Length: 35 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, cymbals, military drum, snare drum, triangle, and tambourine), piano, and strings
Prokofiev left Russia in 1918 and spent much of the next two decades in Paris, the hub of avant-garde culture between the wars. His Second Symphony was the first of his works composed wholly outside of Russia, over the course of nine months of "feverish work." He completed it just in time for the premiere on June 6, 1925, which was conducted by Serge Koussevitzky as part of his Paris series of concerts.
In a practical sense, Prokofiev wanted to keep the momentum from the successful May 1924 premiere of his cantata Seven, They Are Seven, going with the symphony. In the symphony, Prokofiev charted a new path, taking his own advice to the composer Nikolai Miaskovsky in a letter of June 1923 (quoted in David Nice's recent Prokofiev biography): "Concentrate on creating new methods and a new technique, new orchestration; rack your brains in this direction, sharpen your inventiveness, no matter what it takes; strive for a good, fresh sound; renounce the St. Petersburg and Moscow schools as you would a morose devil…."
The dual influence of Beethoven and the French composer Arthur Honegger facilitated Prokofiev's renunciation. He took the symphony's structure - an opening fast movement followed by an extended theme and variations - from Beethoven's final piano sonata, Op. 111. The first movement also owes something to Honegger's Pacific 231, the orchestral work about the locomotive, whose premiere Prokofiev attended on May 8, 1924. In another letter to Miaskovsky, Prokofiev related, "We recently heard performed here Honegger's Pacific, a work insignificant in content but very tough and brilliantly orchestrated, from which resulted such a stunning impression that each instrument played naturally and pleasingly."
Both of those elements - toughness and naturalness - coexist in the symphony's first movement. The composer's indication, "Fast, well-articulated," conveys as much. He orchestrated with the utmost care, avoiding smudged textures and putting over the movement's rhythmic toughness - its vision of "iron and steel," as Prokofiev described it - with maximum force. The raw energy of the music may give it a random feel on first hearing, but Prokofiev's score is tautly constructed. The first movement is in sonata form; its second subject includes a raucous passage for piano and pizzicato strings that quickly transforms into the accompaniment to a brutish chorale-like motive hammered out by low winds and brass. This scowling hymn returns near the end of the finale, adding further structural coherence by binding the symphony into a cyclic whole.
The theme-and-variations second movement begins with the serene, pastoral theme played by the first oboe and then repeated by the first violins. Some of the variations that follow can be viewed as replacing the scherzo (Variations II and III) and slow movement (Variation IV) the listener would expect in a traditional, four-movement symphony. Variation V opens with a burst of manic energy, a brief preface to a sustained, full-orchestra assault. Low rumblings in the orchestra - double basses, bass drum, tuba, and contrabassoon - recall the chorale-like motive of the first movement's second subject to set the sixth and final variation in motion. The variation culminates in a coda of unalloyed harmonic and sonic brutality that packs a tremendous physical punch. This gives way to a mollifying return of the theme that dissolves in a final, equivocal chord.
The symphony was not a success at its premiere and remains the least performed of Prokofiev's symphonies. His own misgivings about the work, expressed in another letter to Miaskovsky - "Still, somewhere in the depths of my soul, there is hope that the symphony is actually a respectable and even a well-made thing." - were not entirely well-founded. Respectable, at least in the sense of Victorian good manners, probably not. Well-made, certainly. Awe-inspiring, most definitely.
- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Program Designer/Annotator.