Symphony No. 5 in Bb Major, op. 100

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          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, returning to the USSR in 1936 voluntarily.  Like his compatriot, he must be counted as one of the great composers of the twentieth century, although unlike Shostakovich, his direct influence on composers outside of the Soviet sphere was minimal.  He was a virtuoso pianist, but 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, but 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 travelled 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 a political naïf (although some colleagues thought so) regarding the life of artists under that political system, and it must be surmised that his eventual removal 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.”   This primarily 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 the fifteen symphonies of the former loom much higher than the seven of Prokofiev.  Of course, everyone realizes today 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, or simply to stay alive, on the other.  Consequently, some are trashy examples of “socialist realism” that praised Stalin and his regime, and 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 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, that would include the major cities of the USA and the capitals of Europe—all amid changing musical times.   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 the two.   The first (“Classical”) symphony was finished in 1917, and is a landmark in the turn that began about then from post-romantic heft and complexity.  It even pre-dates by two years Stravinsky’s evergreen in that new limpid, 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. Skipping to the sixth and the seventh, 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.”  And, 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 summer 1944, and the composer 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, the composer conducting, celebratory artillery salutes could be heard—marking the Red Army’s invasion of Germany.

            The first movement is cast in a rather complex sonata form, making it rather 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 it way through, woven together in turgid, kaleidoscopic fashion.  But, from time they leap out of the texture, or at least are “sensed.”  A rich, harmonized version in the brass of the opening theme announces the recapitulation, and the conclusion is nailed with stentorian explosions from the large percussion section—but ending quietly.

            The second movement fulfills the traditional rôle 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 Prokovfiev 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.

             Prokofiev opens the concluding movement with a slow introduction featuring—as in the opening movement—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.  And 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, of course 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 soon 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.  And 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 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 continue 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 5 March 1953 ironically garnered little recognition—Joseph Stalin’s demise on the same date preëmpted the stage.


  --Wm. E. Runyan

©2022 William E. Runyan