Length: c. 46 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, wood block), piano, harp, and strings.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 17, 1947, Antal Dorati conducting
About this Piece
In 1933, after 15 years abroad, Prokofiev returned to Russia. He decided—without prodding (yet) from the commissars—that his music, hitherto aimed at the few, might now become an integral part of a broader Soviet cultural life. The following years produced some marvelous stuff, including Alexander Nevsky, the ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, and the Fifth Symphony—music of power, lyricism, and accessibility.
The Symphony was written in only a month, in 1944, mostly at the resort of Ivanovo where the Soviet Composers’ Union had made it possible for the nation’s leading musicians, Shostakovich, Miaskovsky, and Khachaturian as well as Prokofiev, to continue their work away from the war-ravaged cities.
Prokofiev, with characteristic sobriety, regarded his Fifth Symphony as “very important not only for the musical material that went into it, but also because I was returning to the symphonic form after a break of 16 years. The Fifth Symphony is the culmination of an entire period in my work. I conceived of it as a symphony on the greatness of the human soul.”
At some 45 minutes, it is also the longest of the composer’s symphonies, but one wouldn’t know by the clock: it is a score full of tension, drama, lyricism, and crackling wit. As Prokofiev authority Harlow Robinson pointed out it in his 1987 biography of the composer, “Here, for the first time, Prokofiev used the massive patriotic style that had proven so successful in his vocal and dramatic music of the late 1930s and early 1940s [e.g., Alexander Nevsky and the opera War and Peace] in a purely symphonic context.” Robinson, it might be noted, is that rare Western writer on music of the Soviet era who does not make a dirty word of “patriotic.”
The first performance of the Fifth Symphony was presented in Moscow under the composer’s baton in January of 1945, only days after news of a great victory of the Soviet army over the Germans on the Vistula River, the last major battle of the war on Russian soil. In March, it was heard in Leningrad; in May (the war in Europe just ended), in Paris; and in November, the first American performance was given by the Boston Symphony under the composer’s old friend, Serge Koussevitzky. While important works were still to come from Prokofiev’s pen, this was the last music he created before his long, slow physical decline, which began with a concussion suffered in a fall only days after the score’s Moscow premiere.
Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is in four movements: slow, fast, slow, fast. The long, somber opening has been compared to those in the symphonies of Shostakovich, notably that composer’s Fifth, which preceded Prokofiev’s by seven years. But Prokofiev’s is a good deal more varied in mood and ultimately less oppressive. It is in traditional sonata-allegro form, except that the allegro is considerably slower than one would expect. The hair-raising coda, it might be noted, elicited a spontaneous burst of applause from its first audience, and it is easy to see why.
The second movement is a scintillating scherzo, the airy staccato of the first violins accompanied by a delicately syncopated clarinet riff, eventually joined by the piano and a variety of percussion. After a deceptively relaxed oboe and clarinet introduction, the trio turns equally animated, with a jauntily dancy tune announced by the clarinet to the accompaniment of strings, snare drum, and tambourine. On its return, the scherzo assumes a more weighty and menacing coloration than when first heard.
The slow movement is among the most eloquent creations in the entire Prokofiev catalog. The hauntingly lyrical opening theme—again with particularly ear-catching writing for the clarinet—is followed by a darker middle section, leading eventually to a thrilling climax before the opening theme returns, and the movement concludes in gentle, dirge-like fashion, capped by a rising clarinet arpeggio.
The finale again opens with deceptive simplicity—sweetly in the woodwinds but growing increasingly tart as a bit of string-and-horn frolicking brings on the lively clarinet (again) and a chain of perky mocking dances. A solemn note briefly intrudes before the dancing resumes, growing ever wilder, with slashing percussion punctuation, culminating in a propulsive and thrillingly grotesque coda. —Herbert Glass