Publication

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, op. 100
(from "Evenings with the Orchestra")

Prokofiev’s decision to return to the Soviet Union, taken sometime in the early 1930s, was motivated not so much by ideology—though he thought he could live with Soviet policies, and managed pretty well—but by the altogether understandable desire to go home. Sojourns in the USSR from December 1932 led finally to his resettling permanently with his wife and family in Moscow in 1936. For a time Prokofiev maintained his international mobility, despite the Soviet’s cultural isolation in those years. But his 1938 tour of Europe, England, and the United States was his last. Thereafter his circumstances changed radically, due partly to the evacuation of artists from Moscow at the beginning of the war, partly to the decline of his health after a series of heart attacks, and partly to a liaison with the young woman Mira Mendelson, who became his companion for the rest of his life. Prokofiev’s wife, a Spanish soprano who called herself Lina Llubera, was eventually sent to a concentration camp and later, in 1976, allowed to immigrate to the United States.

Much had changed in the fifteen years since Prokofiev had composed the Fourth Symphony. The Fifth he called a work “about the spirit of man,” to celebrate freedom, happiness, and strength. How much such assertions were those of political necessity, I cannot say. Certainly there is a measure of narrative in its expanse and its various humors, but the real pleasures of the work are those of symphonic composition in the abstract: the admirable melodies, fresh orchestral sonorities, and strong formal tactics.

The first movement, an Andante of well-delineated sonata design opens with broad, wide-intervaled melody in the flute and bassoon that expands with the growing participation of the low brass into a landscape of great majesty. At the più mosso, with a shift from triple into duple meter, a new group of materials begins to be unveiled, first a transitional phrase for flute and oboe, then a climax with brass and piano, and finally a closing animato that introduces fast note values separated by thumps of low wind. The intermingling of these ideas in the development helps realize the potential pent up in what is, after all, an enormous orchestral force. The arrival at recapitulation is a forceful tutti closing in, from top down and bottom up, on the main theme—this time fortissimo in the brass choir with a roll of cymbals. The majesty continues to mount in a Gershwin-like exaltation of the second theme and thunderous closing chords with full percussion.

In the center movements Prokofiev’s humor comes to the fore. The second, Allegro moderato, offsets the sprawl of the first movement in lively, perhaps equestrian rhythmic manner and a clever, comic tune first heard in the clarinet. (It’s the sly chromaticism and bouncing close that makes it funny.) Novel instrumental effects fly by: the patter of snare drum and woodblock, a flashy rip that passes from first clarinet to second and back, buffoonery in the low brass. The tune eventually doubles into longer note values in bassoons, then dissolves; between two slower statements for woodwind and horns comes a trio in triple meter, spacious and low of melody, again begun by clarinet and gathering toward an industrial statement for full orchestra with piano, harp, and percussion. A rather more complex version of the opening material serves for recapitulation and a finely paced crescendo of the full forces.

In the Adagio, Prokofiev is concerned with cycling figures in various species of triple meter, where a sort of carousel waltz keeps trying to open out. It’s a long movement with fine tuttis, prominent percussion and low brass and, at one point, the same sort of rapid plummets downward and rebounds up that had informed parts of the second movement. The fading out at the end recalls the opening, the final cadence a magical progression of four simple triads sinking in the strings while arpeggiating upward in the clarinets.

Despite the indication Allegro giocoso for the last movement, the long note values in effect yield a slow introduction, and the cello section, divided into four parts and moving still more slowly, muses on the melody that began the symphony. A burlesque giocoso kicks in with a flightly clarinet melody accompanied by the horn quartet. The sonata structure is similar to that of the first movement, with a prominent transitional theme of new rhythmic character (begun by the oboes) and a strong arrival of the secondary key area (solo flute). The development begins at the sudden return to the slow note values and low textures of the introduction and memories of the first and third movements, then goes on to set up the recapitulation and boisterous finale close.

The Moscow premiere was unforgettable: victory over the Nazis was at hand, and Prokofiev had to wait a moment for the sound of distant artillery to subside. The Boston premiere, on November 9, 1945, was likewise historic: a rapprochement between Prokofiev and the orchestra after the cool reception it had accorded the Fourth Symphony, and, as the war was just over, a victory celebration.

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