Symphony No. 5 in Bb Major, Op. 100

Sergei Prokofiev

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

To say that Sergei Prokofiev’s life changed in the fourteen years between the completion of his fourth and fifth symphonies would be a gross understatement. In 1930, when his Symphony No. 4, op. 47 premiered in its first version, Prokofiev (1891–1953) was in his second decade of traveling, performing, and conducting abroad, following a comfortable childhood in Ukraine and a solid Moscow education. Highly prolific, he had already created dozens of works for stage and for chamber and orchestral ensembles, and his music found acceptance far beyond Moscow. The composer had relocated after the 1917 revolution, but seemed unable to leave his homeland behind, returning on several occasions. At the same time, the Soviet government worked very hard to lure their favored musician back, commissioning and premiering his works with greater support than he received in Europe and the United States. Scholar Dorothea Redepenning points out that even though Prokofiev was skeptical about the political situation in the USSR, he hoped the communist state would provide greater opportunities for musicians. Thus, in 1936, the conflicted musician finally gave into his heart and journeyed home. He turned in his passport for “safekeeping,” after which he never again was allowed to venture beyond the USSR’s borders. And while Prokofiev at first found success in early projects after his return, his timing was unfortunate, for it coincided with the advent of Stalin’s reign of terror. Artists of all sorts were subjected to extreme oversight, sent away to work camps, executed, or simply disappeared. In this context, Prokofiev carefully considered what to compose and how to present it, but no Soviet artist of the time could completely avoid critical censure.

Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev

Ironically, it was during the World War II years that top Soviet composers found a bit of relief. The government arranged for their relocation to places outside of Moscow to counteract the stresses of city bombings and wartime shortages. In 1944, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and Kabalevsky all spent the summer at a retreat in Ivanovo, about 150 miles outside of Moscow. Prokofiev used his time wisely, and in the course of a month produced the initial draft of his Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, op. 100. The film and stage scores and songs he had written in the pre-war years were created to fit within the Socialist Realism ideals of “heroic, bright, and beautiful.” Absolute music, without programmatic guidelines, was a much trickier venture. While it was more difficult to prove a composer’s intent, it was also much easier for the government to condemn a piece on any perceived tendency toward formalism, the term used to describe music emanating from the West. In its wartime setting, however, Prokofiev’s symphony was declared a grand success. In fact, in an oft-told story, while conducting the work’s January 1945 Moscow premiere, the composer had to pause before his first downbeat, as he was interrupted by military fire that signaled a celebration of the advance of the Red Army across the Vistula River into German territory—an indicator of movement toward victory for the Allies that provided a meaningful, if unexpected, new connection for the symphony. As for his inspiration, Prokofiev later explained that he saw the four-movement symphony as “glorifying the human spirit. I wanted to sing of a mankind free and happy—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul. I cannot say that I chose this theme. It was innate in me and had to be expressed.” Whether that free, happy man was a soldier returning from the WWII battlefield, an artist navigating dictatorial expectations, or Prokofiev himself, the composer never gave any further clue. For the Soviet composer, discretion was always the better part of valor.

Unfortunately for Prokofiev, the evening served as a sort of apex of his musical journey. Not long after the performance, he fell and injured his head, restricting subsequent activities. Although he continued to compose, it was the last time the composer would conduct an orchestral premiere of his own music. More chillingly, the patriotic fervor of 1945 did not last. After the war, governmental control returned with an iron fist. In 1948, Prokofiev’s music was severely condemned by the Soviet Composer’s Union and a number of his compositions were specifically banned, making him a persona non grata in the Moscow concert hall. In a final stroke of unkind fate, the long-suffering composer died on the same day in 1953 as Stalin. Unlike his colleagues with whom he had spent the summer of 1944 in retreat, he would never experience the loosening of artistic restrictions that followed the dictator’s death.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2023

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich are the two composers who stood above the rest of those who labored during the years of the Soviet Union.  Unlike Shostakovich, however, Prokofiev enjoyed part of his career living and composing in the West, voluntarily returning to the USSR in 1936. Like his compatriot, he must be counted as one of the great composers of the twentieth century. Unlike Shostakovich, however, Prokofiev’s direct influence on composers outside of the Soviet sphere was minimal.  He was a virtuoso pianist, but one who also composed from the beginning, graduating from the St. Petersburg Conservatory shortly before World War I. His musical style was based in the Russian romantic tradition. He established early on a personal idiom that was characterized by pungent dissonance, soaring lyrical melodies, a facile manipulation of motoric rhythms, and kaleidoscopic harmonic changes. Part and parcel of his musical personality was an acerbic appreciation of satire, parody, and even the grotesque.

Although he traveled widely early on, he returned to the Soviet Union from time to time for extensive concertizing. His works were performed frequently there, and he always kept his Soviet passport.  He was never politically naive (although some colleagues thought so) regarding the life of artists under that political system, and it must be surmised that his eventual move to the USSR was made with open eyes.   His musical language had been gradually moving to a simpler, more accessible style—a necessary condition for artists who wished to serve a collectivist state and appeal to the masses.  So, when he and his family arrived in Russia in 1936, he adapted readily to political requirements by composing works that addressed the necessary content of socialist realism. Primarily this meant patriotic subjects, in a traditional musical style, that served political ends.

Notwithstanding the place of both Shostakovich and Prokofiev in Russian musical art, it must be said Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies loom much higher than Prokofiev’s seven. Today, everyone realizes that even those of Shostakovich vary in significance and integrity as he, like all artists in that milieu, strove to maintain their authentic musical voice on the one hand and simply to stay alive on the other. Consequently, some are trashy examples of socialist realism that praised Stalin and his regime while many others are masterpieces of musical art. Prokofiev’s case is a bit different.

More than most composers, Prokofiev was a rather chameleon-like being who was more than willing to radically alter his style to suit the audience, the times, and the place. And since he traveled broadly and frequently before his final return to the Soviet Union in 1936, the audiences, times, and places would include the major cities of the USA and the capitals of Europe. Of his seven symphonies, only the first (written before his immigration to the USA in 1918) and the fifth stand apart for their coherence, integrity, and lasting importance. Certainly, a few of the others occasionally are performed, but they pale in significance to these two. The first symphony, The Classical, was finished in 1917 and is a landmark in the turn from post-romantic heft and complexity to classical simplicity. It even predates by two years Stravinsky’s evergreen piece in that new clear and accessible style, Pulcinella.  The second symphony (1925) was a total contrast, and an almost brutalist study in the European avant-garde extremities of the time—a brittle and dissonant work, indeed.  The third (1928) was derived from the material in his opera, The Fiery Angel. The fourth (1930) was based on his ballet The Prodigal Son, and commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. It was not a success. The sixth was composed as the repressive artistic crackdown from the Soviet authorities began after the war in 1946—it almost destroyed Shostakovich. The seventh was finished in 1952—a year before his death. As such, by then the fire-and-vinegar was sucked out of the composer and the results show in those two rather melancholy, conformist works. That leaves the powerful, significant fifth.

During the war, Stalin’s government was understandably focused on winning the existential struggle against the Nazis.  Consequently, the watchful eye of the Soviet cultural bureaucracy nodded somewhat and Prokofiev responded with a series of works that reflected his artistic tenets, and not the usual paeans to workers, comrades, and communism. Of course, in this country our musical establishment went gaga over the compositions of our heroic Russian allies who were helping us fight the war. So, we heard Shostakovich’s symphonies, and works of Prokofiev such as Peter and the Wolf, Lieutenant Kijé, The Classical Symphony, and Romeo and Juliet in profusion.

The fifth symphony was finished in the summer of 1944. Prokofiev famously wrote that it was “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, and his pure and noble spirit.” There is a well-known story that during the first performance with the composer conducting, celebratory artillery salutes could be heard—marking the Red Army’s invasion of Germany.

The first movement is cast in a complex sonata form, making it difficult to follow easily. Nevertheless, the principal melodies are clear, and clearly in a tonal key—there are three in the first group. The second group is fairly easy to spot, led by the flute and oboe. Two more ideas follow, somewhat more active, and have their own distinct rhythmic characters. The complex development opens with the same theme in the low strings that opens the symphony. It features all of the various themes from the opening as it works its way through, woven together in turgid, kaleidoscopic fashion.  But, from time to time they leap out of the texture, or at least are sensed. A rich, harmonized version of the opening theme in the brass announces the recapitulation, and the conclusion is nailed with stentorian explosions from the large percussion section—but ends quietly.

The second movement fulfills the traditional role of a scherzo, and is a perfect vehicle for the composer’s famed predilection for driving, motoric textures.  Against an incessant rhythmic background, several themes unfold, often in the woodwinds, and in the typical Prokofiev style: ostensibly diatonic, but zipping through implied key changes almost by the measure. Like almost all scherzo/dance movements there is a contrasting section in the middle. Here, the tempo slows, the rhythm motor drops out, and a rather lyrical theme is gently introduced by the woodwinds. But the motor begins again, now much more subdued, as various soloists receive opportunities. Staccato trumpets and trombones then introduce a rather lurching, grotesque march that begins slowly—and gradually accelerating like an old steam locomotive—leads us back a reprise of the opening section. Frenetic Prokofiev at his best.

The following adagio is exemplary of the composer’s innate skill at creating beauty and lyricism in the midst of a chromatic, often dissonant context. Whether in sinuous wind solos or soaring string lines, his melodic gift is omnipresent. The initial introspective, plodding mood is maintained for some time, until a funereal march ensues and grows to a booming, grotesque climax. Smashing percussion and the ominous harp and piano add to the gloom. But that subsides and the gentle lyricism of the beginning returns led by the luminous combination of flute and cello. The relentless plodding finally takes us to a soft, atmospheric conclusion.

As in the opening movement, Prokofiev opens the concluding movement with a slow introduction featuring flutes and bassoons. This leads quickly to a few measures of a quiet cello choir. But chattering violas quickly interrupt and set the rhythm and the pace for the vivacious gallop to the end. The movement is a rondo, so you’ll hear this first section three times, with two contrasting interludes. And, as always in the midst of rather dense textures, Prokofiev’s melodies are nevertheless clearly heard. So it is in this main section.  The first interlude clears away much of the driving rhythms, and the relaxed mood is led by the flute with a new tune, soon taken up by all.

Then the main section returns—with the characteristic motoric rhythmic drive—but suitably varied. The second diversion, which follows, is an interesting one: a rather simple, almost chorale-like idea first heard softly and somewhat slowly in the low strings. As before, the idea is traded around by all. But the galloping main idea must return to drive this imposing work to an impressive conclusion, building little by little into a frenzy. Layer upon layer of breakneck rhythms stack up. Then, in an unexpected fillip just before the end, the strings veer off into a kind of crazy rhythmic tangle in a totally remote key—with nasty low blats from the trumpets. Almost immediately, the composer, in his characteristic penchant for the cynical or unexpected gesture, summarily ends it all with a solitary bang in the “right” key. And with it, in this symphonic tour de force, Prokofiev, in a larger sense, ends the core of a remarkable career. Never really playing his political cards, Prokofiev managed to survive the incredibly difficult times during the late 1940s by adroit artistic gamesmanship with the harshly repressive Stalinist state. He never joined the Communist Party and made few public statements. He struggled to survive, maintain his artistic integrity and continued composing in an authentically personal style. But, alas, the difficulties of the extreme, repressive measures beginning in 1948 ultimately got the best of him. In poor health, he composed little thereafter. His death on March 5, 1953 ironically garnered little recognition—Joseph Stalin’s demise on the same date preempted the stage.

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2023