Program Notes

Sergei Prokofiev
Piano Concerto No. 1

Sergey Prokofiev's musical training began at the age of thirteen, at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. An adored only child after the early deaths of his older sisters, he had already composed a number of youthful sonatas, symphonies, and operas. His precociousness impressed faculty members such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Aleksandr Glazunov, and Nikolai Tcherepnin.

Prokofiev's own opinion of the Conservatory, however, quickly grew into frustration. He, in turn, seemed determined to vex both teachers and students. He openly challenged his harmony teacher, Anatoly Liadov, in the classroom. And he kept statistics on the number of mistakes each member of the class made until one of them, he wrote, "jumped on me, threw me to the floor, and pulled my ears."

Prokofiev composed his first piano concerto while at the Conservatory, in 1911 and 1912, and premiered it himself on August 7, 1912. He dedicated it to "the dreaded Tcherepnin," whose critical appraisal of Prokofiev's faults as a conductor haunted the composer all his life. (Tcherepnin later wrote that he was harsh because he recognized Prokofiev's talent and wanted to prevent him from becoming overconfident.) Tcherepnin also exposed his young student to the great classical composers, and has been credited for the influence of classicism in Prokofiev's earliest works.

Yet for all his teacher's influence, no one could label this concerto a classical work. Prokofiev's interest in novel dissonances and energetic percussiveness set him firmly in the ranks of the futurists; the critics at the work's premiere were uniformly negative and called it "musical mud." Prokofiev later used this very incomprehension of the work to his advantage when performed the piece for his entry in the annual Rubinstein competition in 1914, during his last year at the Conservatory. As he later wrote, he thought the work "might impress the examiners by the novelty of technique; they simply would not be able to judge whether I was playing it well or not!" As predicted, although the judges may not have liked the piece they could not fault his playing, and he was awarded the prize, a grand piano.

The concerto is a single movement divided into clearly marked sections. Prokofiev could in this way keep the typical fast-slow-fast structure of the usual three-movement concerto, yet use some of the same thematic elements throughout all of his sections. The opening statement sounds as if we have stumbled into the end of a performance, complete with what appears to be a grand conclusion. This unforgettable theme is the glue that holds the far-ranging composition together. It marks the opening, midpoint and ending of the concerto, between which Prokofiev inserts a number of contrasting episodes and themes (a similar plan was adopted by Sibelius for his one-movement Seventh Symphony).  The concerto's complex form can then be roughly reduced to ABACA, with "A" being this main theme.  Throughout the work, Prokofiev demonstrates his penchant for bright, percussive textures. The glockenspiel takes on a uniquely soloistic role, often teaming up with the piano to sparkle above the orchestral fray. With its bravura solos and daring harmonies, Prokofiev's first "mature" composition announces him as a musical force to be reckoned with.

February 20, 2004

--Barbara Heninger