Sergei Prokofiev (1891 — 1953)
Prokofiev’s first symphony is an unlikely piece of music to emerge in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution. It’s also a surprising addition to a Russian tradition that had in recent years been leaning towards full-blooded and folkloric wildness such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Prokofiev’s own barbaric Scythian Suite. The Classical Symphony is, according to Prokofiev, what Haydn would have written if he were alive then. Graceful and smiling, highly tonal and formally structured, the work is also inflected with light and shade and Haydn’s beloved dynamic contrasts.
Germaine Taillefere (1892 —1983)
A star graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, Tailleferre was from around 1907 immersed in the intellectual ferment of Montmartre and Montparnasse, counting its leading artists, writers and musicians among her friends. In 1920 she became a member of Les Six, a loosely-allied group of composers that included Georges Auric, Louis Durey Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc.
Her piano concerto absolutely sparkles with joy. Like the Prokofiev work on this programme, it also pays homage to earlier music. In Tailleferre’s work, it’s Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto, which is hinted at in the piano’s busy semiquaver lines and the fugal patterns in the third movement.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor
The model for later composers who deconstruct others’ work — a feature of this Orchestra Wellington Season — Beethoven deconstructs then reconstructs music itself. The symphony begins with the most simple possible iteration of its key, D minor, simply jumping down the notes of the chord as though uncertain how to proceed. The scherzo tackles the same problem: that D chord, this time in octave leaps on a dotted triplet rhythm and leading to a completely different solution. The fourth movement quotes the main themes of the preceding movements and rejects them, again as though uncertain how to proceed. Each time it expands into the most gloriously rich music, loaded with melodic ideas until Beethoven plays his final symphonic card — the introduction of a choir and vocal soloists. At the time it was a startling innovation, but Beethoven wanted the human voice to convey the ecstatic mood and universal ideals of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, a poem which had resonated so strongly with him over decades since he first encountered it in 1785.