Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 “Classical”

Sergei Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, Ukraine in 1891, to an agronomist father and a pianist mother. A precocious musician, he wrote his first piece at age five and first opera at nine, when he was able to play Beethoven sonatas. At eleven, he began harmony and orchestration study with Glière. Two years later Glazunov helped him to enroll at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he encountered some difficulties which arose from his young age and arrogance; his criticism of fellow students earned him a reputation as an “enfant terrible.” He studied composition with Lyadov, piano under Anna Yesipova, and conducting with Tcherepnin. After studying the scores of Glazunov and Scriabin, he wrote a symphony that he described in a letter to his friend, Nicolai Miaskovsky, as running “for twenty, maximum thirty minutes…crossing out…anything that seems…pompous.” By 1910, the young man had established himself as composer and pianist. Performing several of his pieces and completing two piano concertos fortified his reputation among modernists.

After graduating from the Conservatory in 1914 with the Rubinstein Prize for best student pianist, Prokofiev headed for London. There he met Ballets Russes director Sergei Diaghilev, who asked for a ballet based on the Scythians. Prokofiev responded with Ala and Lolli. When Diaghilev rejected it, the composer turned it into his Scythian Suite. A second Diaghilev commission, the brutal Chout (1915), fared better, but when revisions delayed the première, Prokofiev returned to St. Petersburg and obtained a deferment from military service as an organ student. The Mariinsky Theater commissioned his opera, The Gambler, but when rehearsal problems and the February Revolution of 1917 cancelled performances for many years, he retreated to a quiet village outside Petrograd. There he completed his cheeky Violin Concerto No. 1, three major piano works, and the Classical Symphony.

Prokofiev was a very Russian composer with a touch of French influence. Though he wrote seven symphonies, several concertos, and two movie scores that became famous cantatas, at heart he was a composer of operas, piano music, and ballets. His music is overt, colorful, lively, full of piquant modulations and intervals, and often sardonic. Also an avid chess player, he defeated eventual World Champion Jose Capablanca at a simultaneous match, and he often played World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik.

Classical Symphony (also known as Symphony No. 1) was Prokofiev’s first “important” work. He wrote it for a classical-era size orchestra in the style of Haydn to “tease the geese” (critics attacked his modernism) and produce something popular. It is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings. Classical Symphony is a dashing and elegant piece, full of colorful melodies, striking modulations, bright orchestrations, and dancing intervals.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. His latest fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

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