Prokofiev Symphony no. 5 in B-flat, Op. 100

performed by The London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev, or as below

I cannot say that I deliberately chose this theme. It was born in me and clamoured for expression. The music matured within me. It filled my soul.

What a wonderful piece to end our three-month series on.

I feel I can most succinctly state my thoughts about the op. 47 and op. 112 versions of the fourth symphony by expressing that I feel like neither of them had that much to say, that there was no captivating message that begged to be heard, that compelled you to listen to every moment of the piece and understand. At most, the first version said “here’s some nice music I wrote that I think I can use here because it’s more suited to a symphony than a ballet.” And the second version said “I’d like some more attention and I think a ‘serious’ symphony would garner more respect, so I’ll make it fit that image; here it is again.”

That’s not criticism, but they were not nearly as compelling as what we have today. After Rubinstein and The Mighty Handful, the Belyayev Circle and Tchaikovsky’s trouble in picking sides with the nationalist composers or the more modern ones, establishing a real Russian identity in symphonic music, all the way up to the earliest of works from Stravinsky, and Scriabin, through to the Soviet era with Lyapunov and Myaskovsky, Shostakovich and all the turmoil and strife they saw and expressed, it seems only fitting to end this series of history and culture on a high note, a celebratory, triumphant expression of victory.

Prokofiev’s expression above about the work being a kind of unconscious expression, a natural progression of thought, is captivating. He expressed it as being “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit.” And what more critical a time to need that kind of expression of hope than in the turmoil of World War II?

This is a refreshing reaction to tragedy, pain, suffering. It was composed very quickly, Wikipedia saying it was done in about a month’s time in 1944, and the premiere the following year was very well received, conducted by the composer himself. It has remained one of his most successful works, and in a time like that, with World War II still at a fever pitch, it’s remarkable the difference in expression when compared with works of Shostakovich or others. It does, though, seem to foreshadow its end, and while there was very little about WWII to celebrate, being one of the darkest periods in human history, things like the fact that it did end, man’s “pure and noble spirit,” perseverance, and will to survive are all silver linings, I suppose.

The music.

I was going to go through all the trouble of copying Wikipedia’s images of the themes from the article to here, but just go check it out yourself.

The first movement, andante, “is in a tightly argued [sic] sonata form.” Both of the themes have a kind of lyricism to them, with flute and/or oboe at the forefront, but the second is more… tense, or dramatic. The closing theme of the exposition is a playful, slightly nervous sixteenth-note rhythm from strings that feels extremely Prokofiev-esque. It brings an unsure smile to the face, as it sounds playful and engaging, but is also almost mildly unsettling. The development reaches some really lively parts with bangs and clashes from low brash and percussion that builds to an almost frenetic culmination of these beautiful themes we’ve been presented with. ‘Tightly-argued’ indeed. At times, the brass pick up the flute’s original themes, and they sound triumphant and celebratory, a welcome change from the tragedy we’ve heard from Myaskovsky and Shostakovich. There’s a satisfying recapitulation and an awesome coda! Listen for the nervous sixteenth-note bits to finish from strings that we heard at the opening. It’s possibly one of the most ominous, serious passages of the whole symphony, extremely powerful.

The second movement is our scherzo, or with Prokofiev, a toccata. It almost always reminds me of this… seriously. It also reminds me, though, more pertinently, of bits of his fourth symphonies (yeah, plural, if you haven’t read those articles), with a driving kind of mechanical nature about it, but at turns, with the entry of the snare, gets quite serious too. It’s lively, always pushing forward, but has its heavier moments, a very unique scherzo. The slow, more laid back trio section, is somehow for me one of the most memorable moments of this entire symphony. There’s a playful, excited, almost sexy kind of energy about it, mostly in the strings’ accompaniment in the background. It’s not just a boring ternary-form movement. This is exquisite stuff.

The third movement is “a dreamy slow movement, full of nostalgia, which nevertheless builds up to a tortured climax, before receding back to dreaminess.” Call me crazy, but the opening of this movement, with its lyricism and initial purity, reminds me of this little ditty, the flute theme at the opening, at least. But, as Wikipedia says, it isn’t all pretty flowers and bunny rabbits. There’s the mildest sense of pain in the beauty and delicacy of the strings, and it’s kind of undercut by the piano and tremolo strings.

The tortured climax:

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It’s an incredibly effective climax for such an otherwise beautiful work. We’ll talk about this contrast later.

The final movement brings us continuity, irony, chaos, and finality all in one fantastic rondo. The opening content is immediately identifiable from the first movement, and this familiarity feels right, it feels fulfilling. The main theme in this movement is just… incredible. I love this movement, and the real fun begins with the clarinet:

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and this playful bit:

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This movement also covers lots of ground, and feels almost like its falling apart, but its so energetic, so gripping, up until the final almost surprising abrupt end.

What I feel is so captivating, so interesting and enduring about this work is, well, a few things. For one, Prokofiev writes wonderful melodies, but he’s also great with sarcasm and irony and humor. The themes present here have really great staying power, from the first movement to the last. But more than that, what’s so convincing is the struggle in the symphony. While Myaskovsky or Shostakovich dressed in sackcloth and ashes and wailed and fought (relatively speaking), the struggle, the tragedy in this work is ultimately one of beauty and balance: there is always the grotesque among the tranquil, and beauty among the chaos. The message, as discussed above, is overwhelmingly one of hope, of triumph, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t bumps and struggles and some chaos along the way, but looking back, if you can, on the whole, everything has its part, and the coherent story told from beginning to end, is really wonderful.

Such a positive piece, no? I think so, but maybe that’s only relative to the previous works we’ve been talking about. In any case, it’s the end of our Russian Symphony Series, and the end of the year. Time flies, does it not? There’ll be a small review post later today to wrap up the past three months of these works, and the link to the entire series is available at this link under the Series tab from the homepage.

Thanks for reading and exploring with me, some of the most famous, well-known composers’ symphonies, and some of the least. See you next year.

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