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Views And Reviews: “A Simple Matter of Style”

Paul Serotsky introduces works by Haydn and Prokofiev.

These notes were written in a bit of a rush for a Vancouver Symphony concert after a soloist changed his mind at virtually the last minute.

For more of Paul’s enticing words on great music please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/views_and_reviews/

Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809) – Violin Concerto in C, Hb. VIIa:1
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) – Symphony No. 1 in D “Classical”
. . . Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic . . . music’s development, arrayed as neat as Contrary Mary’s garden. Except, it isn’t. Like most things, the closer you look the messier it becomes. Here’s a simple question: how did Baroque become Classical? The simple – or least messy – response is “Style Galant”. The plain man’s answer to the ever more complicated counterpoints and confusing curlicues of the Baroque, it replaced polyphony with homophony: single, accompanied melodic lines, easier on the ear and more readily admitting elegance and even wit.

Early proponents like Couperin retained some of the florid decoration, but very soon the Austro-Germans skimmed off even that remaining bit of fat. The result? An uncluttered drawing-board ripe for a fresh start. With the relatively crude Baroque forms like “ritornello” and “variation” laid bare, it didn’t take long for some bright sparks to discern the new direction. Haydn was arguably the brightest of these sparks. He contributed immeasurably to the elaboration of form that characterises the Classical and enabled generations of what were formerly “decorators” to become “architects”.

The Violin Concerto in C was “fatto per Luigi [Tommasini]”, the highly capable leader of the Esterházy orchestra, by all accounts soon after Haydn’s signing up. You can almost feel the Style Galant shaking the shackles of the Baroque. The shadow of Handel looms large in the sturdy dotted rhythms of the first movement. Something of a “stripped down” Concerto Grosso, the two-part counterpoint of soloist and orchestra keeps true homophony at arm’s length.

The second movement, however, is bang on the button: top and tail apart, the orchestra accompanies the violin’s arioso with simple, guitar-like plucked chords. This seems to fire the finale, a right romp in which Haydn’s legendary wit breaks the bonds of Handelian pomp. In this music we experience Haydn not as the accustomed comfortable master of all he surveys but as a pioneer, right in the thick of the avant-garde of his time.

Prokofiev was never out of the avant-garde! His acerbic music quickly gained him a reputation as an “enfant terrible”. Consequently, particularly as he wrote it in 1916 amidst raging war and fomenting revolution, his First Symphony must have raised a few eyebrows. His declared intention was to write “the kind of symphony that Haydn or Mozart might have written had they lived in the twentieth century”. Hum! Try to imagine what they “might have written” if they had got their mitts on the rich resources of the post-Romantic symphony orchestra. Nothing like this, I’m sure!

At rock bottom, his declaration was probably a jokey smokescreen: wanting independence from the piano as a compositional tool, Prokofiev sought a simple path. What better than to emulate the classical Style Galant of Haydn, his own favourite composer? Thus, it would be more accurate to say that the Classical Symphony represents “the kind of symphony that Prokofiev might have written had he lived in the eighteenth century”.

© Paul Serotsky


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