Sergey Prokofiev belongs to the generation of Russian musicians who completed their studies before the Communist Revolution of 1917. His early education had been at home, where he had tuition from Gli�re, before entering the St. Petersburg Conservatory on the advice of Glazunov at the age of thirteen. For whatever reason, whether of character, age or as the only child of his parents, he was to prove a recalcitrant student, finding little to his taste either in the composition class of Lyadov or in the orchestration class of Rimsky-Korsakov, but meeting encouragement, at least, from Nikolay Myaskovsky and Boris Asaf'yev, fellow students nearer his own age.
In 1909 Prokofiev graduated in the composition class but decided to continue at the Conservatory as a student of the piano, acquiring a new sense of technical discipline under some duress and completing these studies in 1914. Military service was to be avoided by enrollment as an organ student. Throughout his time at the Conservatory he had written music that often impressed his contemporaries and shocked his elders, an effect that was doubtless achieved by design.
For some years after 1917 Prokofiev was to live abroad, winning increasing success as a composer and as a pianist. The Soviet authorities, who had given him leave to travel, encouraged him to maintain connection with Russia through return visits, rewarded in foreign currency, and finally welcomed his return to live permanently in his native country in 1936, in the words of Shostakovich "to fall like a chicken into the soup".
The year 1936 brought the first official attack in Russia on formalism and modernism in music, attacks to be renewed in 1948, when Prokofiev was condemned by name. The effect was socially and artistically traumatic, and unfortunately, since he died on the same day as Stalin in 1953, he was never to experience the partial relaxation that then took place.
In his Classical Symphony Prokofiev deliberately attempted a modern approximation of the style of Haydn, at the same time experimenting with composition away from the piano. The result was a work of idiosyncratic charm, clear in its formal neoclassical outline and demanding all the meticulous attention to detail that the eighteenth century was able to give. The first performance took place in St Petersburg in the early months of 1918, when he was heard by the new People's Commissar for Education, a representative of the Bolsheviks, who had seized power the preceding November. It was in part the success of this work that enabled Prokofiev to carry out his intention of leaving Russia with official permission. The Classical Symphony re-interprets the eighteenth century with wit and elegance. The lyrical slow movement is followed by a wayward Gavotte, its principal melody with a strange twist in the tail, and a final movement of great brilliance.
The fifth of Prokofiev's seven symphonies, discounting two very early attempts at the genre, was written in 1944, culminating, as he suggested, a long period in his creative life. The Fourth Symphony, which uses material from the ballet The Prodigal Son, had been completed in 1930. The new work, which bears some resemblance in thematic material to the Flute Sonata of the previous year, is in four movements, grandiose and unified in conception. Its first performance coincided with the advance of Russian troops over the Vistula into Germany and, the first symphony that Prokofiev had written since his return to Russia, expressed the feelings of the time. The work, in short, proved acceptable to its first audience, who greeted it with enthusiasm, and to the authorities.
The first movement couples considerable strength with unexpected twists of melody that are highly characteristic of the composer. The scherzo that follows has an equally characteristic melody over a constant accompanying pattern, with a touch of that other condemned formalist Khachaturian about its trio. The Adagio is a movement of sustained lyricism, with a fiercely dramatic middle section, and the final movement, with its initial reminiscence of the opening of the symphony, brings the work to an ebullient and triumphant close.