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Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)


Symphony No. 5 in Bb major, Op. 100
I. Andante
II. Allegro marcato
III. Adagio
IV. Allegro giocoso

Born in 1891, Prokofiev quickly earned a reputation as a modernist composer on a par with Stravinsky. Like his compatriot he left Russia to base himself in Paris, where he worked a lot with Diaghilev’s famous Ballet Russe company. But whereas Stravinsky later settled in America, Prokofiev returned to Russia in the 1930s, just in time to experience the first of Stalin’s notorious purges. The music he wrote at this time shows no sign of the stress of the times, being mainly lyrical works like the 2nd violin concerto and the ballet Romeo and Juliet, perhaps his finest work.

It is interesting to compare the war-time music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. While Shostakovich wrote his epic 7th (“The Leningrad”) and 8th symphonies, works full of darkness, pain and struggle, Prokofiev wrote an opera based on Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, the ballet “Cinderella”, and his 5th symphony. Prokofiev’s music seems brighter and more optimistic, but I wonder if this is really true? Are we misled by the fact that Prokofiev naturally wrote lyrical flowing melodies, whereas Shostakovich’s music is based on short, terse motives? Maybe Prokofiev’s tunefulness hides a darker side?

Prokofiev wrote the fifth symphony during the summer of 1944, while staying at a dacha (a country estate) run by the Soviet Composer’s Union in the countryside outside Moscow. However, much of the music had been in his mind for several years, and he wrote quickly and fluently. It was first performed in Moscow in January 1945 with the composer conducting. The first bars were delayed by a thunderous artillery salute outside the hall, to celebrate the Soviet Red Army reaching and crossing the German border. This triumphalism set the mood both for the concert and the symphony’s subsequent reputation, for not only was the symphony a great success, but Prokofiev’s description of it as “a symphony of the grandeur of the human spirit” has become the standard view of its emotional content. Though as you may gather from the remarks above, I think there’s more to it than that.

The first movement is moderate and very lyrical – There are five distinct tunes in the opening section. The first and last themes are probably most important: the opening melody that sounds as if it is 2/4 but is actually in 3, and the spiky semi-quaver tune that is the only quick music in the movement. These are developed and played against each other with a richness almost reminiscent of Strauss, and then we hear them again in the original sequence, albeit slightly modified. The closing is based on the first tune, made grandiose with the addition of crashing percussion. But notice the poignant comment from the cellos a few bars before the end … what’s that doing, surrounded by all this noise?

The second movement is in a fast 4/4 time, almost dance-like, but with a brittle edge to it that is barbed and spiteful. It is powered by a relentless motor rhythm that only slackens in a more relaxed central section, which works up to a powerful climax. When the tempo gradually accelerates, the spitting trumpets are even more malicious than before, and the movement ends almost on a note of panic.

The adagio is the emotional heart of the symphony, as powerful and tragic as anything in Romeo and Juliet. One can feel the ecstatic blend of love and loss associated with Juliet’s death in the outer sections, and the bitter fury and anger of the Death of Tybalt in the central section. That Prokofiev manages to end the movement in radiant peace is a miracle.

The finale combines the lyricism of the first movement with the driving rhythms and bitter twist of the scherzo, in a movement which gets more manic as it goes along. It opens with a gentle musing on the first theme of the first movement, before setting off with a vigorous clarinet theme in good humour. This tune is answered by a cackling laugh from the violins, which epitomises the un-reconciled contrasts of this movement. For me, the final B-flat major chord is only a superficial resolution of these tensions – but you may feel differently!

Symphony No. 7
I. Moderato
II. Allegretto
III. Andante expressivo
IV. Vivace

Like Sibelius, Prokofiev wrote seven symphonies, and the seventh was his last major work.

Prokofiev had left Russia just after the 1917 revolution, and did not return permanently until 1935. But it was not easy being a creative artist under the Soviet regime. The worst time was in February 1948, when the Central Committee of the Communist Party launched a campaign against the "wrong path" being taken by composers, mentioning Prokofiev by name, and accusing him of "formalism" in music (whatever that means). The leaders of the Moscow Composers' Union followed suit, branding many of his major works as anti-Soviet, and Prokofiev found himself an outcast, in fear for his livelihood, his freedom and his life. Only his international fame saved him. His estranged wife, Nina, was less lucky - she was arrested and sent to Siberian labour camps for the next nine years.

He turned to a "safe" sphere of music - writing for children. He had already produced several fine works for young people, most famously "Peter and the Wolf", and after a suite "Winter Bonfire" for children's choir and orchestra, he began a symphonic work with a young audience in mind. The composition soon outgrew its origins and became the seventh symphony, but still retained a freshness and directness suitable for a young audience. It was completed by July 1952, with some assistance in the orchestration from his friend the pianist Anatoly Vedernikov. It was first performed in Moscow in October 1952 - the last time Prokofiev was to attend a premiere of his music - and was soon performed widely. It has recently dropped out of the mainstream repertoire, but is probably due for a revival; perhaps we can help that process tonight!

The first movement is moderately paced, intense and lyrical. A melancholy theme appears at once in C#minor, and later a broad romantic second theme in Cmajor. A spiky third theme on the oboe makes a contrast. At the end, the movement relaxes into a warm C#major, but the original key is starkly remembered in the pungent last chord.

The second movement is much more carefree and relaxed: a series of fluid waltzes. Very much in Prokofiev's ballet idiom and eminently danceable, the waltzes become quite agitated towards the end of the movement. The slow movement alternates a very expressive melody with more delicate, filigree textures.

The finale is a jolly romp, wholly un-serious, and reminding us of his music for Lieutenant Kije. It slithers through many and extraordinary keys (F flat major at one point!), and towards the end Prokofiev brings back the romantic second subject of the first movement. But the irreverent main tune has the last laugh.

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