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Composed: 1916-1917

Length: c. 15 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 8, 1927, with Georg Schnéevoigt conducting

About this Piece

Gavotte: Non troppo allegro
Finale: Molto vivace

The joke, if you will, of Prokofiev’s symphonic debut with the Classical Symphony was that the young iconoclast, who had earlier created an uproar with his Second Piano Concerto – its rowdy premiere took place in 1913, a few months after the riot-provoking premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps – should suddenly exchange revolutionary helmet and battle fatigues for periwig and knee-breeches to evoke the elegance of the Classical era. If, a couple of decades later, Shostakovich had written anything like it – innocent, or at most disingenuous, as the score may sound to our ears – it might have been labeled “unwholesomely satirical.”

In his autobiography, Prokofiev wrote: “I spent the summer of 1917 in the country near Petrograd all alone, reading Kant [he was not above putting on airs] and composing. I deliberately did not take my piano. I had noticed that orchestral thematic material composed without the piano was often better in quality… the orchestra would sound more natural if I composed without it. Soon the project for a symphony in the style of Haydn came into being… It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived in our day he would have retained his own style while accepting something of the new at the same time. That’s the kind of symphony I wanted to compose. When I saw that the idea was beginning to work, I called it ‘Classical Symphony’... for several reasons: first, it was easy; secondly, out of naughtiness and a desire to ‘tease the geese’, secretly hoping that in the end I would have my way if the title ‘Classical’ stuck… I composed much of it during long walks, although the third movement, the Gavotte, had actually been written a good deal earlier. I had also written an earlier version of the finale, but crossed that out and wrote an entirely new one, endeavoring among other things to avoid all minor chords.”

The composer conducted the former Court Orchestra in the first performance, which took place in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg, later Leningrad, today once again St. Petersburg) on April 21, 1918. A few days later, Prokofiev departed for a concert tour of the West. He did not return permanently for another 14 years.

The Classical Symphony is in the traditional four movements of its 18th-century prototype: a snappy Allegro in sonata form; a songful Larghetto; the courtly Gavotte, whose harmonic surprises are to some ears entirely 20th-century in style and to others remarkably Haydnesque (the notion of Haydn as iconoclast and bold experimenter being a relatively recent discovery); and a Molto vivace rondo finale of distinctly 18th-century verve and unmistakably 20th-century sonority.

— Herbert Glass