as a nationalist, drawing his inspiration from the Finnish landscape and mythology. His style fills us with a sense of primal grandeur, evoking landscapes of immense dusky forests, rugged mountain terrain, shining lakes, stormy seas, rolling thunder, and glistening Northern Lights.
Sibelius wrote his three-movement Fifth Symphony on commission from the Finnish Government to commemorate his 50th birthday. From the very first bars, we know we are at the top of the world. We hear the vast expansiveness of his beloved land, the cold pristine wind as it sweeps down from the North, and we sense Sibelius’s spiritual awe for Finland’s unspoiled nature. His work from start to finish is a personal and heartfelt tone painting of an unspoiled corner of our planet.
The second movement is a cheerful set of variations of a theme featuring the flute, the woodwinds, and strings played pizzicato.
The third and final movement opens with the sound of wind and thunder. The timpani then announce the horns which intone a magnificent swaying triple-time motif, said to have been inspired by the sound of swan-calls Sibelius once heard as he witnessed a flock of the graceful aviators taking to the air. He described the event in his diary, calling it “One of the greatest impressions of my life. God, how beautiful. They circled over me for a long time and disappeared into the solar haze like a silver ribbon.”
Next, he treats us to one of his distant arctic melodies played first by flutes and then by the strings. When the swan motif returns, it literally soars, parting the clouds on their way to the sun. Glorious!
Sibelius ends with an original idea that relies on silence to create the effect. It’s quite a statement from a master.