Prokofiev: Symphony No.5

Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Symphony No.5 in B flat major, op.100

I. Andante

II. Allegro marcato

III. Adagio

IV. Allegro giocoso

In November 1951, on the eve of a performance of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony in Salt Lake City, the conductor Maurice Abravanel received an anonymous phone call warning him that if he began the piece he would "never finish it". The performance went ahead without incident, but not long afterwards the Russian paper Novosti printed an article relating the incident, and expressing anger that the conductor should have been threatened for performing a symphony which is "a hymn to the freedom of the human spirit". The article was signed by Prokofiev, but it is clear from the style of the writing that this article was not the work of the composer: such was the way things worked in Stalin's Russia.
This article is only one of a number of "official" statements that promote the idea of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony as an "heroic" work, brimming with good soviet optimism; a curious description, as although it begins in apparent sweetness and light, it soon charges fairly relentlessly in the opposite direction. But doublethink was endemic in Stalinist Russia, and in a country where terror was the normal state of mind, no sensible artist would suggest his work represented anything else, while few works would ever mean exactly what they appeared to. The simplification of his musical language that Prokofiev had developed by the early 1940's is a crucial part of the landscape of the work, as it enables the creation of an atmosphere far more subtle and ambiguous than the enfant terrible of his earlier work could have achieved, while presenting a tonal façade that could be accommodated within the diktat of "Socialist Realism".
When he began work on the fifth in 1944, Prokofiev had not produced a symphony since the fourth of 1930 - in fact, this was the first time he had worked on something that was conceived as a symphony from the outset since his second symphony in 1925; the third and fourth both adapt music originally written for opera and ballet. The four movements of the fifth display a great deal of interrelatedness, which is partly attributable to the fact that he worked on all four simultaneously. This was a common approach for Prokofiev; he explained that this way, if he "hit a snag" in one movement, he could move onto another without wasting time. Having completed the work and taken it before the Composers' Union for approval (as all soviet music had to be), he conducted the premiere in January 1945. It was a great success, but proved to be his last appearance on the podium - days later he suffered a serious fall, which left him concussed, and he would suffer poor health from then until his death in 1953.
The symphony begins innocuously in a pastoral vein, before sunshine breaks forth. As the first movement progresses, however, there are suggestions that all is not as rosy as it might appear, particularly in the growls that come from low brass, and by the time the movement reaches its climax there is a definite sense that dark clouds are gathering.
Prokofiev was never one to waste an idea, and the outer sections of the second movement have their origins in a discarded movement from his ballet Romeo and Juliet (which the Bolshoi Ballet would later reinsert as a "letter scene"). This is a spiky movement, which begins in a furtive mood, then opens out into a more extrovert middle section before the sinister tramping of the opening returns to end the movement with a snarl.
The third movement's main melody emerges out of a mist, poised between romantic yearning and melancholic resignation, that struggles to find daylight, but is crushed under the weight of a grotesque march-like climax, and slowly sinks back into an uneasy peace.
The finale begins coyly, apparently determined to restore the innocence of the very opening, before rushing off in a lively fashion, determined to put all troubles behind it. Soon, however, sinister interjections demonstrate that things are not as they might appear. The music struggles to maintain its poise and is increasingly submerged beneath jackbooted brass fanfares and whiplash string and wind motifs. Beneath the surface triumphalism and bombast, there is something nasty lurking; I n the closing bars, Prokofiev draws back the curtain, and we see the ghost in the machine.

Julian Anderson: The Stations of the Sun

Julian Anderson (b.1967)

The Stations of the Sun

He may not be linked in the press with rock stars, but Julian Anderson's career has been in its way just as meteoric as Joby Talbot's - Proms commissioned, acclaimed composer in residence with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, ubiquitous programmer and proselytiser for contemporary music, and Harvard professor are all things he can lay claim to before his 40th birthday, which he celebrates this year, and he is, alongside his contemporary Thomas Adès, now at the forefront of Britain's classical music establishment.

The Stations of the Sun was commissioned by the BBC for the 1998 Proms, and was the work which brought Anderson to widespread attention. The composer describes it thus:

"The title The Stations of the Sun refers not to any religious rite, but to the changing positions of the sun through each day, and through the seasons. Three years ago I read Ronald Hutton's fascinating book of the same name, explaining the origins of folk customs through the year - giving an egg at Easter, ceremonies for the winter solstice, and so forth; it immediately suggested ideas for a new orchestral piece. Instead of a literal programmatic approach, however, I decided to let the music take its own shape whilst keeping the idea of a seasonal cycle in mind as a background. The superficial form of the piece is quite simple - four linked sections plus a coda. As the music progresses, there is an increasing amount of interruption and cross-referencing, so that the true form of the piece is much more elusive and ambiguous. The following outline is not a blow-by-blow account, but a rough guide for those who wish it. The woodwind launch the work abruptly into a scherzo, presenting the simple melodic patterns to which much subsequent music can be more or less directly traced in an exuberant polyphonic dance. A cascading series of these melodies side-steps into a slow movement, mainly for the strings: at first a set of variations, with the theme presented by the violins alone, it soon develops into a continuous song with varied harmonic and polyphonic colours. A very fast dance for the flutes, clarinets and Japanese temple bells intervenes and the quickening pace releases a new scherzo. This is another variation on the slow movement theme, now revealed as the plainsong Alleluia Adorabo ["I shall worship in your holy temple"] - first on the strings, then on brass and wind, all accompanied by drums. The central plateau of the work follows: a long, ecstatic melody played mainly by the trumpets, extending and varying the plainsong, is surrounded and eventually overwhelmed by carillons on the rest of the orchestra. Here the music abandons equal temperament to include a small number of chords with microtones - chosen for their resonance and varied colour. The dance with drums is twice resumed, but now cross-cut with other musical characters, including an increasingly violent brass chorale used as a varied refrain. The tension is finally released in a polyphonic texture for the whole orchestra that precipitates the work's main climax: an evocation of Easter with an explosion of bells, both real and imaginary. As to the coda: a single six-octave mode gently resounds around the whole orchestra as many melodic and harmonic elements of the piece combine and unite for the first time in the work's only tutti - the harmonic goal towards which the entire work has been heading. A sudden 'zoom' at the very end denies the music any safe conclusion, suggesting instead the beginning of something new which is cut off before we can fully glimpse it."

Joby Talbot: Hovercraft

It was hearing Hovercraft, the work commissioned and premièred by Kensington Symphony Orchestra in 2004 that inspired choreographer Wayne McGregor to approach Joby Talbot. Last year's resulting collaboration, the ballet Chroma, made headlines through its use of arrangements of songs by the White Stripes, the press being apparently unable to believe that anyone attending a performance at Covent Garden might have heard some pop music before, but it was Hovercraft that provided the climax of the evening. If KSO cannot claim to be entirely responsible for Talbot's seemingly unstoppable ascendancy, it is gratifying to think that the orchestra might take its place alongside Jack and Meg White as part of the inspiration for one of his most prominent successes.

Of Hovercraft, Talbot says: "Hydrofoils are nothing compared to hovercrafts. They might be cheaper and more reliable but where's the romance in a hydrofoil? I well remember my family's annual pilgrimage to Pegwell Bay in the 1970's to watch the hovercrafts come in from France; terrifying machines pounding across the ocean then remorselessly surging up the beach spouting great fountains of surf and with the noise of a thousand Lancaster bombers. Where did they all go?"