Assignment Four ~ Neoclassicism

Neoclassicism emerged in the years between the two world wars. This period was marked by poverty. People were struggling to stay afloat and frugality had become a necessity. This frugality extended to theatres, Opera houses and concert halls. It was difficult to fund productions of the same grandeur as had been common during the Romantic period.

Emotionally too, things had changed. The optimism and idealism of the Romantic era had been swept away by the Great War and the possibility of annihilation. The atmosphere in Europe was melancholy and stark. This harsher outlook also took a hold of and permeated the arts. There was a return to Classical ideals and forms which were seen as more ordered and economical. (Taruskin and Gibbs,  2013: 891)

As a result of the Russian Revolution Igor Stravinsky himself had fallen on hard times.Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of Ballets Russes, came up with the idea of staging a small scale one-act ballet production based on the Commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella using Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s music from the Baroque era. Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to adapt the music. Stravinsky refused at first, but financial pressure and the opportunity to work with his friend Pablo Picasso (who was designing the sets) finally convinced Stravinsky to come onboard.

Stravinsky set about adapting and re-orchestrating what was then believed to be Pergolesi’s work. We now know the work was written by several different composers in addition to Pergolesi, Carlo Monza and Domenico Gallo to name two. The ballet’s ‘comedy-revenge’ plot was overly complicated which resulted in scenes lacking in cohesion. It had 20 different sections of music, including both Larghetto sections and faster paced dances like the Gavotte, Minuet and Tarantella.  Stravinksy himself was unhappy with the outcome and in 1924 he edited down the work into a more successful orchestral suite comprised of eight sections. Many see Stravinsky’s ‘Pulcinella’ as one of the first works in what we now refer to as the Neoclassical style.

‘Pulcinella represents Stravinsky’s first major composition based on pre-existing material. For this reason critics have seen it as signalling the onset of his neoclassical style. Despite this common view, much of the borrowed material is left unchanged, rather than recomposed in a modern idiom, and Stravinsky’s additions resemble an elegant gloss more than an original composition.’ (Cross, 2003)

Stravinsky himself expressed a love of Pergolesi’s music and was determined to do it justice whilst adding some of himself to the work.

‘Before attempting a task so arduous, I had to find an answer to a question of the greatest importance by which I found myself faced. Should my line of action with regard to Pergolesi be dominated by my love or by my respect for his music?’ (Stravinsky, 2012)

The instrumentation Stravinsky used was for three voices and a small orchestra comprised of double winds (no clarinets), two horns, one trumpet and one trombone. The strings mimicked a baroque Concerto Grosso setup with a Concertino (2 violins, viola, cello, bass) and Ripieno (larger string orchestra) giving it an old fashioned flavour.

He reworked the original pieces, adding notes to create denser, lusher and sometimes dissonant harmonies.

stravinsky added notes blurring
Fig. 1. ‘Section A’ of ‘An Exploration of Neoclassicism’ (2014)

Key changes traveled further afield than the originals. By adding bassoon, 2nd violin and cello counter melodies he created new polyphonic textures in place of homophonic ones.

Stravinsky counternelodies
Fig. 2. ‘Countermelodies’ from ‘An Exploration of Neoclassicism’ (2014)

He developed the continuo, keyboard and bassoon parts. He also added beats, drastically altering phrases, cadences and meter. In certain places he created a ‘bluesy feel’ through the use of syncopation and the parallel minor. (Leach, 2014)

He largely retained the underlying Classical forms and harmonic conventions whilst adding 20th century colour through chromaticism, weakened cadences and rhythmic alterations. In doing so he gave ‘Pulcinella’ a distinct ‘Stravinsky’ flavour without substantially altering the original pieces of music. Pulcinella sounds both utterly modern and utterly classical at the same time.

‘The lack of a genuine conflict of styles arises from Stravinsky’s reproducing the original harmonies largely intact, along with their implied tonal progressions and voice leading. Onto this classically tonal structure, Stravinsky superimposes modern ornaments and orchestral effects, adding devices such as diatonic dissonances, extended ostinatos, brilliant orchestration, altered phrase lengths, and so on.’ (Cross, 2003)

Prokofiev on the other hand approached his Classical Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 (Prokofiev, 1925) in an entirely different way. In the summer of 1917 he set himself the task of composing a symphony away from his piano. He thought that orchestral music written this way had a more organic and natural sound. He set about proving his theory and started the task of composing in his head whilst going for walks in the countryside.  As an exercise he decided to write a piece in the Classical style of Haydn. Prokofiev’s teacher Nikolai Tcherepnin had frequently used Haydn’s music when training his pupils to conduct and Prokofiev was very familiar and appreciative of the 18th century composer’s work.

‘Through Tcherepnin, Prokofiev had developed not only knowledge of Haydn and Mozart but a real liking for their music, a taste for the bassoon playing staccato and the flute playing two octaves higher than the bassoon etc.’ (Steinberg, 1995)

Being very familiar with Haydn’s style and eccentricities Prokofiev decided to create a symphony which he imagined a 20th century Haydn might have written himself. He preserved many of Haydn’s characteristics whilst adding 20th century idioms. He would take specific ‘Haydnesque’ quirks and then exaggerate and modernise them. For instance; where Haydn was prone to using a wide tessitura Prokofiev went further and used a huge range. Where Haydn would have used abrupt and surprising key changes Prokofiev modulated even further away from the home key and widened the harmonic palette deliberately, blurring it with wrong notes.

Fig. 3. Example ‘ from  ‘Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and the abiding question of sincerity in music’ (n.d.)

The resulting Classical Symphony no. 1 uses the typical orchestration of the classical period, consisting of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horn, two trumpets, timpani, strings. It is a written as a standard four movement symphony comprised of; 1. Allegro, 2. Larghetto 3. Gavotta 4. Finale (DeLisa, 2010) The first movement opens with a typically classical Mannheim Rocket, broken chords flourishing up and down the stave. Prokofiev avoids the bog standard repeat of the first theme, thus adopting another signature trait of Haydn’s style. In keeping with Haydn there is also a very sudden and unexpected key change. The second movement is typically slow and lyrical but is quite remarkable in it’s demanding writing for the strings. The range for the violins is very high and he uses the 2nd violins beautifully to decorate the theme. (Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 ‘Classical’, 2014) . The third movement is a Gavotte rather than the more common 3/4 Minuet. The Finale is also full of little Haydnesque ‘musical jokes’ and other signature features such as rounds, fugata style of writing and triplets glueing the themes together. Near virtuosity is demanded of the players in the finale’s climax. (Woods, 2012)

Through these exaggerations Prokofiev managed to create an extremely ‘classical sounding’ piece whilst augmenting it with 20 century ideas. Everything is enlarged and spiced up rendering it ‘technicolour’. He absolutely achieved what he set out to do and wrote a piece that a modern day Haydn would have been proud of. The resulting Classical symphony is very much a homage to Haydn although Prokofiev never once directly quoted any of Haydn’s music.

Herein lies one of the biggest difference between Prokofiev’s piece which was entirely made up of original music without direct quotes and  Stravinsky’s ‘Pulcinella’ which was based on pre-existing music.

The other big difference is that Prokofiev regarded his classical symphony as a one off experiment whereas Stravinsky developed Neoclassicism into one of his longterm styles. Prokofiev himself did not think highly of this mimicry of the Classical era and later even regretted his own classical piece.

‘For my part I did mot approve of Stravinsky’s predilection for Bach methods – “pseudo- Bachism,”- or rather I did not approve of adopting someone else’s idioms and calling it one’s own. True, I had written a Classical Symphony myself, but that was only a passing phase. With Stravinsky this ‘Bachism’ was becoming the basic line of his music. ‘ (Shlifstein, 2000:67)

‘In general I don’t think very highly of things like Pulcinella or even my own “Classical” Symphony (sorry, I wasn’t thinking of this when I dedicated it to you), which are written “under the influence” of someone else. Unfortunately, Stravinsky thinks otherwise; he doesn’t see this as a case of “monkey see, monkey do…” (Green, n. d.)

I see merits and validity to both Prokofiev’s indirect approach and to Stravinsky’s quoting, re-working and embellishment of the Classical style. I think both of the pieces are inspiring and valuable in their own right, although their approach differs. Both use dissonance to set their pieces apart from Classical music and both venture further from the home key. Prokofiev pushes instrument ranges to the limit, whereas Stravinsky alters the meter drastically. Ultimately they both achieve Classicism whilst simultaneously sounding modern.





Figure 1. Leach, R. (2014) ‘Section A’ of A level School Concert November 2014: An Exploration of Neoclassicism. At: (Accessed on 4 January 2018)


Figure 2. Leach, R. (2014) ‘Countermelodies’ from A level School Concert November 2014: An Exploration of Neoclassicism. At: (Accessed on 4 January 2018)


Figure 3. Green, E. (n. d.) ‘Example 1’ from Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and the abiding question of sincerity in music. At: (Accessed on 4 January 2018)




Cross, J. (2003) The Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky (Cambridge Companions to Music). [Kindle edition]. From: (Accessed on 4 January 2018)

DeLisa, G. (2010) Prokofiev’: “Classical Symphony”. At:  (Accessed on 4 January 2018)

Green, E. (n. d.) Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and the abiding question of sincerity in music. At: (Accessed on 4 January 2018)

Horton, J. (2013) The Cambridge Companion to the Symphony (Cambridge Companions to Music). [Kindle edition]. From: (Accessed on 4 January 2018)

Leach, R. (2014) A level School Concert November 2014: An Exploration of Neoclassicism. At: (Accessed on 4 January 2018)

Prokofiev, S (1925) Classical Symphony (No.1) in D Major. [Music Score] Public Domain At:,_Op._25_(orch._score).pdf

Prokofiev, S (2000) Prokofiev Sergei Classical Symphony Op.25 in Full Score Bk (Dover Music Scores). Dover Music Scores At:

Prokofiev, S. (2011) Prokofiev: Classical Symphony (No. 1) in D major, op. 25; Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, op. 100, Leonard Bernstein. [CD] New York: Sony Classical.

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 ‘Classical’. (2014) [radio programme, online] Pres. Hazlewood, C. BBC Radio 3 At:

Shlifstein, S. (2000) Sergei Prokofiev: Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences. London: University Press of the Pacific.

Steinberg, M. (1995) The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide. [Kindle edition]. From: (Accessed on 4 January 2018)

Stravinsky, I. (2012) An Autobiography. [Kindle edition]. From: (Accessed on 4 January 2018)

Stravinsky, I. (1920) Pulcinella [Music Score] At:

Stravinsky, I. (1975) Pierre Boulez conducts Stravinsky: Petrushka & Pulcinella Suite. [CD]  Leamington Spa: Dutton Epoch.

Taruskin, R. and Gibbs, C. (2013) The Oxford History of Western music. (College Edition) New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Woods, K. (2012) Explore the score- Prokofiev Classical Symphony. At: (Accessed on 4 January 2018)