Piano Concerto No. 3
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, strings
I. Andante – Allegro
II. Tema con variazioni (in E minor)
III. Allegro, ma non troppo
Composed 1913–1921. First performance: December 16, 1921, Chicago. Frederick Stock, conductor.
Sergei Prokofiev is one of the most notable Russian composers from the twentieth century. Most of his compositions exemplify a stunning blend of styles from the late-Romantic and modernist periods. His piano works and concertos use thematic unity stitched together with lots of virtuosity. Composing a concerto is no easy task. However, Prokofiev was gifted with the ability to reimagine themes and qualities of Russian folk melodies in his piano compositions.
Prokofiev was born in rural Sotskova, a village in the Donetsk Oblast in modern-day Ukraine, to a family of mercantile workers. His mother was fond of Liszt’s and Chopin’s piano works, even daring to take an excursion to Saint Petersburg every summer to study piano. Traveling with her was the young Sergei, who became enamored with the beauty and creativity of the melodies and scales associated with the piano. Without any continuous musical training, Prokofiev composed his first opera, The Giant, at the age of nine—an incomplete three-act opera recounting the rescue of a young girl who was kidnapped by a giant. Noting his creativity, Prokofiev’s parents had him take piano lessons at age eleven, which fostered his future career as a composer. As a teen, Prokofiev attended the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and studied piano with Alexander Winkler and orchestration with the famed Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Though Sergei was the youngest student, he was the top of his class. Though excelling, Prokofiev developed a slightly haughty demeanor, often showcasing his rebellious voice against the traditions taught at the Conservatory. Nonetheless, he made a name for himself as his works gradually received enormous praise, mainly through his imaginative and sensitive ingenuity. Following his tenure as a student, Prokofiev left the USSR and moved to various locations, including the United States, Germany, and France. Here, he composed ballets, symphonies, sonatas, and concertos, each with a distinct flavor and style.
Prokofiev had not fully embodied the Parisian lifestyle when he moved to Brittany, but was still enchanted by the country’s rural culture and landscape. He began sketching his Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1913, but it was not completed until 1921. That same year, the Concerto was premiered by the Chicago Symphony, with the composer performing the demanding piano part. Piano Concerto No. 3 merited great success and has since been considered a perfect representation of Prokofiev as a composer and pianist.
Piano Concerto No. 3 is a concerto in three movements. The first movement, Andante-Allegro, is in sonata form and begins with a slow introduction led by a solo clarinet. The energy then increases, and the strings perform scalar passages that all grow into what seems like a false climax. The solo piano enters and responds to the energetic orchestra with virtuosic flourishes. The secondary theme explores dissonant harmonies, creating an ambiguous atmosphere. Prokofiev demands a lot from the pianist by having them perform dexterous passages of octaves that require the performer to move across the keyboard rapidly. The recapitulation recalls themes from the opening, but the composer also includes a virtuosic coda full of lively figurations, arpeggios, parallel thirds, and glissandi.
The reflective second movement, Tema con variazioni, is a thrilling example of a theme and variations. The winds state a witty theme through a quasi-gavotte, a stately dance in duple meter. The piano showcases the first variation, beginning with a long trill. This variation explores the high registers of the instrument through extensive uses of glissandi. Four more variations ensue, each with its own flavor, from galloping pulses to jazzy backbeats. A coda recalls the central theme, returning to an ambiguous state.
Prokofiev concludes with Allegro, ma non troppo, a lively third movement that the composer describes as an “argument” between the piano and the orchestra. The winds begin with a lively conversation, but the piano interrupts with an assertive mood. Quarreling continues throughout the movement, but the piano retains dominance over the “conversation,” mainly through scalar passages, glissandi, and overpoweringly dense chords. The Concerto concludes with a grand flare as the quarreling eventually resolves to C major.