Beyond the Score: Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5
Sergey Prokofiev 1891-1953
Sergey Prokofiev
Sergey Prokofiev
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100

Following the German invasion of Russia in 1941, prominent Soviet artists, including Sergey Prokofiev, were evacuated from Moscow. They were relocated first to the Caucasus and later, when that area became endangered, further east into Central Asia and Siberia. All these wanderings, however, did not hinder Prokofiev from accomplishing a prodigious amount of work: Music for the film Ivan the Terrible and four other films, the opera War and Peace, the Second String Quartet, the Seventh and Eighth Piano Sonatas, the ballet Cinderella, and the Flute Sonata.

With the turn in the fortunes of the war in the winter 1943-44, Prokofiev was able to return to Moscow and immediately set about composing his Symphony No.5, conducting the premiere in Moscow in January 1945. It was a time of national elation as the Soviet Union anticipated the impending victory over Nazi Germany. The composer considered the work a milestone: “I was returning to the symphonic form after a break of sixteen years. The Fifth Symphony is the culmination of an entire period in my work. I conceived it as a symphony on the greatness of the human soul.” Whether this comment represents his true intent or a statement for official consumption we will never know.

Mindful of the Soviet authorities, Prokofiev used in the Symphony the patriotic, “officially-sanctioned” language that he had used in the dramatic works of the late 1930s and early 1940s, such as Alexander Nevsky. His model was Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5, in which traditional symphonic structure, broad dramatic themes and conservative harmonies – the “Soviet reality” demanded by the authorities – still allowed for a strong personal expression.

Prokofiev conducted the premiere of the Symphony in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on January 13, 1945, in what turned out to be his last appearance as a conductor and one of the most dramatic premieres ever. Everybody who was anybody was in the audience. The event is best described in the words of pianist Sviatoslav Richter: “The Great Hall was illuminated, no doubt, as it always was, but when Prokofiev stood up, the light seemed to pour straight down on him from somewhere up above. He stood like a monument on a pedestal. And then, when Prokofiev had taken his place on the podium and silence reigned in the hall, artillery salvos suddenly thundered forth. His baton was raised. He waited, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something very significant in this – something symbolic.” The salvo was a tribute to the Red Army which that day crossed the Vistula in its march into Germany. A few days later Prokofiev suffered a fall and concussion never to regain his full health.

Like Shostakovich, Prokofiev’s stock declined in the West during the period of the Cold War, not so much with music directors and the public, but rather in the music academies, where strict atonality and the austere twelve-tone works of Schoenberg and his disciples reigned supreme. The issue was less one of political ideology than musical; the trend setting composers of the West regarded the tonal, melodic style of the Russians passé in the relentless onward progression of “serious” music.

The eminently singable themes of the Fifth Symphony have made it, along with the First, the most popular of Prokofiev’s instrumental works. It is one of the symphonic repertory’s most dazzlingly orchestrated works with wonderful solos, section solos and brilliant percussion writing. As befitted the occasion, the Symphony opens with a grand Andante movement with a sweeping main theme Example 1 introduced by a solo flute but gradually supported by the timpani and brass. True to convention, the most important secondary theme provides a more flowing, less majestic contrast. Example 2

The second movement provides a sharp contrast, a Scherzo marked Allegro marcato consisting of two main themes that are passed around the orchestra. Example 3 & Example 4 The Trio featuring the upper winds temporarily slows the pace, Example 5 but a new theme brings in more lively orchestral solos. Example 6 The transition back to the Scherzo begins slowly, gradually accelerating and building up momentum.

Like Mozart and his own colleague Shostakovich, Prokofiev was a master of the gut wrenching slow movement. But the Adagio of the Fifth Symphony is not an intimate expression; in its formality it is more funereal, perhaps recalling the millions of Russian fallen. It is in conventional ABA form, the first part a gentle, sinuous extended phrase over pianissimo triplets in the violins with cellos and basses bowed to sound like deep Russian cathedral bells. Example 7 The second section includes the first instance in this work of typically Russian folk-like themes and builds to a climax marked now more clearly with the sound of the tolling bells. Example 8 The return to the first theme is varied but recaptures the contemplative mood of the opening.

A quiet reprise, a variation on the opening of the Symphony serves as an introduction to the Finale, Example 9 an exultant celebration. Three principal themes are introduced in the upper winds, the clarinet for the first, Example 10 the oboe the second Example 11 and the flute for the third.Example 12 A fourth “Russian” theme, closely related to the middle section of the Adagio movement, belongs to the lower strings and becomes an important figure in the climatic conclusion of the Symphony. Example 13 While the first part of the movement is fairly subdued, it is clear that the composer had deliberately saved the biggest sound for last. The coda alone lasts a full two minutes, a buildup of tension using a gradual crescendo that adds more and more instruments, delayed harmonic resolution and an unexpected final pianissimo – all over an ostinato in the violins and upper winds – leading up to the final “big bang.” Example 14
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017