Thursday, 27 September 2012

Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich

Prokofiev (Soviet stamp, 1991 centenary)
Building a Collection

If the key to building up a coherent collection of classical music is to have some kind of structure, some skeleton of dry bones on which to hang the meat, then Project Listen To A Crapload Of Symphonies, which started out as my Symphonic listening project before swelling to incorporate concerti, symphonic (tone) poems and ballets, surely qualifies. From an origin point provided by The 100 Greatest Classical Symphonies at Digital Dream Door (which I'll call D3), this bonework has mushroomed, like a badly mixed metaphor, to include at last count over 350 works of enormous merit. Having now completed its genesis of hyper inflation, the list has moved into an era of sustained, steady, but perceptibly accelerating growth.

Of course it still has boundaries. I'm pretty sure I've included nearly all the great symphonists who will ever make it into the list. Though many gifted, modern composers still till the croft, these practitioners are no longer symphonic specialists¹. Similar remarks apply to the concerto. Tone (or symphonic) poems, despite thriving more in modern music, are still limited by the general unpopularity of the genre², ballets even more so. And I don't intend to add any opera to it; my primary interest is instrumental music, not songs.

Stravinsky (Ukrainian stamp, 2007)
The Three Russians Expansion Policy

No, the main area of feature creep is completism - the gradual incorporation of a composer's entire repertoire. Mozart write over 50 symphonies, Haydn more than 100; quite often, it is instructive to consider relationships, similarities and differences between the individual opera (in the sense: plural of opus) of a given maestro. Particularly when the composer and his long form works are already among your favourites at the very outset. So it is for me, with the great Russian triumvirate of Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev, Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, and Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich.

Three out of seven Prokofiev symphonies (ignoring revisions) were included in the original D3 list. Two out of four Stravinskys. And six out of fifteen Shostakoviches in the top 120, although an additional two are found bubbling under as the BRMB used to say. That's just not enough! Yet where are we to insert the others, and who or what has to be thrown out to make room for them? Worse still, what about the other composers already on the list, whose excluded works we are still to hear? And worst of all, what of composers not yet listed? Can we be sure that our favourites merit precedence above all of these?

Shostakovich (Russian stamp, 2000)
The Need to Compromise

Obviously not without having already heard every work, both on and off the list, and compared each to every other. But the whole purpose of the list was just to start that very process!

Xорошо, let all additions occur at the bottom of the list until we get a feel for it. And anyway, I still don't feel confident rating even the best known symphonies against each other. I still think Beethoven's sixth (Pastorale) is the best thing since baked wheat, yet it's only at number seven. Ho-hum.

Devil take HTML table editing; I'll maintain the symphony list in a Google Docs spreadsheet here. Later I'll add the concerti, etc. Update: done.


Wikipedia describes Prokofiev as an iconoclastic composer-pianist, a notoriously, ferociously dissonant virtuoso, who after the revolution left Russia for USA and then Europe. There in 1936, increasing economic deprivation prompted a return to Russia, where in response to the 1941 Nazi invasion, he wrote the opera War and Peace. In 1948 his "anti-democratic formalism" saw his income severely curtailed, and he was forced to compose Stalinist works.


With perhaps the least politically troubled life³ of our three Russian heroes, Stravinsky too lived in Europe (France) and USA (West Hollywood) at different times. He had inexhaustible desire to explore and learn about art, literature and life, and enjoyed many high profile collaborations, particularly while living in Paris. It was in the 1950s that he began to experiment with Schoenberg's tone rows in his compositions.


Both Prokofiev and Stravinsky, as well as Gustav Mahler, were initially strong influences on Shostakovich, who subsequently developed his own "hybrid" style, easily fusing post-romantic elements with the neo-classical. In later life, chronic ill health, including polio and several heart attacks, permeated his works with a sense of mortality. After suffering a series of falls, he wrote jokingly:
Target achieved so far: 75% (right leg broken, left leg broken, right hand defective. All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.
Well, perhaps he did, but then found himself unable to write about it.

¹ Shostakovich, 1906-1975, has been called The last great symphonist.
² Classical music, by de facto definition, is not popular music.
³ Although he was famously threatened with a $100 fine for adding an unconventional major seventh chord to The Star Spangled Banner!

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