Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5


I was first properly introduced to Prokofiev on September 13, 2001; two days after the United States (and the world) experienced the single deadliest terrorist attack. The touch of death and destruction affected so many in a vast array of ways. My father lost a childhood friend in the South Tower. My cousin lost a coworker on American Airlines flight 11. It was an uncertain time for the world. Comprehending the wickedness lurking in the dark recesses of humanity was something too great for my 16 year old mind to digest. My mother (determined to keep my life in order by ensuring familiarity and routine) took me to the symphony, as we did every month in the regular season. We were late and missed the first piece – some slow, mournful work by Tchaikovsky. The next piece on the program was Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. To me, Prokofiev was one of those obscure composers whose music was often appropriated to cartoons or commercials, but whose relevance was minimal. After the pianist came on stage and took her seat, after the audience quieted, after the conductor’s baton fell, I was immediately captured with the opening solo from the clarinet. It was love at first sound. I felt as if Prokofiev reached out and tapped me on the shoulder. Here was a “new” style of classical music for which I was totally unaware. Instantly gone were the days that classical music simply meant Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. His melodies were singularly unique. Melodic lines were passed from one instrument to the next with the greatest of fluidity and constantly changed in tenor and context. The last note of one tune would suddenly become the first note of a newly introduced one. Musical emotions would oscillate to every conceivable expression. Prokofiev spoke to me in a very real way that evening. Life is full of unpredictable events that often startle us and may not unfurl exactly as we desire nor anticipate. But these life events produce energy – energy that is constantly circulated among us. Energy that invigorates us, consoles us, gladdens us, disgusts us, surprises us, saddens us, charms us, harms us, amuses us, but first and foremost, energy that enlivens us and makes us what we are. The palette of human energy as expressed through emotion is extraordinarily broad, and its very existence and interpretation is uniquely dependent on its creator: us.

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953) was born in rural eastern Ukraine on April 27, 1891. A musically prodigious youth, Prokofiev entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at age 13 in 1904. In 1914 Prokofiev graduated from the Conservatory and was awarded first prize in piano performance for a performance of his own Piano Concerto No. 1. The prize: a grand piano. When the revolution came to Russia in 1917, the 26 year old Prokofiev decided, wisely, that his particular brand of experimental music had no place in the new Russia, so he decided to try his chances in the West. In 1918 he left Russia and traveled to the United States by way of Japan. The United States provided Prokofiev the opportunity to concertize, earn money, and gain fame, but true appreciation for his music was minimal. Prokofiev was discussed, admired, but not well liked. One reviewer said of his compositions and piano playing, “Steel fingers, steel biceps, steel triceps. He is a tonal steel truss!”

Disgusted with what he considered the provincialism of the American musical scene, Prokofiev left the United States in 1923 and moved to Paris, which remained his base of operations for the next 13 years. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Prokofiev was invited to concertize in the Soviet Union. The success of these tours tempted Prokofiev sorely. In 1936, to the amazement of everybody, he renounced his French émigré status, moved to Moscow, and became a citizen of the Soviet Union. Fellow Russian expat Igor Stravinsky for one was appalled, and later wrote that Prokofiev’s move was, “A sacrifice to the bitch goddess of greed and nothing else. He had no success in the United States and Europe for several seasons, and his concerts in the Soviet Union were triumphs. When I saw him for the last time he was despondent about his material fate in France. He returned to the Soviet Union, and when he finally understood his position there it was too late.”

Indeed it was. Shockingly, this was neither the first nor last time our friends in the Kremlin were not completely upfront with their schemes. In the 1930s Prokofiev was the most famous Soviet composer in the world who wasn’t actually a Soviet citizen. The Politburo realized that Prokofiev was a liability abroad as a potential voice of dissent, and just as the Great Purge began to take effect, they promised him state support for his art if he returned home. Prokofiev relinquished his sovereignty and walked directly into the welcoming arms of Stalin. He was now no longer a threat and under state control. Initially his life was not bad in the Soviet Union. For a time Prokofiev maintained his international mobility, despite the Soviet’s cultural isolation in those years. But his 1938 tour of Europe, England, and the United States was his last. He was charged with formalism, the worst crime a Soviet artist could be labeled. Eventually the Soviet government censured Prokofiev and banned most of his works. He lived the rest of his life a frightened, broken man, dying on March 5, 1953, one hour before Joseph Stalin. Two years later, in 1955, the Soviet government officially reversed its sanctions against Prokofiev’s music. With the composer safely dead and unable to defy any official decrees, the Politburo allowed his music once again to be the national treasure it deserves.

    The Fifth Symphony, Op. 100, was written in the summer of 1944, just as the tides of war turned against Germany. While the work has no specific program per se, Prokofiev wrote that it was music “I conceived as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit...praising the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul.” A doggedly Soviet statement, though Prokofiev’s comments are not just Soviet PR gabber, his music is filled with power, pathos, whimsy, and joy, which support his claims. However, the work does have satirical threads woven throughout that could tell a different story.

For one, the second movement has an obsessive mania that is quintessentially sarcastic. The constant motorized orchestration reminds me of the daily production reports of tons of steel produced and bushels of wheat reaped read each night on Soviet radio. Families would gather around and hear exaggerated statistics of production punctuated by a Stalinist praise of leadership. Additionally, the Symphony’s finale seems to question an exuberant end when not 30 seconds before the last beat the orchestral fabric begins to unwind. It seems as if the symphony is falling apart right before our eyes as instruments left and right drop out of the orchestral fray. We are left with a few solo strings playing a mindless, mechanistic ostinato, emphasized by the steely glint of piano and harp, only to be saved literally in the last bar when all the instruments join together for unification once again for a happy ending. Is this truly a happy symphony ending or not? I cannot tell. I have seen the work performed live six times and listened to it 600 and still am non the wiser. I believe this is what makes Prokofiev Prokofiev. Rephrasing my comment above, the palette of musical emotions as expressed in the Fifth Symphony is extraordinarily broad, but its very interpretation is uniquely dependent on those who listened: us.

Program Notes by Luke Smith

Program NotesLuke Smith