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Music Analysis: Sergei Prokofiev Part 1

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This was fun to write.

There is so much that can be analyzed by Prokofiev, so I will organize it into several sections. I will add onto it over time, perhaps.


* Orchestration/Instrumentation
* Melody
* Harmony
* Tone/Form


It's quite easy to tell what instrument was his favorite: piano. He wrote 9 piano sonatas, 5 piano concertos, a score of piano "Pieces," piano transcriptions of orchestral works (or should I say vice versa? I will go into detail later), and more. The piano was the source of the most inspirational output that he ever came up with, for it should be noted that Prokofiev, unlike other composers, composed at the piano. Thus, this widely affects his use of range and instrumentation in orchestral settings. The orchestra was probably his next favorite medium of thought, because it's very easy to translate the piano to orchestra, and vice versa. In other words, he thought like a pianist. Violin was a favorite too. Here are some observations...

- Extreme ranges: One of Prokofiev's favorite things to do was make instruments, particularly flute, piccolo, and violins, go to the 3rd and 4th octaves (that is, C6-C8). He probably got his liking for the high range because it works really well on the piano. The lower range is also widely used, especially in piano, but also with instruments that remain in that range most often.

- He loved all the instruments, from woodwinds to percussion, but I'll discuss each separately. Perhaps he wasn't so partial, but he does use some instruments more than others for great melodic lines, particularly clarinet and flute. The trumpet(s) gets great lines too.

- Percussion was one of his favorite uses for impressions (See Harmony). Why Prokofiev would be so fascinated with the castanets and even woodblock beats me though. Maybe because they can be really obnoxious. Bells used for effect, not necessarily melody is also common.

- Combinations of instruments: This is his special signature! Common combinations include:

- flute and/or oboe and piano in unison: this gives the flute a really hollow sound. Sometimes bells included (another similar keyboard instrument) Symphonic/Orchestral Piano (whatever it's called) is quite common in his works.

- flute and clarinet in unison: Shostakovich does this too, by the way, gives the flute a really hollow tone too.

- pizzicato strings and horns: not at all unique actually, lots of Russian composers, from Romantic to Modern, used this to imitate bells.

- bass clarinet + etc. Flute, clarinet, all very common, he liked bass clarinet very much Low woodwind w/ high woodwind is common, like bassoon and flute.

- Orchestration origins: Gliere was his very first composition teacher, and probably had the greatest influence on his use of instruments and such. Liadov was his next teacher, so I presume that his signature light, even thin orchestration also affected Prokofiev's orchestration. This is in contrast to Shostakovich, who took more hints from Glazunov. Prokofiev thus has a very light tone in most of his work, very 1 or 2 dimensional occasionally, although in symphonies developed a thicker atmosphere (comes from instruments doing many things at once, not just 2 or 3 parts of the orchestra working at once).


The fun part to discuss, this goes hand in hand with Harmony, since both are tied together all the time. It can all be summed up with one phrase: "tritones, anyone?" NO, I repeat, NO other composer uses tritones in melodies like Prokofiev. I can think of like 60 examples really, just listen to anything by him, you'll hear one. It's another way of contrasting him to Shostakovich, who hardly ever uses tritones in melodies, and when he does, it really sticks out as unusual. For Prokofiev, it's the norm.

- Origin: Richard Strauss was probably the strongest promoter of it, he was a favorite composer of Prokofiev, and I can imagine for many other reasons. But it can also be traced back to his childhood: when he was little, he was afraid of the black keys, and this is very ironic, since he hardly cared later. But while he was little, and trying to compose things, he wanted to write in keys other than C major (C major... keep that in mind), and he discovered the Lydian mode, which is a major scale with a augmented 4 (tritone). So he was able to write a small piece in F Lydian. I think from that point on, he started hearing diminished 5th/ augmented 4ths all the time while he composed. So, there you go.

- Besides that, his melodies are what critics like to call "angular" that is, strange intervals, drastic changes of key, and much of the time chromatic or dissonant. However, when he's not into being crazy, he makes some really lyrical melodies that have been praised for their simplicity and timelessness. I think Prokofiev was an outstanding Melodist, in my opinion.

- Note: he was NOT an atonal composer. Although he can be extremely dissonant, he never lost the idea of "tonal" which means it's all revolving around a tonic, although the key may hardly be adhered to. Atonal composers are the ones that believe in treating every note equally, but Prokofiev didn't do that. Prokofiev was especially opposed to those modern composers who simply made music with what he called "nothing but pepper." For him, dissonance was a spice: a means, not an end in itself.

- Prokofiev also came up with the idea of Neoclassicism (Stravinsky is credited for its invention, but actually he just developed it). This is further discussed in harmony.

-KEYS: I think it proper to mention this too, since I think he really shows some predilection for certain keys:

- C Major was his all-time favorite key, piano, orchestra, whatever. He uses it when he wants to be particularly positive or optimistic. Remember me say that he was afraid of the "black keys" when he was little? So he loved the White Key especially. Ex. Main Themes to Peter and the Wolf, Romeo & Juliet, Cinderella, 2 Piano sonatas, Piano concerto no. 3.

- D major/minor, B flat major, and D flat major are also quite common. I must note that he doesn't quite use D flat in the same way as Romantic composers, it's more of a heroic key for him (ex. Piano Concerto no.1). B flat is not as common, but is found in piano works (both sonatas 7 and 8), and his 5th symphony.

- A flat major is his humorous key. Found in many instances to depict hilarious characters, ex. Mercutio, the Evil Stepsisters, and the March from A Love for Three Oranges.
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Updated Jun-16-2011 at 02:56 by Huilunsoittaja (Update)

Classical Music , Musical Instruments , Musicians , Composers