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Prokofiev (1891-1953) - Symphony No. 5

Prokofiev was, on the whole, a lucky man. A pupil of Glière at 11, then Rimsky-Korsakov and Lyadov at 13, it's a small wonder that he developed an acute sense of colour and a strong feel for the long lyric. Back then, the most alarming sounds in Russian music came from Mussorgsky, who had died when Prokofiev was Minus 10. So, from whence came the violent streak that surfaced in the 20-year old's First Piano Concerto, and which so offended Glazunov? It might have been a result of Glazunov's active encouragement of cultural cross-fertilisation with Western Europe, in which case we can only conclude that Glazunov scalded his fingers on his own boiled fruit. 

In 1917, while Russia was convulsed by war and revolution, Prokofiev was cheerfully writing his First Symphony, one of the Twentieth Century's most inoffensive works. Awakening to all the strife, he took himself off to the USA, then to Paris where Diaghilev conveniently provided an outlet for his lyric/astringent style, through the medium of ballet. This might seem like a good move but, falling victim to homesickness he returned to Russia in 1933. This might seem like a bad move, because the “socialist realism” doctrine was just bringing its heavy jackboot down on the necks of free-spirited modernists. Right on cue, along came such as Eisenstein to provide him another outlet for his talents, in the form of film. Even better, for us especially, his balletic bent came up trumps with Romeo and Juliet (1935) and Cinderella (1944) 

The Fifth Symphony was also written in 1944, the year after Shostakovich's Eighth. This was another stroke of luck, because by comparison, Prokofiev's symphony sounded thoroughly bright and heroic, and while Shostakovich was severely criticised, Prokofiev was fêted. His luck seemed to run out in 1948, when quite unaccountably (though why I say “unaccountably”, when there was neither rhyme nor reason for the entire fiasco) he was roundly condemned in the Zhdanov purge. While his spirit was not completely broken, it was badly fractured. Luckily, he recovered sufficiently to write his captivating Seventh Symphony before he died. 

That initial approbation has endured, fuelled by the symphony's combination of razor-sharp wit and flowing lines. Prokofiev, ever the fertile lyricist, spun his melodies out to extraordinary lengths, although it's less obvious in his fast movements because they zip by so quickly. This pretty well dictated his developmental style, a fabric woven of variation, alternation and extension. Curiously, hardly anyone seems to comment that the overall import is anything but “victorious”, that these lovely, long melodic lines are rarely allowed to soar freely, that almost invariably they are brutalised by a savage, bass-heavy orchestra (the tuba has a field-day!), and that even the up-beat frolics of the second and fourth movements become frantic, as if driven to their doom by malignant external forces. Can we - should we - avoid the conclusion that Prokofiev thus declared solidarity with the sentiments of Shostakovich's Eighth, and thereby sowed the seeds of the backlash of 1948? 

Below, I've tried to concentrate on how these observations might colour the impact made on you by the music. You may ultimately disagree with this viewpoint, but in considering it I hope you will discover renewed admiration for this symphony, as one of the defining works of the Twentieth century. 

1. Andante As the aspiring first subject expands, a soft bass accompaniment becomes a deep undertow disgorging an ominous counter-melody. The mobile second subject, initially over feathery strings, strives valiantly until beset by a harpie all its own. The eerie gloom of the development soon becomes a battle between the internally opposed subject-pairs, ended by horns and trumpets blaring the first subject. As the reprise recedes, the first subject strives mightily to heave itself out of a massive morass. Failing once, it struggles again, but is overcome and yields onto regretful solo strings. Evil erupts triumphantly. 

2. Allegro marcato In his finest balletic vein, Prokofiev rolls out a barrelful of boisterous variations. A sunny song, warbled by woodwind then bedded by lazy strings, enfolds a central episode even more foot-tappingly frolicsome than the first. Then the sky darkens. The initial scherzo reluctantly crawls back in, gradually gathering momentum like some great locomotive. It is driven up to, then beyond its former good spirits into hysteria, impelled by pounding discords - until it runs smack into a brick wall. 

3. Adagio Beginning over a weary vamp, the haunting theme disturbingly seems to ignore the proferred rhythm. 'Twining strings evoke an elegy, alternating with an evolving solemn processional. Repeated notes announce a central section, predominantly a grotesque funeral march whose grim climax is based on that vamp, but otherwise completely inarticulate! Anguish indeed, and once that anguish abates the initial section returns, emerging from the gloom (ppp on strings), succeeded by an extended, ethereal coda that sounds like some whisper of a utopian dream. 

4. Allegro giocoso A question, a response. The question again, but a different response: the symphony's opening theme, quietly reminding of bitter strife. This warning is (naturally) ignored as a playful rondo prevails in swirling, chittering main subjects and swooning counter-subject. The counter-subject's fugato emergence from the depths causes some agitation, but the clarinet smooths things over, encouraging the subjects to play another “round”. Suddenly, panic spreads in earnest: the chittering becomes frenetic, the rhythm obsessive. The 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.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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