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Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, church bell, castanets, cymbals, military drum, tam-tam, tambourine), 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 8, 1976, Sidney Harth conducting
Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Symphony is a phoenix that rose from the ashes of his opera The Fiery Angel. Based on a novel by Russian author Valery Bryusov, Angel is a love story set against the backdrop of black magic and exorcism. Prokofiev toiled over his adaptation for eight years, but when he finally finished, it was deemed too disjointed and episodic to produce. (He admitted there were “stagnant stretches.”) This was, of course, one of the prevailing complaints against Prokofiev: that his music often failed to gel into a unified narrative. But the man dreamed in pieces, conceiving a cornucopia of ideas that he would cobble together into long-form works.
With this unrealized score full of material, Prokofiev left Paris in the summer of 1928 to vacation in the Château de Vetraz in the countryside near the Swiss border. His wife was pregnant with their second son, and they would go for leisurely drives all over Switzerland – Prokofiev always carrying a small notebook, a receptacle for ideas. He hated to see Angel’s themes go to waste, and his friend Nikolai Myaskovsky convinced him to sculpt them into a symphony. The composer was somewhat reluctant to recycle from another work (“people will stone me,” he said), but his attachment to Angel and the thought of “writing a new symphony for free” won the day. He completed it in short order, and the symphony premiered in Paris on May 17, 1929. The critical response was reserved, some reviews damning with faint praise (Prokofiev “thinks simply, in his own way, which is rare these days,” said one). It received a warmer embrace in Moscow a few years later.
A loud, discordant chord and throbbing figuration violently upset the silence in the hall, with furious strings, bells, and crashing cymbals hurtling listeners into the eye of a stormy drama. The primary theme gusts in on French horns, calming the orchestra with a romantic air. This first movement balances on the precipice between elegant beauty and something more ominous, the ensemble frequently erupting like a geyser in the midst of calm considerations of the theme. The second movement explores a warm and introspective tune, first by strings with spacious harmonies, then lightened by flutes as strings agitate the rhythmic waters. This movement is delicate and lovely, and a little anxious, embellished with high string glissandos and the occasional low bass note: moonlight bouncing on dark and slightly choppy waves, with perhaps something toothy swimming underneath.
Smoke suddenly rises from the violins on a feverish figuration to begin the third movement, and an anguished variation on the primary theme claws to escape the fire. Jagged beats upset the mechanical motion, and a devilish dance for strings follows, flooded with a relentless stream of glissandos casting a seasick mood. A loud, audacious brass chord hangs in the air as we enter the fourth movement – an even stormier beginning with woodwinds and brass slogging through the tempest, slowly trudging into a more determined gait, then a sprint, with strings spiriting the movement along in high tones. Out of the hurricane the original theme comes slithering in layers through the woodwinds, then surges with passion. The orchestra churns into a loud, messy rabble, and finally, a violent death.