Andante – Allegro
The opening melody that works in minor and major keys
How difficult is it to write a beautiful, pure and memorable melody? How difficult is it then to make that melody work in both a minor and major key? (See 1. And 2.) The answer is extremely difficult! I challenge any composer to write such a beautiful, simple tune and memorable tune that works in both major and minor keys!
The opening melody of the introduction is played by solo (then duo) clarinet, a memorable and original way to start a piano concerto. It starts in A minor, the relative minor key of C major, then the strings and woodwind repeat the theme in a romantic rich harmonisation in the tonic key of C major. The beautiful F minor / G harmony at bar 9 is sometimes carelessly missed on recordings. This is due to the violas being divided into 3. The A flat needs to be given enough tone to be heard as it is a vital and emotional note in the harmony. See how many recordings you can hear which have been careless enough in the mix to miss this A flat out!
First subject group – a fantastic build up for the entry of the soloist!
Having not wasted a single note in the beautiful melody of the introduction, the tempo quickens for the famous ascending scale build up (initally on strings) to the piano’s entry at fig.3 (in the orchestral score). This staccato ascending semiquaver scale run, and the theme with which the piano enters, can be seen as the first subject group.
Has there ever been a more exciting or impressive way for a piano soloist to be introduced in a concerto?!
As this concerto had been planned by Prokofiev for many years, specifically to be a virtuoso vehicle for him to perform, the composer made sure he gave himself the greatest possible intro!
A great riff and white notes only
The ascending scale sequence is clever in a number of ways. As each sequence is completed, it prepares for its repeat an octave higher. It perpetually pushes the music upwards. It is also written entirely on the white notes of the piano (in C major). It is a deceptively simple but ingenious idea which builds up in a crescendo of tremendous excitement.
Musician Rick Beato describes this semi-quaver build-up as “the greatest riff of all time written with only the white keys”.
Prokofiev’s thinking of composing using just the white notes goes beyond this riff. He had started to write a string quartet written entirely using white notes (i.e. a diatonic scale with no sharps or flats) in 1918. Prokofiev must have seen this as an interesting compositional challenge to his melodic genius, but eventually he abandoned the project, thinking the end result would be too monotonous. However, he took the first and second themes of the quartet’s finale to use in the finale of the third concerto and used other material later on in his opera The Fiery Angel.
The piano’s first theme – Prokofiev’s fresh and original harmonies.
What chord would you use to accompany the entry of the piano in a concerto in C major? Prokofiev avoids the mundane by giving us this arpeggiated harmony (fig. 3) – B diminished / C (similar in effect to a dominant 7th / tonic C.)
This chord keeps us immediately on our toes, making us unsettled and agitated in anticipation. A lesser composer may well have harmonised this theme with a predictable (and boring!) C major chord.
The piano enters with a 3 note motif which is a retrograde version of the first notes of the introduction’s theme. It is similar to a motif found in the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto – a work which, according to his diaries, Prokofiev enjoyed playing. (This contradicts Prokofiev’s comments stating that he liked and played Rachmaninoff’s first two piano concertos but found the third too dry.)
Prokofiev avoids predictable functional harmony.
After just two bars Prokofiev takes us in an unexpected direction. There follows two beautiful extended harmonies in the orchestra – E flat minor 2nd inversion over A flat major second inversion (fig. 2) followed by B flat minor second inversion / A flat 7/9 (fig.4) – and then a D flat to G flat ostinato in the bass with a series of ascending chords.
On the repeat of the 3 note motif Prokofiev gives the music a lift by changing the harmony to Dm7 / G major second inversion. These substitutions for traditional functional harmony create new sensations for the listener.
Two chromatic harmonies lead us to the climax of the first subject group on a kind of G major seventh and C/D chord alternation (ostinato) with more ascending chords. What beautiful and joyous chords these are! You can hear an influence of Debussy and Ravel with these chords.
The piano then cascades down with broken chords alternating between the hands. These broken chords – black notes overlapping white ones – remind us of figuration found in Ravel’s piano pieces like Jeux d’eaux or Gaspard de la Nuit. The idea of overlapping black notes over white notes on the piano is something Prokofiev returns to frequently in this concerto.
From figure 6 there is a transitional passage which takes us from the first subject material to a build-up in tension towards the second subject at figure 13. This completely contrasting second subject has a quirky and darker feel in the relative minor key of A minor.
Second subject closing section – a brilliant and original piano idea
This flippant and audacious idea stems from one brilliant, original but simple idea on the piano:
First, play a descending broken octave in the right hand on the white notes. Next, play a black note a semitone underneath with your left hand, play the right hand broken octave ascending then cross over your left hand to hit the black note a semitone above! Repeat and vary in sequences and play around with the idea!!
It is an athletic and fun idea – not to mention an innovative and ingenious one.
There is an almost Wagnerian climax to this section which includes some piquant chords in the brass from fig. 22:
Development and recapitulation section (in sonata form) combined
There is a brief, passionate outpouring of the introduction theme by the full the orchestra at fig.26 followed by (reversing the original order) the solo clarinet playing the theme – this time accompanied by strings at fig. 27.
There is a gorgeous harmonic moment where the first violins cross over to the D above the clarinet’s A two bars before 28. It is amazing how so many performances rush this clarinet solo or the moment of tenderness and stillness at this point. It is a beautiful moment and it should be savoured.
The introduction theme is then played in imitations and in stretto between the piano and orchestra in a magical and flowing development. There are many beautiful moments to savour such as the contrary motion strings a bar before fig. 30. This bar sounds amazing with a little rallentando.
The end of the section from fig.30 sounds like a fairy-tale.
The white note riff then returns in non legato semiquavers in the piano and orchestra at fig.32. This tremendous build up leads us to a repeat of the first subject theme at fig.36.
At 39 we have more fun with those white note broken octaves and criss-crossing left hand playing black notes.
From fig. 41 we have a series of ascending triads with overlapping hands that was one of the earliest conceived passages Prokofiev wrote for the concerto back in 1911.
After some glissandi in the piano with the first subject motif repeated in the orchestra, there follows at fig.47 the second subject A minor theme, returning in a discordant rendition (along with the castanets, with an even more prominent role).
At the end of the section there are ‘veloce’ scales in the piano before the coda of the white note riff at fig. 50 rounds off the first movement.
Theme with variations
Prokofiev was a master of writing variations (we think of the Quintet and Second Symphony from the 1920s which also have brilliantly inventive variations). Prokofiev gives us five sharply contrasting variations on a gavotte like theme – which is full of trademark Prokofiev slights of hand in harmony.
Prokofiev before Gershwin?
The piano enters for variation 1 with a trill and swift ascending scale, reminiscent of the opening of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue written three years later. Pianist Barbara Nissman wrote in the Prokofiev Foundation Journal that Gershwin’s friend, the pianist Oscar Levant said in his writings that Gershwin always carried with him two cherished scores: Debussy’s Preludes and Prokofiev’s third piano concerto. I have not been able to verify this but it is a tantalizing story for someone who loves Gershwin and Prokofiev as much as I do. (Prokofiev’s third concerto and Rhapsody in Blue played such a big influence in my early musical life.)
The first variation ends elegantly with high trills in the piano. It gives way to a blistering second variation which prominently features magnificent piano figurations, ostinato patterns, pedal points and solo trumpet.
At figure 60 the pianist has to negotiate considerable acrobatic hazards with large leaps and swiftly crossing left hand notes. The variation ends with a mysterious sort of plagal cadence which is repeated at the end of variation 3 and at the end of the movement.
Variation 3 has catchy cross rhythms between piano and cellos/basses. There is a bitonal feel to this variation. Just before figure 67 we get a section of predominantly white notes in the right hand and black notes in the left hand. It seems looks forward somehow to the first movement of Stravinsky’s brilliant Sonata of 1924.
A fleeting moment of beauty
Sandwiched between the discords and strident rhythms there is a moment of Tchaikovsky-like melodic beauty and tenderness at figure 68 with a wonderful and original flash of melody. The harmonic progression is typically Prokofiev – totally instinctive, a sort of chromatic progression within E major. (See 7.)
Variation 4 – Andante Meditativo – is a slow, dreamy, atmospheric but often lonely landscape. This is the section that most feels like a traditional slow middle movement of a concerto and feels like the central point structurally and emotionally for the whole work.
The descending lines of (mostly) chromatic thirds in the piano add to the uneasy atmosphere. (They derive from the first and second bar of the theme.) Their final extended and icy descent is marked ‘freddo’ – Italian for cold.
From two bars after 70 up to 71 there is an exquisite passage of chromatic harmonies in the oboe and first violins that needs to be milked for all its beauty.
There is a light and fleeting section of thawing from the cold with tremolo strings and demisemiquavers in the piano at bar 112.
The last two harmonies of variation 4 deep in the bass of the piano are difficult for the ear to decipher; they are chord substitutions for the more obvious oscillating notes in the right hand.
The piano launches into the allegro giusto of variation 5. This is initially balletic and acrobatic until a heavier variation emerges at 77. This builds to a climax with incessant octaves in the piano part. At 81 the ballet returns with arpeggios cascading up and down the piano between the two hands and chugging Tchaikovsky-like staccato woodwind chords. The bass line descends chromatically as the rest of the orchestra surge upwards ecstatically to another climax where the clouds break and the theme returns at 83 – this time with delicate staccato chords in the piano.
Return of the theme
The classical delicacy returns and the theme fades out at 87. Two bars later the piano cries out a dissonant echo of the ‘plagal cadence’ before low strings end the movement in a solemn mood. Their stillness is broken by the bass drum and piano in very low register; reminding us of the serious undertone present thorughout much of the movement.
A brilliant ritornello theme
Marked ‘Allegro man non troppo’, the third movement begins with its catchy and memorable ritornello (recurring) theme in unison octaves with pizzicato strings and bassoons in A minor (the relative minor key). Though in ¾ time but it could be mistaken for a march at its outset. The simplicity and symmetry in its design is a stroke of genius. It has an ascending and descending perfect fifth with three notes in between of a similar outline to the first three notes of the introductory theme in the first movement (see fig.8). This gives a sense of connection between the first and last movements.
Grieg’s piano music was an early influence on the young Prokofiev and the mood of this ritornello theme is not far removed from Grieg’s famous In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt Suite. Both themes share a hint of the macabre. However, Prokofiev contrasts this macabre feel with more expressive harmonisations as we shall see later on.
The piano enters with a rapid scale split between alternating hands. This leads to a rhythmic idea of minor triads jumping by an octave in contrary motion.
The ritornello theme is then heard in the home key of C major, again with pizzicato strings and bassoons. The piano makes another entry which leads to an expressive harmonisation of the ritornello theme built on a G pedal note.
A second theme with an impressive sweep
After some little jostling between the piano and orchestra with the ritornello theme and more jumping triads in the piano, a second main theme enters in the piano accompanied by strings. It is made from swift demisemiquaver scales with an impressive sweep that makes the music take flight (see 9). There is no doubt we are listening to a mature Prokofiev in full flow.
At bar 70 the piano takes up the ritornello theme with the second theme swirling around in the orchestra. This leads to climax in B flat minor at figure 99 in the score. A menacing mood is created in the orchestra, making use of repeated beats on the bass drum. This makes way for the ritornello theme to return in the piano in a grotesque manner (marked Poco piu mosso).
The grotesque alternates with joyous and beautiful harmonies
Continuing from this grotesque statement of ritornello theme in the piano, the music modulates upwards in chromatic steps and culminates in the second expressive setting of the ritornello theme starting out in C major at figure 103. This is a precursor for a similar (and even more) joyous harmonisation in the coda at 135 and 141.
This expressive harmonisation, in rich chords in the piano, is heard in canon like imitation with single notes and bass in the orchestra. Two bars after the piano’s entry at bar 100 the first violins and clarinets enter with the theme. This leads to a beautiful moment where the key changes at bar 102 beat 2. The rhythmic counterpoint bounces between the piano and orchestra, confusing the down beat for the listener when the harmony changes on the weak second beat of bar 102. The orchestra then enters before the piano with the theme (with flute and oboe in octaves) in canon like treatment.
Hints of the ending of the concerto
At figure 105 and 106 the piano plays a repeated note rhythm in fortissimo octaves and demi-semiquaver flourishes, which hint at the last pages of the concerto. The conclusion of the opening Allegro contains some chromatic and discordant descending passages which sound almost like laughing! We are reminded of Prokofiev’s opera The Love of Three Oranges, as do many other passages in the concerto. The opera was completed a year before but Prokofiev premiered the concerto as soloist as well as rehearsing for the premier of his opera in the same week! Quite an undertaking!
The big romantic theme
The famous romantic melody that fills the middle of the movement is first heard by the orchestra at 110. It is based in C sharp major but Prokofiev’s amazing twists of harmony send it around it’s relative major (E) via G sharp minor over B, then to B aug to B over A and back to C sharp major second inversion. It is a simply sublime and magical creation, with Prokofiev finding inspired and heart wrenching modulations for one of his most memorable melodies. It is surely influenced by Tchaikovsky, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff in its grandeur, but it is unmistakably Prokofiev in its harmonic and melodic language.
A chilly interruption
Following the first hearing of this romantic theme, the piano enters surprisingly with a completely different idea and mood at 114. This detached and sardonic theme is made up of repeated notes, an upwards demisemiquaver flourish, discordant notes and chromatic scales. There is a cold eeriness in the interplay between piano and woodwind instruments and perhaps a lonely tragic undertone.
Two beautiful variations building up to the passionate statement at the climax
The romantic theme returns at 119 in a variation where Prokofiev exploits the high register of the cellos for the soaring melody (which is repeated a major third lower). The piano plays chromatic triad patterns in between melody notes. This sounds forward looking to the early works of Oliver Messiaen such as The Dove from 8 Preludes for piano 1928-29.
The second variation is a beautiful harmonisation at 124 using pedal notes at the outset (the first starting with F sharp major over D.) Silvery quintuplet chromatic runs in the piano descend like gently cascading water. There is a beautiful stillness and the mostly chromatic descending thirds in the flutes and clarinets add to the dream-like atmosphere.
This variation repeats a major third higher before the theme returns at bar 257 back in its original key of C sharp major. The piano and strings build the melody up to an ecstatic climax which is followed by an expressive calando.
The Coda – saving the best till last
The coda is one of the most original and exciting finales in the repertoire.
The ritornello theme returns in the woodwind with pizzicato cellos and basses at 131. This has a new harmonisation with a chromatic ascending bass line which unashamedly creates unusual ‘wrong note’ clashes.
The piano then enters with the theme with the ascending bass line hopping around in thirds in the left hand. The theme then sticks on alternating pedal notes G and B with bitonal sounding scales ascending and descending in the piano. There is a real sense of the macabre here andthe motor rhythm is firmly established for the entire coda.
Theme in canon
At 135 the ritornello theme has its most joyous and expressive harmonisation. By playing these chords slowly in the piano you realise how expressive and romantic they are. Their crotchet lengths should be observed in order to contrast from the spiky version of the theme heard at the outset of the coda.
There is another beautiful cross play of imitation between first violins with oboes (entering first at 135) and the piano. The theme is built up to a modulation to A flat major7 at 136. This is where the piano plays an ascending rhythmic sequence of spicy chords between the two hands leading up to the famous double note written glissandi in C major.
The orchestra accompany with ostinatos rhythms derived from repeating a sort of inverted snippet of the ritornello theme. For example: G-E-E flat- C. Who else could have chosen those notes but Prokofiev? We keep marvelling at originality and uniqueness of this coda.
Playing on the cracks between the keys – innovation
The famous double note glissandi have been interpreted in several ways by pianists. The written score requires the performer to play two notes on one finger on most of the fingers (on the cracks between the keys!). This is innovative and difficult to perform. Some pianists have substituted glissandi, which actually produces a brilliant effect in its own right and is easier to perform.
A varied repeat
The spiky version of the ritornello theme returns, this time with a more static bass line on a pedal note F before it settles again on G and B again. Con legno strings add to grotesque atmosphere.
The expressive harmonisation returns in imitation with the orchestra in reverse order. There is surprise key change leading us down a tone to B flat. We have another change to enjoy this material in a different key.
This key change at is typically Prokofiev – superimposing familiar chords in unfamiliar combination. It is a great moment to be savoured.
The theme modulates down a major third as before, this time from B flat to G flat major7 where the piano takes up the inverted ostinato snippet in octaves before the music cleverly slips back into C major for the written out double note glissandi. The final glissando is heard over a C bass note in the orchestra (instead of E). Although we have reached the home key of C major feels more like a chord during the journey to the final page.
Coda to the coda – and to the whole concerto
There follows a sort of coda for the whole concerto. There is no reference to any themes. The key continually shifts and the piano has many passages of the left hand crossing over the right. The rapid cross hand arpeggio sequences are followed by 4 quaver rhythms heard earlier in the coda.
Prokofiev saves the very best till last. It is such an original conception and an impossible passage of music to copy.
What just happened? One of the most original passages in all music?
The final pages contain one of the most original moments in all music. The slicing triplet chords between the two hands – where the left hand plays black note chords over the top of right hand octave chords on white notes. The combination of this extraordinary effect superimposed over an entirely different rhythm in the orchestra leaves the listener dazzled and wondering which planet Prokofiev was beamed down from!
The strong repeated note rhythms in the orchestra (prominently the strings) provide a magnificent effect. It propels the music all the way to the final note.
Who else but Prokofiev could have thought up such an original and convincing chord progression to return the concerto back to the home key of C major for the final pages? B flat to E to C in the bass. An incredible route that sounds utterly perplexing to the ear and yet convincing.
The sustained As in the brass over the E bass note during the slicing triplets section resolve down onto a C major harmony, adding a beautiful major seventh note in the second horn at bar 413. The spacing of the string chords are original. There are no banal voicings of the C major 7th chord to be found.
Following the extraordinary slicing triplet section the piano concludes the concerto with beautiful octave and third scales played over the repeated note rhythms in the orchestra. The piano finishes by hammering out C octaves at the very top of the piano with the final C major 7th chord marked ff in the orchestra.
If there is a more exciting or greater end to a piece of music, I have not heard it!
Notes by Steve Law Copyright 2021.