Entertainment Music

Monday 24 June 2019

Prokofiev's first symphony turns 100

Turbulent times: Sergey Prokofiev
Turbulent times: Sergey Prokofiev

George Hamilton

Not that long ago, the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine was a smart, bustling metropolis, with a symphony orchestra, an opera house, and a Champions League football team at home in a stadium imposing enough to host a semi-final of the European Championship of 2012. Teams and fans arrived at a glitzy new terminal at the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport.

Six years on, conflict in the region means there are no flights any more. The state-of-the-art building has been destroyed.

There's still occasional music in the opera house, but the city's connection with the football team survives only in the name. Shakhtar Donetsk now plays 300km away in Kharkiv.

Sergey Prokofiev, whose birthday falls next Monday (he was born in 1891), came from the countryside not that far from Donetsk. He, too, lived through turbulent times.

His first symphony was written in 1917, the year of the October Revolution. Russia was also at war and when the western front collapsed, Petrograd - present day St Petersburg, where the composer was based - was under threat.

Prokofiev left to join his mother who was taking a cure in the Caucasus, well away from the conflict. But there he found himself behind the lines of a counter-revolution, effectively cut off.

The intention had been to head for the United States. He'd previously met a music-loving farm-machinery magnate, Cyrus Hall McCormick Jr, who'd been on a business trip to Russia. McCormick was keen to introduce the American public to this young Russian talent.

The counter-revolution collapsed. Prokofiev had his chance. With a safe-conduct pass in his pocket, he set off for Moscow. The eight-day journey there was not without incident. His train was fired on several times.

And that wasn't the worst of it. The revolution had been only six months before, the upheaval had been huge, and the civil war that followed would rumble on for years.

But Prokofiev was able to travel on to Petrograd. He gave two piano recitals there, and on this date, exactly one hundred years ago, directed the first performance of his symphony.

Writing it the previous summer, he'd set himself the task of composing something within the framework, the structure developed by the man known as the father of the symphony, Joseph Haydn. With this in mind, he gave it a subtitle - 'the Classical'.

What he came up with is short for a symphony - around 15 minutes - but it has the four movements.

When it starts, you'd be forgiven for thinking you're listening to Haydn. It veers away, though, in unexpected directions. There's even a tick-tock section nodding in the direction of the Master's 'Clock' symphony. The second movement features a gorgeous, elegant melody, but it's not all slow. There's a lovely staccato bassoon section.

In the third, Prokofiev's tongue is firmly in his cheek. No elegant minuet here. What's on offer is clunkier, more like a Slavonic dance that's escaped the clutches of Dvorák.

The fourth movement is full of fun, a breakneck gallop. It's music that sounds like it would be a lot of fun to make, just the ticket to accompany the Hunt Chase at the Dublin Horse Show.

Prokofiev did eventually make it to the US. In December 1918, he premièred his First Piano Concerto with the Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, Cyrus Hall McCormick's home city.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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