Music at War: A Guide to Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5

Music at War: A Guide to Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5

Sergey Prokofiev composed his Fifth Symphony during the fateful summer of 1944. Though the Second World War was still raging, the tide had turned in the Allies’ favor. The Soviets were pushing back the Nazis from their borders, and the US and British Allies had landed on the beaches of Normandy in June.

One of the dachas where composers stayed in Ivanovo.
One of the dachas where composers stayed in Ivanovo.

Prokofiev in any case was sheltered from the war’s hardships at a special “House of Rest and Creativity” for composers at a former aristocratic estate near the town of Ivanovo, about a day’s journey northeast of Moscow. Accompanied by his second wife, Mira, the retreat set up by the Union of Soviet Composers proved an idyllic setting for composition. Prokofiev’s appreciation for the small, simple comforts found there is revealing of the hardships they otherwise endured: “our room is big and quiet and they feed us wonderfully. Best of all is the forest with its fresh young leaves…”

Though the piano score was finished in as little as a month, many of the musical ideas that ended up in the symphony can be traced back several years in his sketchbooks, some as far back as 1933. It had been fourteen years since he had completed his Fourth Symphony, years far less tranquil than the summer of 1944.

Return to Russia

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Prokofiev fled the chaos in his native land, immigrating to the West. He toured the United States and ultimately settled in Paris, but became increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress he felt he was making with his career as a composer. His unique blend of dissonant harmonies and melodic lyricism was too traditional for modernists and too modern for traditionalists. Prokofiev felt out of place.

Prokofiev and his family, photographed in 1936.
Prokofiev and his family, photographed in 1936.

In 1925, the USSR began a charm campaign to lure Prokofiev and other expatriate artists back to Russia. Prokofiev made several visits to the USSR; his works were performed, new pieces were commissioned, and he was promised the freedom to tour internationally should he return. Although he had some idea of the restrictions placed on artists, he still genuinely believed he would be more appreciated and have greater opportunities in Russia than in the West. More and more of Prokofiev’s income came from Russian sources, but still he hesitated, until Soviet authorities threatened to cut off their support if failed to return. He acquiesced.

Prokofiev’s final international tour was in 1938. While in the United States, he went to see Disney’s newly released Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Walt Disney himself tried to lure Prokofiev back to the West with a lucrative Hollywood contract, but Prokofiev’s two young sons were already in Moscow and there was no way he could accept. He could not have known that he would be returning to the purges of Stalin’s terror.

Terror and Hope

According to one estimate, as many as 500,000 public figures were executed in the USSR between 1936 and 1938. Prokofiev’s friend and collaborator, the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, disappeared. Meyerhold’s wife was found dead, brutally stabbed in the eyes. Deeply disturbed, Prokofiev was shortly thereafter forced to write a cantata in celebration of Stalin’s 60th birthday.

Needless to say, the career he had hoped for did not materialize. Many pieces he wrote were rejected, and while he had some successes, he constantly had to try to read the minds of less than enlightened Soviet bureaucrats. Under the stress, his first marriage collapsed, and he began an affair with the woman who would become his second wife, Mira Mendelson.

Prokofiev at the podium (likely during a rehearsal).
Prokofiev at the podium (likely during a rehearsal).

Fortunately for Prokofiev, the USSR’s entry into World War II seems to have temporarily slaked the endless search for enemies within. As a valuable cultural propaganda tool, Prokofiev’s star was on the rise: in 1943 he was even awarded the Stalin Prize (Second Class) for his Piano Sonata No. 7. Apparently, the judges did not notice the subversive messages encoded into it that later commentators have discerned.

The world premiere of Prokofiev’s new symphony was thus a highly anticipated event. Prokofiev himself conducted it in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on January 13, 1945. The pianist Sviatoslav Richter was in attendance, and left a vivid recollection:

“When Prokofiev mounted the podium and silence set in, artillery salvos suddenly thundered. His baton was already raised. He waited, and until the cannon fire ceased, he didn’t begin. There was something very significant, very symbolic in this. It was as if all of us—including Prokofiev—had reached some kind of shared turning point.”

The symphony was a brilliant international success, and marked the highpoint of Prokofiev’s standing within Russia during his lifetime. Officially, Prokofiev wrote that he “conceived of it as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit, praising the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul,” although he later told a correspondent for Time magazine that it was “about the spirit of man, his soul or something like that.” Throughout the allied world, this seemingly optimistic symphony was interpreted as a symbol of victory in the war, but the truth is more complex.

The Music

The symphony begins simply, with a lyrical melody shared by the flute and bassoon:

Prokofiev was perhaps the greatest melodist of his time, and this symphony is full of his uniquely beautiful melodies. An upward surging figure in the basses and cellos then leads to a soft, contrasting second theme in the flute and oboe. One last theme then appears in the violins and brass, followed by a skittering figure in the strings.

The opening melody then returns in the cellos and double basses as these melodies are fragmented, recombined, and made to interact with each other. After a lyrical yet intense development, the opening melody returns in the trumpets. The other melodies return as well, leading to a grand but foreboding ending based on the opening melody.

The second movement is a fast, maniacal scherzo, full of Prokofiev’s characteristically sardonic sense of humor. The music zigs and zags unpredictably, as if the orchestra is engaged in an elaborate game of cat and mouse. A contrasting middle section appears with a more lyrical melody in the woodwinds. The return to the scherzo is masterful: in a frighteningly gradual crescendo, the music slowly gets faster and louder.

The third movement is a slow and deeply felt meditation. It begins with a long, twisting melody passed among the woodwinds before soaring in the strings. The sudden surges to the highest notes of the violins are particularly expressive. A new, urgent melody appears in the lower strings accompanied by a Morse code-like pulsing in the piano, leading to a more ominous melody in the trumpet and bassoon characterized by drumroll-like trills which recall the style of a funeral march. The melodies conflict with each other, becoming increasingly tumultuous. After a violent outburst, a high, delicate version of the opening lyrical melody returns.

The last movement begins with a dialogue between the sections of the orchestra that recalls the opening of the symphony. The solo clarinet then launches into a quick, vivacious theme. This melody alternates with contrasting sections, and many ideas from the previous movements reappear. The symphony climaxes in a wild and brilliant finale, in which strangely mechanistic figures repeatedly cut off the main theme. Prokofiev seems to end by asking, “But what comes after the victory?”

Don’t miss the Houston Symphony’s performances of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 on October 26, 28 & 29, 2017. Get tickets and more info at houstonsymphony.org.

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