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About this Piece

In early 1924 Prokofiev was one of many Russian expats living in Paris. His champion Serge Koussevitzky (who commissioned and performed works by most of the day’s greatest composers, including Stravinsky, Ravel, Copland, Gershwin, and Bartók, among others) had just commissioned his Second Symphony, and Prokofiev decided to earn some extra money by accepting “a commission to compose a ballet for a roving dance troupe which wished to present a program of several short pieces accompanied by five instruments. I proposed a quintet consisting of oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and double bass. The simple plot, based on circus life, was titled Trapeze.”

The music is successfully circusy. It is also one of Prokofiev’s most radical scores, filled with clashing – even polytonal – harmonies, as well as irregular rhythms; when it turned out that Prokofiev’s score was too difficult for Trapeze’s dancers, the composer turned the work into the Quintet. The piece has often been compared to Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat, in part for its economy of instrumentation. The instrumentation makes for a particularly unblended sonority, giving the piece a rather rough attitude and a playful harshness.

The first movement opens with an oboe solo filled with “wrong” notes. The music stops suddenly in the middle of the movement, changing character for two lively variations before returning to the original oboe theme.

In the second movement the double bass provides a low rhythmic figure on which the rest of the movement is loosely based.

In the third movement, marked Allegro sostenuto, ma con brio, it is easy to imagine acrobats leaping and rolling through the “impractical rhythms” (patterns of 3+4+3 in a 5/4 measure), which so confounded the ballet troupe.

In the fourth movement, an Adagio, the instrumentation really shows off its singular colors; sonorities shift and build throughout the movement.

The fifth movement, another Allegro, is more lighthearted, like a quick march that seems to dissolve into running at moments. After a short pause, a clarinet run ends the movement.

The final Andantino, like the first movement, is longer and slightly more lyrical. After a dirge-like minuet, a 6/8 trio follows, more playful and lilting. Then the minuet returns, more impassioned, and the Quintet ends with a raucous passage marked tumultuoso e precipitato.

— Jessie Rothwell is a writer, musician, and piano teacher who lives in Washington, D.C.