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When Brahms at 58 composed the Clarinet Trio, he was at the top of his form, honored and acclaimed, though there were dissenting voices even in his Vienna, as witness a line in a review in 1886, to wit, "The art of composing without ideas has decidedly found in Brahms one of its worthiest representatives." [This was not the prevailing opinion.] When Prokofiev produced the present Quintet at age 33, he was just beginning a decade of using Paris as his base of operations, and the City of Light conferred a generous amount of indifference upon him. "Paris is adamant," wrote a critic, explaining the reason as, "Stravinsky, Stravinsky, and Stravinsky! No wonder Prokofiev's star is setting on that horizon."
In 1923, at the beginning of his Parisian sojourn (which ended in 1934 when he returned to Russia), the expatriate was doggedly working on his Second Symphony. In the midst of this dreary period of his creative life came a commission for a short ballet score from a small company headed by one Boris Romanov. Although Prokofiev understood that the ballet, titled Trapeze, was to deal with circus life, he decided against writing music that would be descriptive in any way. His one concession to Romanov was the economical scoring he settled on; Europe was still finding it necessary to exercise austerity in new musical productions, and Romanov could not afford a full-sized orchestra for his ballets. Coincidentally, it was for the same economic reasons that Stravinsky had written his historic work, The Soldier's Tale, in 1918. Probably with this Stravinsky score in mind, and with his own (idiomatically mild) Overture on Hebrew Themes (1919) for string quartet, clarinet and piano as something of an impetus, Prokofiev completed the commission for Romanov in 1924.
By the time Prokofiev had settled into the French capital, he had long since established a reputation as a rabid avant-gardist, and he greatly relished the role. Having made many mighty noises in his early compositions (for one example, the bombastic and dissonant Scythian Suite), he had every reason to believe that the quirky, astringent music that filled the score of the ballet would receive a warm welcome. Not so. The ballet apparently was staged only a few times, but some of the music survives through performances in the concert hall as the six-movement Quintet and very infrequently as part of a larger Divertissement, Op. 43.
It is difficult to imagine that the music contained in the work's six movements would have evolved as it did had Prokofiev not incorporated into his own biting, thorny, grotesque arsenal the primitive rhythmic and satiric weapons of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and The Soldier's Tale. The music is highly chromatic, melodically angular, rhythmically irregular, and filled with Stravinskyan ostinatos (rhythmic or melodic figures that are frequently repeated ad nauseum). Let's be honest, there's nothing lovable about this music. It's determinedly abrasive, intimidating, and unapologetic in its dissonance and unrelenting grimacing. It has attitude, but it's of a whole cloth and is compelling for those very qualities. And one can have nothing but admiration for the instrumentalists who must surmount the ensemble difficulties but also maintain the kind of acerbic point that Prokofiev demands throughout.
— Orrin Howard annotated programs for more than 20 years while serving as the Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.