Comparison task between Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and ‘The Yellow River’

Music Comparison Task: Prokofiev, Mvt 3, Yellow River, Mvt 2

The Yellow River’s 2nd movement begins with the conjunct rise and fall of the cello melody in the upbeat to the first bar, the Classical Symphony’s 3rd movement melody begins after the 4 bar intro with a heavy ‘rustic’ ie. pastoral-like themed in its whimsicality. This melody in the upper strings descends sequentially and modulates to chord 6 in B minor after the first two bars of figure 1. The chord progression in bar 7 moves from F sharp through C sharp and then back to F sharp in an interrupted cadence. This is then surpassed by the key change in bar 10 to C sharp major 2nd inversion, returning to the original tonic key of D major by bar 12 by means of a very innovative, neat ascending chromatic scale manifested most clearly in the flutes, oboes and first violins. Here the B sharp, C sharp, D chromaticism is quite clearly a romanticised, neo-classic aspect of Prokofiev’s ‘Classical Symphony’. In the first 12 bars, he simply uses a number of harmonic and melodic devices to modulate into numerous foreign keys and then uses a neat little hinge, in this case the ascending chromatic scale to bring us back to the tonic. This is typical of Prokofiev’s compositional style.

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The Yellow River’s melody here, introduced in the low tessitura of the cello is rather sonorous largely played at the same pitch in relation to the harmony but with that richer tone that so overtly allows the line to sing over the accompaniment. At the end of the 3rd full bar, in similar quick succession, as with the ‘Classical Symphony’ writings, Xinghai brings in a perfect cadence in the dominant which is a particularly unusual occurrence in the writings of western modulations as it comes so soon in the piece. The focus of the melody in the piano is clearly imitative of the Rachmaninoff rhapsodic style in that it is improvisatory in sound, produced by the wandering twos against threes and the abundance of octave chords. This rhapsodic style lends it a virtuosic touch in that it is so rich in sound, but rhythmically challenging in its exposition.

The 2nd movement of the Yellow River, when compared with the 3rd movement of the Classical Symphony clearly has more of a climatic structure. By figure 3 in the Yellow River, the doubling up of the violins and their high tessitura is underpinned by the fortissimo dynamic marking and the virtuosic embellishment on the piano. This is clearly to manifest a climatic tone. By the lead up to figure 5, the richness is added to by the marking, sul G in the violins, ie. play on the G-string. This simply just adds an extra richness to the tone.

The climax of the entire piece is lengthened, drawn out and anticipated by the of the B flat in the double bass from figure 5 and then again at the dynamic peak of the piece at fig 6 where the addition of the flutes and the piccolo add yet a higher tessitura exploring the full range of the western-oriental fusion of sound. The glissando in the upper woodwind and strings in the bar before figure 6 anticipates the grounding of the B flat chord again in the double basses and the fortissimo marking. The style of the piece is yet again hallmarked at the end of the piece in the final bar. The last 3 quavers and minim in the final bar in the horn suggests an added 6th.

In terms of key in the Classical Symphony there seems to be a great deal more fluctuation. Figure 2 begins in the subdominant key, G major with a pedal crotchet, drone in the timpani, first violins and cellos and peddled strings which gives this section a folk style evocative of the old folksongs of Prokofiev’s homeland, Russia and the Austrian/German Ländler which is commonplace with the gavotte 3/4 dances of the 18th cnetury.

In bar 14 the harmony is coloured by a diminished chord of B, with the D, the 4th note omitted from the chord. The drone continues to accompany the light, teasing detached melody in the flute helped by the pianissimo dynamics, passing through the G major, perfect cadence in bar 20. In bar 28 there is a division between the strong cadence in the string accompaniment which finishes on the first beat of the bar and the weak cadence in the melody which finishes its octave cycle on the second beat. It gives the phrase a much weaker end, as if it is leading us to something more important.

Upon reprise of the first section, it is important to note the ‘chamber music textures’ of the orchestra. The sound is overtly thinner and more empty. The stripping away of the rich romanticised textures, as with the melody being given here to two flutes instead of the violins, and with the echo of the horn in the final bar of the Yellow River, the fading away effect is a touch common to both pieces.

In terms of key and modulations, it should be noted that in its short span of 41 bars, the Classical Symphony seems to be more liberal in its degree of key changes. The neat characteristics of Prokofiev’s compositional style are illustrated though the chromatic hooks used to bring us back to the keys we expect. This is typical of Neo-Classicism. It should also be noted that Xinghai’s second movement seems largely modal manifesting the fusion between western and eastern cultures. Perhaps it would be most pertinent here to say therefore that each composer’s work, in terms of tonality and harmony, were a product of the culture and musical context of their geneses and merely illustrate what they aimed to bring to the style of classical western art music.

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