Sunday, September 18, 2011

Prokofiev's 5th Symphony: Getting Behind the Music

The Harrisburg Symphony’s first concert of the new season - Saturday, September 24th at 8pm and Sunday, September 25th at 3pm at the Forum - is called “Russian Radiance,” and featured the work of two great Russian composers, one technically belonging to the 19th Century and the other one of the two leading composers of the 20th Century Soviet Union.

The program opens with Franz Liszt’s popular Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, inspired by the melodies of the Gypsies who’d settled in Hungary and, at least in the 19th Century, was synonymous with Hungarian “Folk Music” (technically, this is not the case, as they’re not ethnically Hungarian nor is the music “folk music” but an urban popular form of entertainment that would make it just as ridiculous to claim American Jazz was “folk music,” but I digress). PPP There is the 1st Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff (you can read more about that, here) and one of the most popular symphonies by a Soviet composer, Prokofiev’s 5th.

The first thing anybody usually finds out about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major with its nice round Op. 100 number, is that it was written during World War II and that Prokofiev said it was about the “grandeur of the human spirit,” that it was “intended as a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit. I cannot say that I deliberately chose this theme. It was born in me and clamored for expression. The music has matured in me, it filled my soul.”

It was written in one month in the summer of 1944 while the composer was staying at the ‘House of Creative Work,’ a government-supported artists’ refuge and “safe-haven” outside Moscow near the end of the war – in fact, by then, the end of the war seemed imminent, unlike the timing of Shostakovich’s two large-scale war-time symphonies, his 7th (shortly after the Nazi invasion began in 1941 and mostly during the horrific siege of Leningrad) and 8th Symphonies (an even darker work written in 1943). In the moments before Prokofiev brought down his baton to conduct his new symphony’s world premiere in Moscow on January 13th, 1945, the audience listened to a cannonade resounding outside the Conservatory’s Great Hall, saluting the Red Army’s crossing of the Vistula River in Poland, chasing the Nazi invaders back toward their own homeland and their eventual defeat.

But to us – and not just those of us listening to it today, sixty-six years later – does this really sound like a War Symphony struggling with heroism against evil before concluding with assured Victory? Compared to Shostakovich’s war-torn symphonies, no. It can certainly be appreciated as a work celebrating the “human spirit” (if you didn’t believe, in one sense or another, all art already does that, to some extent) and even, compared to the symphonies of Brahms and Tchaikovsky who seem its direct ancestors, an abstract work.

There are always risks listening to music that is “about” something – whether it’s telling a story like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, implying a program suggested by verbal images like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or suggesting something dramatic but unspoken like the struggles we associate with the opening Beethoven’s 5th and it’s triumphant conclusion.

Taking Prokofiev at his word is one thing but if we imply this is a War Symphony, do we start seeing evil erupting in the final moments of the 1st Movement? Or imply that the opening of the 3rd Movement is a tribute to the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata of Beethoven which supposedly was Lenin’s favorite piece of classical music? Or how the last movement ends as its “counter-subject removes its velvet gloves and bludgeons the main subject. Sorely wounded, the playful rhythm is mercilessly driven on, limping and weakening. As a baleful alarm sounds, it runs smack into a brick wall.”

Really? Well…

On the other hand, the “free and happy man” could be the composer himself – not the glorified Soviet Man, as is usually inferred. It was, otherwise, a fairly happy time in Prokofiev’s life and during the War, various restrictions on what Soviet composers could “get away with” were either eased or ignored.

There were, certainly, war-time works – after all, he’d just completed a mammoth opera setting Tolstoy’s mammoth novel, War and Peace, usually considered The Greatest Russian Novel Ever. But he also set an English Restoration Comedy to music in his delightful opera, Betrothal in a Monastery based on Sheridan’s “The Duenna,” a work whose rehearsals were interrupted by the invasion and postponed, however, till after the War. In fact, even as timely a work as War and Peace could not find its way to the stage until a few months after Prokofiev’s death in 1953!

While he wrote music for Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible, he also wrote the ballet Cinderella. In addition to the three “War Sonatas” for piano (Nos. 6, 7 & 8), there’s the lyrical Flute Sonata which he later arranged for David Oistrakh as his 2nd Violin Sonata.

So, whether the War Effort was behind Prokofiev’s new symphony or not, one could argue either side. At times, it seems more on the verge of being epic rather than sounding heroic. The ending is certainly celebratory, light-hearted and joyful enough but hardly a victory lap!

(photo, left, of violinist David Oistrakh and Prokofiev playing chess.)

It’s very possible it really had nothing to do with the War or Soviet Socialist Realism at all, that it was just a well-written and appealing symphony.

As both Prokofiev and Shostakovich were well aware, what the music “meant” to the composer as he was writing it may not be anything the listener (concert-goer or government bureaucrat) might hear in it: witness the ‘secret program’ in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 where his initials (in the German notation) become a famous musical motive – DSCH.

Here is Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. For this post, I’ve specifically chosen (considering the few good performances available through YouTube) this transcription of an old LP recording, released in 1967 on the Soviet label, Melodiya, with the Moscow Philharmonic (the orchestra Prokofiev conducted at its world premiere in 1945) with the great violinist and close friend of Prokofiev’s, David Oistrakh conducting:
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
1st Movement
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
2nd Movement – Scherzo
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
3rd Movement – Adagio
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
4th Movement – Finale, Allegro giocoso  
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
The Symphony, understandably, went on to become one of his most popular and frequently played works, both in the Soviet Union and in the West.

You can read more about the chess match between Soviet politics and music on my blog, Thoughts on a Train.

- Dr. Dick

1 comment:

  1. I don't care how wonderful a violinist Oistrakh was: his third movement is way, WAY too fast. If that's an "adagio," I'm S.V. Rachmaninoff.

    --D.A. Lawrence