Concert Notes

The New World Symphony

Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25 “Classical”
Sergei Prokofiev
b. Sontsovka, Ukraine / April 27, 1891;
d. Moscow, Russia / March 5, 1953

“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,” Prokofiev 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 première, in Petrograd, Russia, on April 21, 1918, launching what has become 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. 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 French folk dance dating back to the baroque period. The symphony wraps up with a joyful, breakneck finale, filled to the brim with demanding writing for the entire orchestra.

Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25 “Classical”

  1. 1. Allegro
  2. 2. Larghetto
  3. 3. Gavotta: non troppo allegro
  4. 4. Finale: Molto vivace

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10
Sergei Prokofiev

“Self-Portrait of the Artist as an Enfant terrible” would be an apt nickname for this fiery concerto, which Prokofiev composed during his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He played the solo part himself at the first performance, in Moscow on August 7, 1912. Opinions were sharply divided, a fact that didn’t disturb the brash young composer in the slightest.

Flaunting the hidebound requirements of the conservatory, which required students to perform standard-repertoire concertos at the annual Anton Rubinstein Piano Competition, Prokofiev decided to conclude his decade of studies with a bang – 1914 was his graduation year – by using his own concerto to display his performing gifts.

The judges insisted on studying it first, so he purchased 20 copies of the freshly-printed score and distributed them to the panel. “When I mounted the platform,” he recalled, “the first thing I saw was my concerto set out on 20 pairs of knees. What an unforgettable sight for a composer who had just succeeded in getting some of his works published!”

Despite grumblings from the more conservative judges about “harmful tendencies” in Prokofiev’s music, he won first prize, a grand piano, as well as the cheers of like-minded fellow students and faculty. A few weeks later, he played the concerto again at the official graduation ceremony.

Its three sub-sections are played as a continuous whole. The majestic opening subject returns twice, first to introduce the dreamy but totally unsentimental central movement in slow tempo, and second to crown the concerto’s conclusion. In between comes much humour, wrist-breaking aggression and downright impudence – everything a self-confident young genius would be expected to produce.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10

  1. Allegro brioso
  2. Andante assai
  3. Allegro scherzando

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 From the New World
Antonín Dvořák
b. Nelahozeves, Bohemia / September 8, 1841;
d. Prague, Bohemia / May 1, 1904

By the early 1890s, Dvořák’s fame had become so great that he was invited to become the Director of the newly opened National Conservatory of Music in New York. His arrival in the autumn of 1892 marked the beginning of a three year period spent almost entirely in America. He developed a deep interest in the music of African-Americans and Native Americans, though he didn’t quote authentic folk tunes in any of his “New World” compositions, of which this symphony was the first to appear. Four days before the première, which took place in New York on December 16, 1893, he made his methods and goals perfectly clear: “I have simply written themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.”

Following a short, expectant introduction, the opening movement presents two themes. The first is bold and commanding. It is the idea that binds the entire symphony together, appearing at least briefly in all four movements. The second subject appears on solo flute. It is as sweet, restful and haunting a theme as Dvořák ever penned.

A solemn brass chorale ushers in the slow movement. The English horn then gives out the main theme, a tranquil melody that gives eloquent voice to the homesickness that Dvořák felt throughout his stay in America. Words were later added to it to create Goin’ Home, a song in the style of a spiritual. The middle section is increasingly agitated, climaxing in a grand combination of the Goin’ Home theme with the opening movement’s first subject.

The following scherzo bustles with dynamic dance rhythms, be they old world or new. Two separate trios provide graceful contrast. The finale surges ahead urgently, its unfolding shot through with episodes of nostalgic expressiveness. Dvořák interleaves new themes with fleeting reminiscences of melodies from each previous movement, en route to a stirring yet eventually enigmatic conclusion.

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 “From the New World”

  1. Adagio – Allegro molto
  2. Largo
  3. Scherzo: Molto vivace
  4. Allegro con fuoco

Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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