Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, also known as the “Classical Symphony,” is a delightful work that you should know – and that you will enjoy listening to. Since it was first performed on April 18, 1918 in Saint Petersburg with Prokofiev conducting, the work has remained an audience favorite, and with good reason.
Prokofiev called it “Classical” because he modeled it on the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. Like many of the symphonies by those earlier composers, it features a well delineated sonata structure in the first movement, contrasting use of the different orchestral sections, and an effervescent mood.
What to listen for . . .
There are four movements, just like you will find in most symphonies by Mozart or Haydn. They are:
1 – Allegro con brio (meaning “fast with spirit”)
2 – Larghetto (“fairly slow”)
3 – Gavotte, non troppo allegro (“gavotte, not too fast”)
4 – Finale, molto vivace (“finale, very lively and fast”)
Let’s Dig into the First Movement
Like the first movements of virtually all the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, the first movement of the “Classical” is in sonata form. That means that there is:
An Exposition (two themes are introduced, one after another)
In the first minute (follow the counter to 60 seconds) of the movement, Theme One is played twice. You can hear that happening, clear as can be.
Then one minute into the movement (60 seconds on the counter), Theme Two is introduced. It, like Theme One, is played twice, which happens during the second minute of the movement (follow the counter to the 2:00 minute marker point). Theme Two is kind of jaunty – it’s easy to spot because it feels different from Theme One.
A Development (the composer mixes the two themes together in imaginative ways)
At two minutes into the movement (check the counter), the development section starts. This means that Theme One and Theme Two get mixed up, interact, and develop into something new. It’s easy to hear this happening, because things become harmonically more complex than they were in the exposition, and a bit more rhythmically complicated too.
The Recapitulation (the two themes are played again, but have changed)
Hey, they have developed so they must be different now, right? This final section begins at about three minutes into the movement. The two themes reappear in different ways for the remainder of the movement. You can tell they aren’t developing any more, they are just restated. But they have been changed and are now more complex harmonically. And the recapitulation continues for the rest of the movement.
A Little Historical Context
Beethoven used the same sonata form in the first movement of his symphonies and concertos, in his piano sonatas too and in a variety of other works that include string quartets, violin sonatas, and more. The form was also used by composers from Brahms to Mahler.
Yup, the first movements of the four Brahms symphonies are in sonata form, though you have to stay alert to discern where the structural divisions are. The same can be said for the Mahler symphonies; in them, it is easiest to discern the sonata form in Symphony No. 4, which is Mahler’s sparest, most classically inspired symphony.
While you are waiting to listen to all those works on Classical Archives, listening to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is a great way to get your ears working – and to enjoy a beguiling work of music at the same time.