performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Seiji Ozawa, or below by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Neeme Järvi
(cover image by Johannes Plenio)
I have made the music so complex to such an extent that when I listen to it myself I do not fathom its essence, so what can I ask of others?
Prokofiev, of his second symphony, in a letter to Myaskovsky
With the next few midweek pieces, we’ll be covering some of the more neglected corners of two otherwise very prominent composers. You’ll see in a few days who the other composer is, but he’s also Russian. We’ll stick to Prokofiev for now, and this is one massive, hard-hitting piece.
His first symphony, the ‘Classical’ one, is widely played, and with good reason, though it’s more a caricature than a serious symphonic essay. The fourth has two versions, the fifth is perhaps his greatest, and I really enjoy the seventh, although it too is overshadowed. But what about the second and third?
Well, the opening quotation should give us some idea of what the composer, the person who should arguably have the most intimate knowledge of the piece, thought of the work, and I’d argue it deserves far more credit than it gets. It’s a captivating, memorable ride.
It was composed in 1924-25 in Paris, and is modeled after Beethoven’s final piano sonata, op. 111, in that it is comprised of two movements, the first being in sonata form, and the second a set of variations. The second movement has around twice the duration of the first, and the work as a whole has a duration of close to 40 minutes:
- Allegro ben articolato
- Theme and Variations
- Theme: Andante
- Variation 1: L’istesso tempo
- Variation 2: Allegro non troppo
- Variation 3: Allegro
- Variation 4: Larghetto
- Variation 5: Allegro con brio
- Variation 6: Allegro moderato
The work was premiered in Paris on June 6, 1925, and conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, the dedicatee of the piece. The work was not well received, and caused some serious doubts for the composer:
Neither I nor the audience understood anything in it. It was too thickly woven. There were too many layers of counterpoint which degenerated into mere figuration… This was perhaps the first time it appeared to me that I might be destined to be a second-rate composer.
That being said, the work has come to have something of a following, with people appreciating its weight and intensity. Perhaps it was just another piece for which the world of its time was not ready.
The opening movement begins harshly, with stringent brass and strings, very much in medias res, but what results very quickly from this near-violent opening is actually a very melodic subject, almost as magical as the far more famous piano concertos, any of them. The music isn’t entirely relieved of its anxiety, though, and an underlying acidity remains. There are kaleidoscopic flashes of fanfare, celebration, driving rhythms, military-sounding marches. It’s relentless, exciting, purposeful.
There’s no denying that its complex nature, angular rhythms and overall harshness don’t afford it the charm and wonder of his lighter or more famous pieces, but this first movement alone, in sonata form, with its persistence and passion, holds a spell over its listeners, at least this one. It may not awe with its beauty, but I’d argue the darkness and intensity are easily as memorable as any pretty tune. As complex as the composer and critics made it out to be, and no matter what the actual musical structure is, the basic themes of the piece are easily identifiable. It’s a magnificent first movement, but is really only the beginning.
The overwhelming mass of the symphony comes in the theme-and-variations second movement, but you may not know it right at the start. The andante theme may deceive you into thinking it’s a quiet, simple slow movement, with an English horn solo, leading into a still, ethereal, typically Prokofiev-esque colorful landscape. But it doesn’t stay that way.
For a symphony infamous for its perceived complexity, a theme with variations, at least on the surface, seems quite straightforward. The movement is indeed in its various sections, and somewhat episodic as a result, although the six variations, bookended between two appearances of the theme over the course of nearly a half hour, are spread over enough time that it’s still cohesive.
The first variation is at the same tempo as the initial statement of the theme, and all the others, save a central larghetto, are marked with some kind of allegro. 25 minutes really is a long movement, but I so easily succumb to this work’s grip that it just doesn’t seem like that long at all. The final allegro moderato variation is soul-cracking, probably one of the greatest climactic moments in music that I can think of, really, for that kind of actually terrifying power, the kind of thing that’s in a few of Shostakovich’s symphonies, Mahler’s sixth and tenth, Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, that sort of thing.
But somehow what caps it all off, emphasizes the weight of that almighty climax, is the uneventful, peaceful, nonchalant return of the theme at the end, as if nothing had happened.
I remember listening to this piece years ago, after reading about how even the composer himself was perplexed by it, and it didn’t make sense to me at the time. That was in part because I hadn’t done the kind of listening I’ve done now, in both quantity and content, but now, I am very much convinced of its brilliant worth just as it is now, and think it would be nice for its composer to hear the praise that this bone-crushing, beautiful piece deserves.
But it really is only the beginning of what we’ll be discussing this month, even if it is one of the highlights. There’s much more wonderful music to come, though, so stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading.