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.

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