Assignment 4: Prokofiev and Stravinsky

The intention of this Assignment is to see how Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella assimilate to, or differ from, the Classical ideal in music. We will also compare them with each other, focusing on their use of some elements characteristic of the Classical era.

General structure

Both authors make a personal adaptation of a musical form from the past. Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 Op. 25 in D major, Classical, has the structure of a four-movement Classical symphony, yet slightly modified: the first movement is in sonata form, there is no repetition of the exposition. The movement in triple time is the slow, second movement (Larghetto) instead of the third movement, which is a gavotta, in 4/4, instead of the usual menuet or scherzo. The sonata form reappears in the last movement, which is also unusual. The movements are short, like in early Classicism.

On the other hand, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella is more like a Baroque suite, with a series of dances. This structure is slightly altered by adding an introduction (Sinfonia—Ouverture) and a conclusion (Finale). In the Scherzino, one would expect a triple time, but instead it is written in 4/4.

Instrumentation and texture

Prokofiev uses a Classical orchestra with full string and woodwind sections, two horns, two trumpets, and timpani1. This gives his symphony a Classical timbre that matches the structure. The texture is mostly homophonic and clear. Although it seems thicker in the last movement, this is an effect due to its molto vivace tempo, but it maintains a high level of clarity even at tutti fortissimo (e.g. bars 85-87).

Stravinsky uses a Baroque orchestra, but adding a new element in some movements: a trombone. This reveals an intention of experimentation and contributes to give the work a modern timbre, especially in the Duetto, where the trombone plays an important role in the character of the movement with its characteristic sff glissandos. The texture of the whole suite is homophonic and reminds us of a Baroque concerto.

Like it happened in the Mannheim style, both authors reserve sections for the woodwind instruments: Stravinsky lets the oboe and fagot play in imitation for the first time as early as in bars 7-9 of the Ouverture. The Serenata opens with a solo melody on the oboe, accompanied by rhythmic figures in the lower strings and the flutes. The Gavotta with its variations is clearly also for the woodwinds. Prokofiev indicates solo for the flute in the Allegro at several points (bars 19, 28, 62…). In the Gavotta (bars 24-31), the oboes play in parallel octaves over a string-and-bassoon accompaniment. Then from bar 32 on, melody is started and led by solo flute over a thin, homophonic texture. The melody is then accompanied by another flute in parallel motion to the lower 6th, then by a clarinet to the lower octave.

All in all, both composers succeed in writing a Classical, homophonic texture. They also combine instruments in a Classical fashion, but more so in Prokofiev’s case.

Dynamics

The Classical period saw a widening of dynamic expressions, often as a means for contrast. Both authors expand this device and use it profusely. Prokofiev, in the Molto vivace, bar 1, brings the music from ff to pp (within one bar!). Afterwards, in bar 9, changes from pp to a ff subito. There are crescendos as well, e.g. in the Allegro, bars 107 to 111 (p/mp to f/ff tutta forza) with the lower voices in rhythmic ostinatos (the Mannheim roller); or at a faster rate, in bars 157-158 (from p to f). Stravinsky goes beyond that, ranging from ppp (e.g. the start of the Serenata and again in bar 10) to sff (last bar in Toccata; Duetto, bars 1, 2, 4-6), fff (Finale, bars 76, 117) and even fff marcatissimo (Duetto, bar 6).

By broadening the dynamics range, both composers give their works a modern air.

Rhythm

Both authors change time signatures in the middle of some movements, Prokofiev five times in Allegro (bars 27-28, 35-36, 61-62…), making it a feature of the movement; and Stravinsky in three consecutive bars in Ouverture (11-13), then for one isolated bar each in Toccata (33-34) and Minuetto (8-9). Rather than being a wild modern feature, it seems more a sign of flexible approach to the measures in both cases, yet opposed to the Classical idea of balance and perfection.

Elsewehere, Stravinsky’s sense of rhythm speaks about a modern musician. His keenness on stress on weaker beats can be heard e.g. in Ouverture (syncopation in bar 40), Serenata (bars 10-15) or Andantino (bars 37-49). Moving the start of the melody from the first beat to the third in Serenata, bar 23, could be seen as a modern attempt to slightly change the spirit of the melody. The rhythm in Andantino, bars 36-48, with its ostinato figures and slow harmonic rhythm; the combination of 6/8 and 3/4 in Tarantella (bars 1-4, 68-86); his use of less common irregular groups of notes (Gavotta, bars 27, 31; 2nd variation, with groupings of 5, 11 and 12 notes) or their combination (Serenata, bar 32: demisemiquavers on the strings with a group of 5 on the piccolo and a group of 7 on the flutes), are all features that point at the Twentieth century.

Technique

Prokofiev is specific in some indications, but not that often. Senza espressione in Larghetto, bar 5, can sound surprising, yet Stravinsky goes far beyond that, with indications like Flautando sino al segno (Serenata, bar 10), pizz. en harmonique (Serenata, bar 23), Excessivement court et sec et du talon (Minuetto, bar 25) or A punta d’arco e sul tasto fino al segno. (Serenata, bar 4). All these indications speak about composers after the Classical era.

Melodic features

  • Short motifs

Prokofiev uses short motifs or cells mainly to build the melodies and themes in a Classical fashion by repetition of small cells (e.g. descending pairs of notes in Allegro, bars 3-4) or by combination of them (the main theme in Gavotta). Stravinsky can do that as well (Minuetto, bars 16-18; Gavotta, 19-24), but he uses it mainly to create strong rhythmic impressions (opening rhythmic cell on the cellos in Serenata, present in other strings later in the movement; Allegro, bars 10-12, 14-16 repeated again later) and thus moving away from the Classical idiom

  • Mannheim rocket

Prokofiev uses this device at the very start of the symphony. It appears again during the movement and also to close it (slowly in bars 196-201, rapidly in bars 205-206). Other examples in the symphony are in Molto vivace (bars 3-5, 16, 146).

Stravinsky uses it several times too, e.g. in Allegro (bars 2, 39-40), in the second variation (bar 3) or in the Finale (bars 95-97). In another rocket in the Finale, in bar 4, the ascending broken chord is not accompanied by a crescendo, like it was more common in Classical times, but instead by a molto decrescendo from ff to p/pp. Then, a special case appears in the very last bar of the Serenata, with a fast ascending passage that is neither a broken chord nor a diatonic scale. Stravinsky is putting his personal touch to this device.

  • Mannheim sigh

The long, two-octave leaps of the violins (the second theme, starting in bar 46) remind us of the Mannheim sigh, which consists on putting a bigger emphasis on the first of two descending notes. Combining this device with a Haydn-esque sense of humour, Prokofiev interrupts the lyrical line of the larghetto theme in bars 8, 16 and 61 with more sighs and, if we may call them so, inverted sighs.

  • Melodic shape

Classical melodies tend to move in relatively close intervals. However, Prokofiev makes a prolific use of big leaps: there are octave leaps at the very beginning of the Gavotta, and two-octave ones in the second theme of the Allegro (bars 47, 49-50). Angular tunes appear in the Allegro, e.g. the flute in bars 19, 28, underlined by the violas, is imitated by the other woodwinds. The flute and the violin repeat this motif in counterpoint from bar 95 on. A very angular passage appears also in the Molto vivace, bar 7 (flute and clarinet).

Despite some occasional bigger leaps, Pulcinella‘s melodies are quotes from Pergolesi (late Baroque) and Gallo (galant style), which brings the melodies closer to the Classical ideal than Prokofiev’s.

Alberti bass

The Alberti bass is used very much by Prokofiev in the Molto vivace, either in its original form (with the tonic of the chord as first note, e.g. flutes and oboes in bars 27-36) or in some inversion (e.g. flutes and oboes in 37-40). It is interpreted also by the strings, e.g. in 43-70 and 93-98.

Stravinsky, in the second variation of the Gavotta, uses a modification of it, in which the bass line changes, building a melody, and the other notes are not separated by a third, but by a second instead—this is roughly similar, but with a different result and a richer harmonic progression.

Humour

As we have seen, Prokofiev uses humour in a Haydn’s fashion. One example is the silent bar 86 in Allegro makes us think the movement is over, but it continues afterwards in forte with the first theme in D minor instead of D major. We can see the early change of tonality from D major to C major (bar 11) as another musical joke.

Pulcinella’s story is a comedy, but the music has little humour. The exception is in Duetto, thanks to the glissandos by the trombone.

Conclusion

Prokofiev sounds like a refreshed Classical with the spice of some new resources. The Classical sounds self-sufficient and can be fully satisfying to audiences less familiar with formal music. Stravinsky, on the other hand, combines Baroque and modern in an unusual, personal manner, more distant from the Classical ideal.

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