Program Notes: Beethoven and Prokofiev

Program Notes: Beethoven and Prokofiev

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One-minute notes:

Prokofiev: Classical Symphony

Doffing his hat to Haydn, Prokofiev mixes classical forms with modern harmonies—to a delightful effect.

Mozart: Clarinet Concerto

Mozart’s beloved Clarinet Concerto was the last major work he completed before his death at age 35. It calls for a small orchestra with a limited number of wind instruments, allowing the soloist and the orchestra to interact intimately, more akin to chamber music than a typical grand concerto.


Beethoven: Symphony No. 4

From deep shade, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony emerges, powerful and athletic, into bright daylight. The Adagio is an expansive, rapt song. A blustery third movement goes twice through the scherzo-trio-scherzo cycle, and the finale is a comedy worthy of Beethoven’s erstwhile mentor, Haydn.

Full program notes:

Sergei Prokofiev

Born: April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Russia (now Ukraine)

Died: March 5, 1953, Moscow, Russia

Classical Symphony, Opus 25 [Symphony No. 1]

Prokofiev, a much-cosseted only child, began composing at age 5, and before he was out of his teens he had written four operas, two symphonies and a stack of piano music. At 13 he was admitted to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, from which he exited with the Rubinstein Prize, the highest honor available to a pianist, for the performance of his own Piano Concerto No. 1, completed and already performed in Moscow two years earlier.

In May of 1918, not long after the October Revolution, Prokofiev boarded the Trans-Siberian Express for Vladivostok to begin the life of an émigré. He lived in New York and Chicago, crossed the Atlantic several times, settled in Paris in 1923, and in 1927 began visiting Russia again. In 1936 he returned there for good, taking an apartment in Moscow.

In his earlier years Prokofiev often wrote a sharp-edged and fairly dissonant sort of music; in his later years in the Soviet Union he turned to a more mellifluous style, painted with a broader brush, and was less inclined to humor. Still, in Prokofiev we cannot really find a clear-cut division between early and late, Western and Soviet. He himself recognized four “basic lines” in his lifework, which he called classical, modern, motoric and lyrical. These do not, however, correspond to particular periods in his life. Though the balance among the components varies from work to work, all are present all the time.

Prokofiev did most of the work on his Classical Symphony during the summer of 1917, completing it on September 10 of that year and conducting the first performance in Petrograd on April 21, 1918. For a Russian composer, 1917 cannot have been an easy year to concentrate on his work; nonetheless, it was the most richly productive year of Prokofiev’s life. In addition to the Classical Symphony, he composed the Violin Concerto No. 1 and three works for piano and began two other major works, his Piano Concerto No. 3, and the remarkable cantata, Seven, They Are Seven.

the music: borrowing from another era

In the composer’s memoir, Prokofiev on Prokofiev, he recalls getting underway on his first symphony. “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.” He thus set out to write a symphony for Classical-era orchestra, transparent in texture, harmonically “cool,” on a modest scale, with clearly articulated periods and cadences, buoyant, comedic in spirit, and without weltschmerz and angst. He had a good time doing it, and he achieved his goals.

allegro. The effervescent opening, a 1917 translation of what 140 years or so earlier was called a Mannheim skyrocket (a specialty of composers in the Bavarian Palatinate), immediately gives notice that Prokofiev means to write rewarding virtuoso music for a modern orchestra. The main theme descends, nicely balancing the upward thrust of the rocket. We encounter multiple harmonic changes, a second theme in which violins play pert grace notes and negotiate precipitate leaps pianissimo and con eleganza, some thoroughly 20th-century syncopations, and a final skyrocket that brings the movement to a close.

larghetto. The beautiful, high-flying second movement makes no pretense at being “classical,” except in sweetness and restraint. Harmony and scoring are exquisite in every single measure.

gavotte: non troppo allegro. In the third movement, the harmony is full of Prokofievian skids and quick recoveries.

finale: molto vivace. The Finale brings us back to the mood of that first movement, only now there is no stopping to smell the roses. This is sheer uninhibited delight in energy and forward movement.

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart

Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria

Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

Concerto in A major for Clarinet and Orchestra, K. 622

In 1781 Mozart moved to Vienna from his native Salzburg; a decade later he produced his last completed instrumental work, his only concerto for the clarinet. It was written for a specific musician, the virtuoso Anton Stadler—the composer’s friend, fellow Freemason and member of the Viennese court orchestra.

Mozart’s love for this instrument went back a long way. While he was in Mannheim during 1777-78, he had written to his father: “You cannot imagine the glorious effect of a symphony with flutes, oboes and clarinets.” After Mozart befriended Stadler, he also wrote for him a Clarinet Trio, a Clarinet Quintet, the Quintet for Piano and Winds, and two arias in the opera La Clemenza di Tito, which have lengthy clarinet obbligatos.

This sublimely beautiful work has enchanted generations of listeners. Qualities that have raised it not only to the summit of the repertory for this instrument but to the pantheon of Mozart’s very greatest masterpieces include its enormous variety of tone colors, subtle dynamic shadings, liquid-smooth lines, beguiling melodies, the manner in which Mozart exploits all registers of the solo instrument—and the air of tenderness and serenity that suffuses the work.

the concerto in brief

The concerto opens with a theme of utmost simplicity and gentle sentiment. The sense of lightness that pervades the movement, even in moments of melancholy, can be attributed in part to the exquisite refinements of the scoring. Cellos often play without the supporting double basses, and flutes play a prominent role while oboes are absent altogether. The ravishingly beautiful slow movement, in the words of Alec Hyatt King, “seems to reflect the timeless and beatific vision of a mind at peace with itself.” The finale is a rondo based on a dancelike theme that seems to transcend joy, as if smiling through the tears.

Program note by Robert Markow.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany

Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60

In September 1806, Beethoven accompanied his patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky on a visit to the castle of another nobleman, Count Franz von Oppersdorff. The count was a musical enthusiast almost without equal: he maintained a private orchestra and would hire new staff for the castle only if they played an instrument and could also play in his orchestra. The trip paid musical dividends for Beethoven, as the count commissioned him to write a new symphony.

the music: removed from the furies

The Fourth Symphony has inevitably been overshadowed by the titanic symphonies on either side of it. Although the Fourth does seem at first a relaxation, far removed from the furies that drive the Eroica and Fifth Symphony, we need to be careful not to underestimate this music.

adagio–allegro vivace. The symphony’s originality is evident from its first instant: the key signature says B-flat major, but the symphony opens in B-flat minor. This introduction keeps us in a tonal fog, but those mists blow away at the Allegro vivace. Huge chords lash out, and when the main theme leaps out brightly, we recognize it as a sped-up version of the slow introduction.

adagio. Violins sing the main theme, marked cantabile. Berlioz spoke effusively of the Adagio: “The being who wrote such a marvel of inspiration as this movement was not a man. Such must be the song of the Archangel Michael.”

allegro vivace. The third movement is a scherzo in all but name: its outer sections are full of rough edges and blistering energy, and its witty trio is built on a rustic woodwind tune spiced with saucy interjections from the violins.

allegro ma non troppo. The finale goes like a rocket from its first instant. This movement may be in sonata form, but it feels like perpetual motion on a pulse of racing sixteenth-notes that hardly ever lets up.

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Minnesota Orchestra Staff