Any person who surveys carefully the literature which documents the life and personality of Serge Prokofiev will be struck by how frequently there are descriptions of his frankness and truthfulness – his unscripted, spontaneous sincerity.
There is no doubt that in terms of everyday life people judge each other on the basis of sincerity. And as life gives witness, it is generally easier for people spontaneously to hide their depths than show them; easier to be afraid of seeing our true feelings than know them and find the means – verbal or otherwise – to convey those feelings adequately. If being sincere means showing oneself outwardly as one truly is, then we cannot be sincere without being precise about our emotions, without trying to see and express exactly what it is we feel.
It is at this junction that we can see most readily how the world of art is connected inextricably to life and the burning human issue of sincerity and insincerity – for success in art depends on giving outward, clear, and enduring form to the rich world of inward emotion. Instinctively people have judged art by its sincerity, and they are right to do so.
And yet rarer than hen’s teeth is serious musicological discussion of just what constitutes sincerity in music. This silence is not difficult to understand. It is much easier to verify technical matters – for example, that a sudden modulation has taken place, say in bar 11 of the Classical Symphony – than to ascertain the ethical source impelling that modulation.
Though pure formalism (to which Prokofiev never subscribed – even in his most experimental period) attempts to collapse the distinction between technique and content, the distinction remains valuable to the field of music criticism. Technique, as it is traditionally understood, is the means by which to convey content. At its finest, technique is far from being merely a matter of bravura – of amazing the audience with digital or compositional prowess. It is rather a sign that an artist has found a way, undiluted and undistorted, to convey precisely what it is he or she truly feels. Ezra Pound, questionable in so many other regards, was certainly right when he said (in the year of the Classical Symphony, 1918, incidentally), “I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity”. (1)
According to Eli Siegel, the great American poet and scholar who, in 1941, founded the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, the inevitable and constant object of every person’s thoughts is the world itself – the world that includes oneself, but is also different. The world of people, objects, ideas. (2) As notes are put on a page a composer is attempting to say something (through the symbolic language of musical sound) about life; about reality. This, Siegel said, is the content of music, and it is never expressed in an emotionally neutral fashion. (3) And, like all other self-expression, the attempt to express oneself musically is either accompanied by a substantial belief in the truth of what one is saying, or with some organic disbelief.
When a person is not entirely behind what he or she is expressing, it shows. A fidgetiness; a turning away of the eyes; an extra-creamy tone-of-voice; or something else. In music, it shows, too. Sincerity, Eli Siegel explained, begins with fullness of belief: the fact that all of oneself is behind what is expressed. And just because sincerity has this intensity, paradoxically (but logically) its opposite, grace, is always present as well. When a person is sincere there is no conflict between what is being expressed outwardly, and what is being felt within, and so it is conveyed without impediment. There is an ease, even a casualness of expression which completes the intensity. And in that junction of power and grace, we meet true artistic technique.
The outward, and what is within; ease and intensity; power and grace. This oneness of opposites, Eli Siegel explained, is how on the technical level (where we can most immediately study it) sincerity manifests itself. And sincerity, quite literally, is a beautiful thing. “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” (4) That is a key principle of Aesthetic Realism.
We have then the outline of a critical methodology: a way to approach the abiding question of how, and to what degree, sincerity can be discerned in music. (5) And if sincerity does show itself as a technical oneness of power and grace, then let us note that we meet that particular oneness of opposites in all of Prokofiev’s masterpieces – including very much in the Classical Symphony.
Prokofiev: advocate of sincerity
As an artist, Prokofiev stood out in a contentious century as one who had an intense desire to write music which would speak in a sincere and direct manner – without artificial allegiance to whatever aesthetic manifesto happened temporarily to be in the ascendancy. In his own statements about music, across the varying decades of his career, this is what we see the composer consistently advocating. It is hard to think of any other major composer of the twentieth century who spoke about sincerity more often, or whose music was so frequently characterised that way by critics. And it may well be that the reason Prokofiev was, and remains, the most frequently performed of the modern composers of his time is precisely his commitment – as Beethoven once expressed it – to speak “from the heart to the heart”. (6) As Dmitri Shostakovich noted: “Prokofiev’s music is loved both in our great country and abroad. I stress the word ‘loved’ for true love of a modern composer’s music is comparatively rare.” (7)
Where Schoenberg affected people through the thrill of harmonic audacity, Stravinsky through an arresting and unique combination of primal vehemence and sophisticated, often ironic wit, and Bartók through a remarkable ability to evoke, at once, timeless folk wisdom and the startling, mechanistic edge of modernity – Prokofiev, who was not unresponsive to the value of each of these masters, affected people largely as a man who spoke with simple honesty. Even if, at times, that honesty was uncomfortable and took unexpected angles of expression.
Consider his famous “wrong-note” music. Does it not, in the end, linger in our minds precisely because the “wrong notes” are chosen so rightly – and add so much to the honest power of the music? (8) “We smile more than laugh at the quirky turns of phrase and unexpected harmonies”, Jonathan Kramer writes of the Classical Symphony, “because they are not so very wrong. Out of place in a symphony of Mozart or Haydn, these ‘wrong’ notes gain in Prokofiev’s hands an integrity and a rightness appropriate to 1917. They give the symphony its charm and grace.” (9)
And Nicolas Nabokov said of a nearly-contemporaneous work, the Tales of an Old Grandmother – a score he purchased in Yalta in 1919: “I played them over and over again, interested by their curiously twisted and at the same time naïve and sincere simplicity.” (10)
Integrity, sincerity, simplicity, naïveté – such words occur again and again in the criticism of Prokofiev’s music. And what of the man? I select, almost at random, three witnesses:
Few composers today have Prokofiev’s gift of inventing personal melodies, and even fewer have a genuine flair for a fresh use of simple tonal harmonies…Prokofiev has never fallen prey to all such rubbish as atonality, polytonality, and “tout ce fatras de l’Europe Centrale”.
He is much too talented and much too genuine for that. (11)
Claire R. Reis:
Prokofiev was spontaneously candid about anything and everything in life that interested him. He never bluffed, never troubled to conceal his real opinions. It was during his last stay in the United States that I had another opportunity to talk with him and to admire his innate honesty once more – even if at times it bordered on the brutally frank. (12)
In this period [the mid and late 1930s] I learned to appreciate the charm of Prokofiev’s personality, the frankness and gaiety, his almost boyish exuberance and gaiety which could change instantly to anger when he encountered injustice, vulgarity or incompetence. I believe that without knowing him personally, one cannot help but feel this frankness and sincerity of his – one has only to listen to his music. (13)
He is genuine, frank, sincere.
And then there are Prokofiev’s own words – words uttered in the casual setting of spontaneous banter among friends, and also words put down carefully in writing after lingering thought, and designed for public consideration. In both instances, we meet statements in praise of sincerity and excoriating phoniness. I give just two samples. The first is from a 1937 notebook:
The time is past when music was written for a handful of aesthetes. Today vast crowds of people have come face to face with serious music and are waiting with eager impatience. Composers: take heed of this... if you can hold them you will win an audience such as the world has never before seen. But this does not mean that you must pander to this audience. Pandering always has an element of insincerity about it, and nothing good ever came of that. (14)
The second is a story Nicolas Nabokov tells. Interestingly, it is a story somewhat at his own expense – with the result that we respect Nabokov even more for sharing it with us.
It is Paris, 1931. He and Prokofiev are discussing a concert given by a consortium of modern composers called “La Sérénade” – an organisation (it had but eight members) to which both Prokofiev and Nabokov belonged. It seems, however, that Prokofiev fled the Salle Gaveau at the intermission, and Nabokov, meeting him the next day, wanted to know why:
“Because”, he answered, and his face took on a surly expression, “I had enough of that phony concert. Besides I had heard part of Markevitch’s piece in rehearsal and…” He paused for a moment, but before I could say anything he went on again, as if following a special trend of thought. “You know Markevitch’s music surprises me.” (Markevitch, a young composer of Russian origin, had suddenly blossomed into fame.) “It all sounds terribly clever but in reality it doesn’t make any sense. It’s as if someone were engaged in acoustical experiments with the instruments of the orchestra.” And he turned to me looking eager and ironic. “But… did you like it? Did you?”
“Well”, I started, “the man is still very young. He is very… gifted you know, but… but…”
“But what?” interrupted Prokofiev, falling back into a surly tone. “Why don’t you ever say what you feel? All of you are this way. Why don’t you come out and say: ‘Yes, I like it’, and then explain why, or else, ‘No, I don’t like it’? Instead you find excuses. ‘The man is very gifted’…’He is young.’ What does that mean? Absolutely nothing. It sounds like the jargon of society ladies who really don’t know what to say.” (15)
Perhaps Prokofiev didn’t need to be quite so surly. And Nabokov surely had a point about Markevitch’s youth – he was only 18 at the time. Even so, one can sense Prokofiev’s desire to be a friend to Nabokov by encouraging him to be more direct: to say “what you feel”. Art, Prokofiev knew, arose from honesty about one’s feelings, not an artificial softening or political manipulation of them simply for the sake of social “politeness”.
It is one thing to advocate sincerity; another – as we all know – to live it; one thing to see the lack of it in others, and to have the courage to confront the lack of it in oneself. It is still another thing to create art which consistently breathes the spirit of frankness and candour. And if an instance of that art, by being unusually “imitative”, seems to bring something artificial into the foreground – well, in that case the question of sincerity takes on an even sharper edge. Perhaps sincerity can still be the motivating force – but if so, one would have to ask, how? And further: how can we tell?
These questions are the ones I will engage in this discussion, focusing on perhaps the most obviously “mannered” of all of Prokofiev’s works: the Classical Symphony. (I will limit myself technically to a discussion only of its first movement.)
It is a work which has thrilled people deeply, and often, since its première on 21 April 1918 in St. Petersburg – with the young composer himself conducting. And what Prokofiev, with a certain puckish humour, hoped for as he named the symphony the way he did, has indeed happened: for not only was it modelled on the classics, its composer cherished the thought that someday it would itself be seen as a “classic”. (16)
I think that the thrill this music makes for arises, fundamentally, from its sincerity. And it is sincerity in a very difficult field: our attitude towards the past.
Haydn, the oneness of opposites, and the structure of sincerity
The Classical Symphony is among the earliest works of modern music to subscribe to the aesthetic of neo-classicism, and perhaps the earliest symphony to do so. (17) Certainly no other Post-Wagnerian work so clearly uses Haydn as a model. (18)
An afternoon performance of modern music in the St Petersburg Capella Hall on 21 April 1918: première of the Classical Symphony conducted by its author; Scriabin’s Symphony No. 3 (Le divin poème) and Stravinsky’s Firebird orchestral suite conducted by Nikolai Malko; vocal pieces by Stravinsky.
Neo-classicism depends on the idea that the styles of the past can valuably become the material for new composition. At least as early as 1916 – and likely even earlier – Prokofiev felt drawn towards the aesthetics of neo-classicism. He was impelled to write a symphony in the style of the late eighteenth century. (19) He had been made deeply aware of that style – and specifically of the Haydn symphonies – through Nicolai Tcherepnin’s conducting classes, in which he studied several of them. (20)
To understand Prokofiev’s artistic achievement in the Classical Symphony we ought to begin by trying to see what it was about Haydn’s music that perhaps attracted him so much – what musical qualities, as he composed his own symphony, he was simultaneously honouring and altering. As a touchstone to the “original” classical style, let us consider a short passage from one of the greatest of Haydn’s symphonies, No.101, which has been given the subtitle “The Clock”.
In the primary theme of its opening movement (the Presto portion) we meet Haydn’s highly distinctive mingling of bluntness and grace, power and delicacy. There is a propriety of metrical symmetry joined to unexpected melodic, dynamic, and (later in the movement) harmonic accents. Overall, there is a sort of elegant scampering combined with sudden and proper loudness.
It will not escape any student of Prokofiev that exactly these qualities can be said to characterise much of his music, as well. For example, as William Austin pointed out, a key to understanding Prokofiev is finding a tempo to perform him which is a correct “balancing of the jolts and the momentum” built into the music. (21) And Haydn’s humorous and sweetly “twisted” way of arousing, and then deflecting the musical expectations of his audiences while, in the end, still satisfying their desire for closure and symmetry, (22) is very much akin to Prokofiev’s “standard” compositional procedure.
There is so much to admire in Haydn’s music – and so much to speculate about, in terms of its impact on the young Prokofiev. For example, consider the remarkable hypermetric structure of the opening 25-bar “musical paragraph” of Haydn’s “Presto”. It is divided in a way that is almost but not quite symmetrical. It is almost a perfectly neat structure of five 5-bar phrases – but the third phrase is abruptly cut short, and the fourth correspondingly extended, to yield (in the end) a design of 5+5+3+7+5 bars. (23) Here is the opening “5-bar” phrase, and the compressed “3-bar” phrase.
In Haydn’s balanced and yet lopsided design, we are set “at our ease” and set “on edge” at once. We meet something gracious and also intense. Charm and vehemence join. It does sound very much like Prokofiev’s aesthetics.
The job facing Prokofiev as he decided to write a neo-classical symphony was how to remain true to the beautiful relation of opposites he observed 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 much 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 these 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. Breathtaking in its aesthetics, but also in its implicit ethics. “The resolution of conflict in self”, Eli Siegel wrote, “is like the making one of opposites in art”. (24)
The symphony begins assertively, with the whole orchestra swelling in a rising tonic major arpeggio. Immediately after these opening two bars, we hear the main theme of the movement. Two elements: that 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 as one impression. Thus, as with Haydn, power and grace are together from the outset, only in a different configuration.
The opening two bars are plainly assertive and intense. Yet Prokofiev has scored them – through the presence of the interior legato rising double-reed harmonies – in such a way that the music of these bars is also rounded, and graceful. When, in bar 3, the main theme enters, scored now for strings alone, elegance comes to the fore. And yet – quiet though it is – the rhythm to this theme is insistent and vigorous. Again, opposites are experienced together: the opposites Eli Siegel indicated were crucial to the very nature of sincere expression.
The first truly startling effect in the Classical Symphony comes in its eleventh bar, as Prokofiev – without preparation – parallels the D major tutti fortissimo chord of bar 3 (and earlier of bar 1) with an “out-of-key” C major chord. It is a jolt – different from, but akin to the jolts observable in Haydn’s score. Meanwhile, this “all elbows” entrance, which as brusquely as it can wrenches us into a distant tonality, shows itself, retrospectively, to be also a guidepost to a larger symmetry – much as Haydn’s metric jolts were a means of clarifying the design of his entire opening paragraph.
As it enters, this new phrase (bars 11-18) shockingly appears to negate the previous tonality without so much as a single “pivot chord” to soften the blow. Yet it proves itself – over the course of its eight bars – to be the very soul of non-arrogance. Not only is it deferentially pitched lower than the earlier phrase (C major versus D major), it also meekly follows its every musical gesture, paralleling them in sequence. Where at first (through that angular tonal dislocation) it seemed harshly to dismiss, now it dutifully obeys. And with what results? By bar 18 we are perfectly positioned on the dominant of D. We are now set up to re-establish the very key that earlier was so rudely dethroned. So was this C major phrase in contradiction to the D major phrase, or in support of it? It simply is both.
What we see here, in the course of approximately 15 seconds of music, is a vibrant experience in opposites: in symmetry and jumpiness, familiarity and strangeness, charm and rudeness, disagreement and agreement, criticism and support. Intensity and ease, power and grace are being put together – and this literally, etymologically, is what the act of musical composition is all about.
According to Aesthetic Realism, “every person is always trying to put together opposites in himself”. (25) The clear implication is that human beings respond to art – in all centuries, in all cultures – because art embodies our greatest hope. (26) We want, for example, to be charming; we also want to be deep. Since opposites are the substance of our inner lives, we respond with deep pleasure as music shows they can be in a friendly relation: that surface and depth, charm and substance can be simultaneous. To choose another example: we want energy, but we also want to be at ease. When an audience hears these opposites being reconciled through musical sounds, it responds because what they are hearing corresponds to their own, unconscious aesthetic and ethical desires. To be sincere implies the presence of our whole self. And our whole self is only present when opposites are working as one – if we express one aspect of ourselves and not its complement, then an essential half of who we are has gone unexpressed. Art, then, is based on the concept of integrity, and is the greatest historical body of evidence for the possibility of sincere human expression.
That Prokofiev as a musical artist was impelled to put opposites together is a fact vouched for by his keenest observers. That this is in keeping with the very meaning of sincerity can also be observed in the language these observers use about him. Here, for example, is Yakov Milstein commenting on Prokofiev as pianist during a concert he gave at the Moscow Conservatory with the orchestra Persimfans on 24 January 1927:
Prokofiev’s playing at the concert was remarkably original, integral and clear. Many of us had expected a tempestuous, daring, superficially striking Prokofiev. But instead we heard a pianist who played austerely, laconically and very simply. He enchanted the audience by the freshness, energy, vividness and remarkable integrity of his performance. The rhythm was clear-cut, the sound was resilient and full, the phrasing clear and brilliantly moulded, the accents sharp and rapidly alternating. Yet there was no harshness or unnecessary noise in the playing. We were listening to a performance full of inexhaustible (27) creative energy, optimism, and wit, which was at the same time organically integrated and structurally well-balanced. We were listening to a pianist who played not only with remarkable forcefulness and rhythmic fervour, but also with warmth, sincerity, poetic softness, the ability to handle the melodic line fluently and smoothly. (28)
And here is Theatre Director Boris Pokrovsky, describing what impelled Prokofiev as he worked on the opera War and Peace:
The most important feature of Prokofiev’s plan [was] to create a kaleidoscope of characters, phenomena, facts, to bring together diametrically opposed feelings and events. War turned life upside down, mixing up everything on earth; it has torn the veils from people’s faces, showing their true characters; it has smashed social barriers, ranging people according to another principle – the ability to love. (29)
Central to the question of whether the Classical Symphony is a sincere work is, as I implied earlier, a question about the past: can we revere it and question it at once? Honour it, and yet be a critic of it? For 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 neo-classicism”. (30) Donald Francis Tovey – a critic of remarkable perception whom one might have supposed would have known better – deplored the piece as echoing “minor Clementi”. (31) One of Prokofiev’s closest friends, Nikolai Miaskovsky, referred to it as “gutter music”. (32) And there are reports that at its 1918 première many found it hard to understand how it could honestly be by the same avant-garde Prokofiev who just a few years earlier had penned the wild, harsh, vehement music which opens his Scythian Suite. (33)
Considering that music, and remembering how the Classical Symphony opens, there is, without doubt, a question. Why did a controversial young modernist – (Prokofiev was in his mid-20s as 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 programme notes he authorised, was to resurrect “the ‘good old days’ of hoop skirts and powdered wigs?” (34) It does seem, on first sight, baffling. And many scholars, otherwise very well disposed towards Prokofiev, have tended to write the symphony off as an elaborate and highly successful joke – but nothing more than that. For instance, in his very estimable Music in the 20th Century, William Austin calls the work “a bit of esoteric irony”. (35) And amid otherwise very positive remarks he made in 1927 in La Revue de France, Florent Schmitt nevertheless characterises the symphony as an ingenious “pastiche”. (36)
I think Austin and Schmitt are mistaken. I hear in this music Prokofiev trying honestly to see what his relation to the past was – neither falsely venerating it, nor falsely discarding it; being neither revolutionary nor reactionary.
In his Autobiography the composer writes:
If Haydn had lived to our era, I thought, he would have retained his compositional style but would also have absorbed something from what was new. That’s the kind of symphony I wanted to compose. (37)
This, to me, indicates that Prokofiev’s thoughts about the past were kind, not clever or sarcastic. And far from valuing sarcasm for its own sake, Prokofiev was, in fact, a critic of it. He was keenly aware of the dangers of sarcasm, and the loss of self-respect in a person when he or she indulges in it.
Consider his set of five piano pieces, Op.17, entitled Sarcasms, composed between 1912 and 1914, though only published by Jurgenson in 1916 and premiered by Prokofiev at the very end of that year, on 26 November – exactly when the composer was in the midst of composing his symphony. No one hearing the edgy, dissonant, experimental textures of these five keyboard pieces could doubt that the title has its aptness. But many listeners might not have grasped the composer’s key ethical (as well as aesthetic) intent. As Prokofiev noted, in describing this music:
Sometimes we laugh maliciously at someone or something, but when we look closer, we see how pathetic and unfortunate is the object of our laughter. Then we become uncomfortable and the laughter rings in our ears – laughing now at us. (38)
In this regard, it is worth noting how four of the five Sarcasms end with a quiet, low-register, retreat of sound – a gesture far more expressive of self-doubt than of a raucous triumph of ego lording itself over its victim. And had Prokofiev seen sarcasm as a noble state of mind, it is unlikely he would have chosen to use such rare markings as smanioso (raving), which is placed at the head of the fourth piece, or singhiozzando (sobbing) – in the midst of the third, presumably to reflect the pain of the recipient of the sarcasm.
Were more musicians aware of Prokofiev’s true intent – here and elsewhere in his music where it turns “sarcastic” – the result would be deeper, more generally accurate, and also kinder performances. Not only of the Sarcasms but of his music in general. For too often Prokofiev the sharp-eyed, and sharp-tongued critic, and Prokofiev the tender-hearted friend to humanity, are separate in performer’s visions of the music. From the composer’s own words, however, it is clear he hoped to have these contrary aspects of himself together.
More evidence that Prokofiev’s state of mind towards the past at that time in his life had kindness and thoughtfulness in it, and not just as edgy or ironic criticism, can be found in the very sweet and respectfully compassionate subtitle he gave to his 1918 set of four piano pieces Tales of an Old Grandmother, Op.31: “Some reminiscences have been half effaced from her memory, others will never be effaced.” This is not the language of someone intent on building up a sense of self for himself through sarcasm about “the old folks”.
And so we return to the Classical Symphony: for, in a magnificent way, it makes sense of what otherwise seem to be irreconcilable states of mind: the desire to revere and yet also to dismiss – even mock. We saw something of how these opposites could be made one as we considered the meaning of that early “C major” phrase. But perhaps the best place to see Prokofiev’s success at joining reverence and mockery in a beautiful manner is in the second theme of the first movement.
At first we think we are hearing a perfectly elegant eighteenth-century melody; yet the more we listen, the stranger it gets. While maintaining a very dignified, restrained rhythm, the tune jumps around in a way that can hardly be called orderly. It seems never to be where we expect it. Following a set of two-octave wide downwards leaps in the violins (first E to E, then D to D) , the melody suddenly loses its tonal 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.
This is power and grace, but in such a different arrangement than that we found in Haydn. It has, to my ears, something of the great quality Chaplin had in his early cinematic work, an artist for whom Prokofiev would develop the greatest admiration. With such sincerity one 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 Izrail Nestiev, Prokofiev’s Soviet biographer, uses about him: prankish and tender.
Near the end of this passage, Prokofiev uses trills in a way that exemplifies the oneness of power and grace. One definition of grace which Eli Siegel has given is “economy with the presence of all necessary richness”. Is not that what a trill is by its very nature? Yet here the trill is reiterated three times. It holds to its C sharp 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, and a highpoint in its sincerity.
That a symphony, a form with implicit richness, also requires economy if it is to be artful and graceful, was very much in Prokofiev’s mind. We can see this in a letter he sent in the summer of 1908 to Miaskovsky concerning a symphony he was then writing, one which he later abandoned, though saving some of its material for use in his Piano Sonata No. 4 Op. 29. The aesthetics which will flower in the Classical Symphony are already visible here:
What can be worse than a long symphony? In my opinion, a symphony should ideally last twenty minutes, or thirty minutes. I am trying to write mine as compactly as possible: I’m crossing out even the slightest “wordiness” with a merciless pencil. (39)
The Classical Symphony is a marvel of compact, yet rich, musical thought. And in miniature the secondary theme to this movement is a model for the aesthetics of the entire symphony – a highlighting of its essential drama of opposites. There are bumps, angles, jolts; but it is graceful and coherent. How important is this? What ethical meaning is perhaps contained within it?
The world, every person feels, is often inconsiderate and jarring. One solution, which people have tried, is to make the world go away. “We all of us”, Eli Siegel wrote compassionately, “are fond of vacancy as a means of combating the humiliating bumps and confusions of the ordinary unsolicitous world”. (40) The danger of contempt – in all its forms – is that its source is a notion of self that is fundamentally insincere: the idea that we grow in our own esteem as we diminish the reality and meaning of other people and things. It is literally the reverse of the artistic state of mind, which – even as it is critical, as it is at satiric heights – is nevertheless always in search of meaning, value, and beauty. A person relying on vacancy to get through life cannot feel honest doing so. (41) The only genuine answer is the one Prokofiev, and art itself, presents: seeing the jarring and the graceful possibilities of reality aesthetically; in composition; as parts of a single unified thing.
Sincerity and Self-Confidence
Part of the value of the Classical Symphony is its immediacy. In it depth is presented as sparkle. It convinces as it delights. But sadly the composer himself became unsure of his work. In a letter to Boris Asafiev, the friend, composer and music critic to whom he had dedicated the symphony, Prokofiev, speaking also of Stravinsky, wrote this – it is seven years after the première:
In general I don’t think very highly of things like Pulcinella or even my own “Classical” Symphony (sorry, I wasn’t thinking of this when I dedicated it to you), which are written “under the influence” of someone else. Unfortunately, Stravinsky thinks otherwise; he doesn’t see this as a case of “monkey see, monkey do...” (42)
Here, we can see Prokofiev temporarily succumbing to a false notion of art – and, for that matter, of self – a notion that gratitude hurts individuality; that our sense of self is diminished when we see ourselves as akin to others; that being “influenced” by another can only result in the suppression of our sincerity, rather than possibly being an encouragement of it. All of this, the Classical Symphony itself confutes. (43)
Seven years before the première of the symphony, in the midst of his graduate study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, a book was published which made quite a stir in the musical world, and which it is rather likely the young Prokofiev read: Beethoven: A Critical Biography, by Vincent D’Indy – a composer who was then very popular among the “new music” circles of the Russian capital, circles within which Prokofiev very much travelled. There are sentences of D’Indy which, while they concern the late style of the German master, bear directly on the question we are now considering.
Concerning the new depth of self-expression Beethoven had arrived at through his welcoming of the fugue and other earlier musical forms – including the late Renaissance polyphony of Palestrina – D’Indy wrote:
Is not this precisely what constitutes the strength of the traditional forms? Without being essentially altered in their arrangement, which is founded on logic and beauty, they readily yield themselves to the individual moulding of geniuses differing greatly in type, for the production of new masterworks; whereas in the hands of mediocrity they remain stubbornly intractable…. Hence it was by leaning on the traditional forms and identifying them with his internal conception that this pretended revolutionary was able to contribute so powerfully to the progress of his art. (44)
Leaving aside the obvious prejudices of the somewhat reactionary D’Indy – (is Beethoven, after all, only a “pretended” revolutionary?) – the core of his argument holds up to historical scrutiny. For it is difficult to find a single instance of a sovereign master of the art of musical composition who did not find sustenance in the music of past generations – and often distantly past generations: whether it be Handel with Purcell, Mozart with Bach, Beethoven with Palestrina, Brahms with the German polyphonists of the sixteenth century, or Prokofiev with Haydn.
Prokofiev did not know what Aesthetic Realism teaches, and had chronology and geography (let alone world politics) made possible an interchange between him and Eli Siegel, (45) and had they engaged in philosophic conversation, (46) I am sure the great Russian composer would have been even more sure of himself and not have fallen prey to the superficial aesthetic reasoning that assigns musical worth on the basis of how “revolutionary” a work sounds, rather than how musical it is. What matters is art and sincerity, not the degree to which one can “épater les bourgeois”.
If we are sincere, it is musicality that weighs more for us than uniqueness – for uniqueness without musicality is merely the eccentric. Moreover, it is impossible to be sincere without being original in some manner – for no two people ever felt life just the same way. To judge by “outward style” rather than “inherent content”, is to mistake the clothes for the man – an easy mistake to make, but a mistake, nonetheless.
As Aesthetic Realism sees it, all value results from how well opposites have been made one. Whatever technique is employed, whatever style chosen, if in the music opposites are working together, then there is value and it is permanent. The Classical Symphony does this, and so it represents, and satisfies the sincerest desire every person has: to like the world on an honest basis by seeing the world as having a beautiful, abiding structure: the oneness of opposites.
Prokofiev, who had a deep belief in the fundamental optimism of art – the fact that art embodies the human capacity to find beauty even in most tragic subject matter, clarity of form even in the midst of the most painful emotional confusion – would, one can only imagine, have welcomed this idea, and recognised himself in it.
The music editions used in this article are:
Prokofiev, Classical Symphony: 1974 Dover Edition, edited by Lewis Roth.
Haydn, Symphony No. 101: 1999 Dover Publication, “London Symphonies”, Nos. 99-104.
Prokofiev’s autograph of the Classical Symphony; first page of the orchestral score.
1 - From Ezra Pound’s “Credo”, included in his Pavannes and Divisions, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1918).
2 - See Siegel, Eli, Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism, (New York: Definition Press, 1981), especially Chapter 5, “Imagination, Reality, and Aesthetics”, pp.141-158.
3 - For a fuller presentation of this concept see my article “Donald Francis Tovey, Aesthetic Realism, and the Need for a Philosophic Musicology”, The International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 36, No.2, (2005), 227-348. For an ethnomusicological perspective, see Green, Edward and Arnold Perey, “Aesthetic realism: a new foundation for interdisciplinary musicology”, in CIM04: Conference on Interdisciplinary Musicology, (Graz: Graz University Department of Musicology, 2004), 82-83. This essay, which I co-authored with anthropologist Arnold Perey, was presented under the aegis of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music at the “Conference on Interdisciplinary Musicology” hosted by the Department of Musicology of the University of Graz, 15-18 April 2004. It is posted on-line at:
4 - Siegel, Eli, The Modern Quarterly Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism: 1922-1923, (New York: Definition Press. 1997), 13.
5 - For a sustained consideration of how, on a technical level, sincerity can be discerned in art, see Eli Siegel’s lecture of 8 February 1952, “Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things: Belief”, serialised in the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, issues 566-572 (8 February to 21 March 1978). For more information about the work of Eli Siegel (1902-1978) see my article, “A Note on Two Conceptions of Aesthetic Realism”, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol.45, No.4, (2005), 438-440. An early publication of his central ideas about aesthetics is the essay “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?” – which appeared in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol.14, No.2, (1955), 282-283.
6 - “Von Herzen – Möge es zu Herzen gehen” – the motto of the Missa Solemnis.
7 - In Sovetskaia Muzyka, No.4, (1961). Quoted in Prokofiev, S., Sergei Prokofiev: Materials, Articles, Interviews, compiled by Vladimir Blok, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), 11.
8 - Two of the finest technical investigations of Prokofiev’s use of, and high aesthetic purpose with, “wrong notes” are the article “Prokofiev’s Technique of Chromatic Displacement”, by Richard Bass, which appeared in Music Analysis, Vol.7, No.2, (1988), 197-214, and Neil Minturn’s The Music of Sergei Prokofiev, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997).
9 - Kramer, Jonathan, Listen to the Music: A Self-Guided Tour Through the Orchestral Repertoire, (New York: Schirmer, 1988), 518.
10 - Nabokov, Nicolas, Old Friends and New Music, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1951), 115.
11 - Ibid.: 71. According to the author (see p.69), the statement was made during a conversation between him and the impresario in 1928 in Paris.
12 - Reis, Claire R., Composers, Conductors and Critics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 175-176.
13 - A statement of 16 April 1954, quoted in Prokofiev 1978: 238.
14 - Ibid.: 42.
15 - Nabokov, 1951: 111-112.
16 - This is my reading of what Prokofiev meant by the statement in his Autobiography that he was “secretly hoping that in the end I would have my way if the title ‘Classical’ stuck”. (Cited in Robinson, Harlow, Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, [New York: Viking Penguin, 1987], 131.)
17 - As early as 1909, Prokofiev had begun to explore the possibility of a truly modern expression of classical symphonic form, melody, and timbre in his Sinfonietta in A major. Revised in 1914, it was finally published in 1931 by Edition Russe de Musique, in a third version, completed in 1929. The Sinfonietta however, in its five movements, functions more like a classic suite than a true symphony.
18 - One can say that the third movement – the “Gavotte” – is likely more influenced by the keyboard suites of Bach. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, we know from Prokofiev’s own testimony, that the impact of Haydn was central to the coming-to-be of this symphony.
19 - David Nice implies that a fair amount of the key thematic material of the symphony came from sketches made before 1917. See his Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 131.
20 - See Prokofiev, Sergei, Prokofiev by Prokofiev: A Composer’s Memoir, ed. David H. Appel, trans. Guy Daniels, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979), 275. Years earlier, Prokofiev had played Haydn symphonies with his mother in four-hand arrangements (p.55). Meanwhile, a solid knowledge of Haydn’s music seems to date from his studies with Tcherepnin.
21 - Austin, William W., Music in the 20th Century: from Debussy through Stravinsky, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966), 455.
22 - See, in particular, Gretchen A. Wheelock’s important study Haydn’s Ingenious Jesting with Art: Contexts of Musical Wit and Humor, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1992).
23 - While Haydn takes pains to “dovetail” these internal divisions, especially through how he phrases the melody, the structure of the orchestration and the placement of his “sf” accents makes vivid the fundamental design of 5+5+3+7+5.
24 - Siegel, Eli, Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics, (New York: Definition Press, 1946), 50. The entire work is now included in Siegel, 1981: 263-314.
25 - Siegel, 1997: 13.
26 - For a detailed anthropological consideration of the accuracy of this core principle of Aesthetic Realism, through a study of its explanatory power vis-à-vis a Neolithic society in New Guinea, see the Columbia University doctoral dissertation of Arnold Perey, Oksapmin Society and World View, (1973). See also Chapter 3, “The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict”, in Siegel, 1981: 81-122.
27 - Prokofiev, 1978: 209. The translation reads “exhaustible”. This is plainly in error; “inexhaustible” was meant.
28 - Ibid.
29 - Ibid: 229.
30 - Salazar, Adolfo, Music in Our Time: Trends in Music Since the Romantic Era, trans. Isabel Pope, (New York: W.W. Norton), 138.
31 - See Tovey, Donald Francis, The Classics of Music: Talks, Essays, and Other Writings Previously Uncollected, ed. Michael Tilmouth, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), xxxi.
32 - See Nice, 2003: 133. For a different translation of ulichnaia – “boulevard” rather than “gutter” – see Robinson, Harlow (ed. and trans.), Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), 95.
33 - Perhaps the most off-kilter report of the Classical Symphony to see its way to print was an account published in the 21 December 1918 issue of Musical America, where the work is called “an orgy of discordant sounds” and is held up as “an exposition of the unhappy state of chaos from which Russia suffers”. Quoted in Slonimsky, Nicolas, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time, (New York: Coleman-Ross, 1965), 133.
34 - Cited in Nice, 2003: 131.
35 - Austin, 1966: 451.
36 - Quoted in Samuel, Claude, Prokofiev, trans. Miriam John, (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1971), 61. The original French edition was published by Éditions du Seuil in 1960.
37 - Quoted in Robinson, 1987: 131.
38 - Ibid.: 115.
39 - Ibid.: 59.
40 - From “Contempt Causes Insanity”, which forms the “Preface” to his philosophic masterpiece, Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism, (New York: Definition Press, 1981), 16.
41 - Thus the falsity of calling the Classical Symphony decidedly an “escapist” piece of music. This characterisation is in Schwarz, Boris, Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1970, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), 10. Schwarz is referring principally to the distance Prokofiev kept from the then raging revolutionary situation in Russia. Nevertheless, in common parlance, the term “escapist” implies a lack of engagement with reality which, I believe, is never the case in sincere art. Politics is part of reality, not the whole of it.
42 - Robinson, 1998: 95 (8 February 1925).
43 - On the subject of the relationship of gratitude to art, and its central role in the coming to be of art in a human mind, see the essay by Dorothy Koppleman (pp. 16-31) in Griethuysen, Ted Van, et. al. (ed.), Aesthetic Realism: We Have Been There – Six Artists on the Siegel Theory of Opposites, (New York: Definition Press, 1969).
44 - D’Indy, Vincent, Beethoven: A Critical Biography, trans. Theodore Baker, (Boston: The Boston Music Co., 1913), 98. The French original (1911) was published in Paris by Henri Laurens.
45 - To my knowledge, these great geniuses never met. It was not, however, impossible, for Prokofiev did visit New York in the late 1920s and Eli Siegel, who had won the Nation’s prize for poetry in February 1925 for his “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana”, was at that time perhaps the most celebrated young poet in America, and was living in New York.
46 - Prokofiev read Kant carefully during the very period he was composing the Classical Symphony, and the impact of that great philosopher was still with him, some years later, as he titled his Op. 45 for piano, Things in Themselves. Kant, it may be said, was also a philosopher Eli Siegel valued highly.