Listening diary: Musical flow in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3

Right now I’m working on my first real orchestral composition – a chamber orchestra piece based on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Carrion Comfort. One of my aims with the writing I do on this site is to reflect a bit on my composing practice. I want to assess what I learn, how I apply it, how I work. I hope that this will help me to understand my process a bit better, and that it might be of interest to – or possibly even help – others.

In the past few weeks, my composition tutor has been introducing me to works which demonstrate particular concepts that he thinks might be helpful in solving problems I’m finding with the music I’m writing, and I’ve found I’m listening more closely, and that I’m getting more out of the listening experience when I take notes while I listen. So in spite of feeling that posting a listening diary could be a little self-indulgent and possibly dull, I’m going to give it a go.

I guess this is also a way of me sidling up to actually posting a report on the work-in-progress itself with a soundfile or score, which is something I’ve been considering for a little while – is anyone interested in seeing this? Please say something in the comments if you are – or if you aren’t!

The music so far

So far my tutor’s recommendations have seen me listening to:

and of course each has had different lessons to impart – I may come back to some of these later. The Nicholas Maw in particular has had a huge effect on this piece.

Listening to Prokofiev

Last week’s recommendation was Prokofiev’s 3rd Symphony, 3rd movement. This whole work has me fascinated at the moment. Starting with the 3rd movement, listening to that several times over with the score (no mean feat – parts of it go at a hell of a pace!), then just listening to it, then listening to the entire symphony. What a buzz! Just so gloriously dark!

The specific thing he’s highlighting in this piece is how to incorporate different rates of movement into otherwise fairly static passages. Carrion Comfort is focused on trying to create a real sense of space within the sound, but the problem I’m having with that, dealing with slow harmonic movement and limited thematic material, is that all too often, change happens in multiple instruments at the same time, which creates a sort of clunky disconnect.

His suggestion is to use different rates of movement in different parts, so that the points of change aren’t all happening together. Prokofiev has an absolutely fascinating divisi strings texture here which is used in the 3rd movement several times – at first listen the impression is of pulse and flow – it drives the music forward and while you can hear there’s a lot going on underneath that, it’s not until you look at the score that you can really see what he’s doing and understand what it is that you’re hearing and how he manages to make it all sound so smooth. (Well, you might. I couldn’t the first time round.)

From about 26 seconds in:

Prokofiev 3rd Symphony, 3rd movement extract - small
Click score for larger version

(The score sample is the last few bars of this clip. It will open in a new window so you can view and listen at the same time.)

I think I can see how I might use this. Or at any rate I can feel it. I’ve been experimenting in various places where I feel there is bareness and a sense of discontinuity. Rhythmically I think it’s working. It’s just that I haven’t worked out what needs to be done with the pitches yet. It’s a harmony problem, I guess, rather than a conceptual one. I just need to keep experimenting to see where it wants to go…

Interested in seeing more work-in-progress posts? Leave a comment!

5 Replies to “Listening diary: Musical flow in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3”

  1. Hey Caitlin,

    Yes! it is absolutely fascinating to get such a view on composition-in-the-making. I would love to see more of it! Thank you for sharing so openly your thoughts and experience. It is very stimulating for many of my own considerations, even though I am in a process 'composing' thoughts rather than music, at the moment.

  2. Even by Prokofiev's standards that's an amazing piece. Do you know the opera The Fiery Angel? It all comes from there and it's worth a look to see how all that material started life.

  3. I absolutely do want to see more work in progress posts. The process is just as fascinating as the result for me. Keep it coming, please! 🙂

  4. Hi Caitlin,

    This is very observant of you, indeed. It's amazing how Prokofiev uses texture in all aspects of his music. What you have pointed out about the staggered changes in the types of movement. Thanks!


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