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I learned from Aesthetic Realism that every time we hear music we have a judgement about its sincerity. Even if our judgement is unconscious, or hard to articulate, it is there.
Instinctively people have felt that sincerity has to be present in art, and all good music criticism, from the beginning, has agreed. So how can we be sure, how do we know the sounds we are hearing are honest?
Eli Siegel taught that sincerity has a structure. He said, opposites, notably power and grace, are one whenever expression is sincere. The meaning of this for music and for life is very large. For the first time sincerity can be studied because its basis has been seen.
There is a trend in modern music, which Prokofiev's Classical Symphony helped to begin, called neoclassicism. When a composer is neoclassic the styles of the past become the material for new composition. In 1917 Prokofiev felt impelled to write a symphony in the style of the eighteenth century, the era of Haydn and Mozart. The eighteenth century had its own distinctive way of showing the opposites of power and grace, and it is this way which Prokofiev both employs and alters. Listen now to a section of one of the greatest of classical symphonies, Haydn's Symphony # 101 , subtitled 'The Clock". There is a sort of elegant scampering combined with sudden and proper loudness that just seems to announce: I am a oneness of power and grace! Fritz Reiner is conducting:
[Ex 1: lst movement--from Presto to bar 57 with fade from bar 50.]
The job facing Prokofiev when he decided to write a neo-classical symphony was how to remain true to the beautiful relation of power and grace that he loved in the classical style, while at the same time changing that relation in such a way that he could feel expressed himself. It is quite a job, and the pitfalls of insincerity are definitely there. A composer, could, for instance tamper so with the style he is employing as to mock it. But also, he could follow that style so mechanically that he never really shows himself through it. The glory of the Classical Symphony is this: not only were the pitfalls avoided, but Prokofiev found a way to be so fair to the past, and so fair to his own feelings at once, that the result is breathtaking.
The symphony begins assertively, with the whole orchestra swelling in a rising arpeggio. Immediately after this we hear the main theme of the first movement. Two elements: the robust swelling of the whole orchestra, and the quick, graceful figurations of the strings occur so close to each other as to join in our minds is one impression.
From the outset power and grace are together. That swelling, though it is assertive, is also rounded. And the main theme, though elegant, is also vigorous. Listen now as the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, performs the opening of the Classical Symphony :
[Ex 2: Opening to rehearsal letter A]
Did you hear that jolt half-way through? That was Prokofiev's way of honoring what we noticed earlier in Haydn: sudden, proper loudness. Prokofiev is busy with the opposites. This music has heaviness and lightness, abruptness and continuity, the charming and the rude. These are all aspects of power and grace.
How does this comment on sincerity? According to Aesthetic Realism: "Every person is always trying to put together opposites in himself." That is our deepest job. It takes in our whole self. For instance, we want to be charming, but we also want to be deep. We want energy, but we also want ease. To be sincere would be to have these work for the same purpose.
Not everyone who has heard the Classical Symphony has thought it sincere. For example, in his 1946 book, Music in Our Time , Adolfo Salazar called it "pallid neoclassicism." And there are reports that at its 1918 premiere many found it hard to understand how it could honestly be by the same avant-garde Prokofiev who just three years earlier had written this as the opening of his Scythian Suite:
[Ex 3: from the repeat to 10 bars after the repeat sign.]
Hearing this, and remembering how the Classical Symphony opens, there is, without doubt, a question. Why did a controversial young modernist, (Prokofiev was 26 when he wrote the Classical Symphony ,) write a work reminding us of Haydn? Why did a young Russian, on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution, write a work whose intent, in the words of program notes he authorized, was "to resurrect the good old days"? It does seem baffling.
I think through this music Prokofiev was trying honestly to see what his relation to the past was. In his Autobiography he writes:
The best place to see Prokofiev's success at this is in the second theme of the first movement. At first we think we are hearing a perfectly elegant eighteenth century theme--something, say, that had it been written in l780 might have gone like this:
[EG piano example]
But Prokofiev begins this way, with wide two octave leaps:
[EG piano example]
--and the more we listen, the stranger it gets. While maintaining a very dignified, restrained rhythm, the melody jumps around in a way that can hardly be called orderly. It seems never to be where we expect it. Following those wide leaps, the melody loses its equilibrium--it shifts suddenly into a different key, and just keeps slipping downward. Then, with an assertive reprimand that seems to push the melody back up where it belongs, the horns come to the rescue. Meantime, a solo bassoon has quietly gone on its way, chortling out a mechanical accompaniment to the whole proceedings. Listen:
[Ex 4: three measures before rehearsal letter D to rehearsal letter G]
This is power and grace, but what a different arrangement than in Haydn! It is a little like how Charlie Chaplin is: with such sincerity he tries to be graceful, only to wind up being awkward. Yet within that very awkwardness and buffoonery there is lyricism. In fact, the best way to describe this music is to use the very adjectives one of Prokofiev's biographers uses about him: prankish and tender.
Once again, here is Prokofiev at his comic best:
[Ex 4, repeated: three measures before rehearsal letter D to rehearsal letter G]
Those trills at the very end are such an exemplification of the oneness of power and grace, I think we should hear them again:
[Ex 5: Rehearsal letter F to rehearsal letter G]
One definition of grace which Mr. Siegel has given is "economy with
the presence of all necessary richness." Isn't that what a trill is by
its very nature? Yet here the trill is reiterated three times. It holds
to its C# with quiet assurance even as underneath the harmonies shift.
The result is a subtle tenaciousness that is on the side of power. To me,
this is one of the most exquisite moments in the entire symphony.