Prokofiev Quintet in Gm, op. 39

performed by Chamber Music Northwest, or below by performers at the Cleveland Institute of Music

(cover image by Joanna Kosinska)

We’re going to see that Prokofiev’s self-plagiarism was relatively common, at least in this period, and considering he wrote such little chamber music (two string quartets, a few sonatas for instruments with piano), the fact that his quintet bears such strong relation to yet another of his ballets is a not insignificant point to me.

Prokofiev was in Paris at the time, and “a travelling troupe commissioned a chamber ballet from him,” says Wikipedia. The musical forces of this group, however, contained only five musicians, something you’d think they would have thought of ahead of time, the difficulty for writing a ballet for a quintet. It didn’t seem to be a deterrent, though, and Prokofiev took the opportunity to write more chamber music. What resulted was the ballet Trapèze, which contains eight movements in five parts.

Interestingly, the original work itself is shrouded in mystery. According to SPRKFV.net, the following questions remain unanswered for a very long time:

what were the ballet’s original scenario and choreography; when and where was it performed; and why did it altogether disappear from the repertoire? Very little is known about the Russian Romantic Theatre and its artistic director, Boris Romanov. What was Romanov’s relationship with the composer?

The same site points out that we don’t even have the original music for the ballet, so we don’t know “whether the Quintet represents the actual ballet music or a revision of it.” Noelle Mann has since addressed these and come up with some research that may give us more insight into the ballet, but you’ll have to do that reading on your own time.

The G minor quintet is in six movements, as follows, and has a duration of a little over 20 minutes:

  1. Tema con variazioni
  2. Andante energico
  3. Allegro sostenuto, ma con brio
  4. Adagio pesante
  5. Allegro precipitato, ma non troppo presto
  6. Andantino

Notably, this ballet also resulted in a divertimento, op. 43. But we’re not talking about those pieces. On to the quintet.

The first movement, and the longest of the work, is a theme with variations. The oboe features heavily in the theme, and really throughout the entire piece, but the baton is passed on from one instrument to the next in what I think is really the primary movement of the work as a legitimate chamber piece and not an adaptation of a stage work, if that makes sense. Conspicuously, it seems the only member of the quintet who didn’t really get a voice in the variations is the bass, save for an utterance right before the return of the theme.

It does, though, begin the second movement, with an interesting marking: ‘andante energico’. An andante is, from the related Italian word, at a walking pace, slower than an allegro, but faster than an adagio, though there are obviously more specific descriptions between those two categories. Here, though, it’s to be ‘energetic,’ and I’m a pretty fast walker, but I couldn’t walk at this pace without taking cartoonishly small steps. Do you hear Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale here? There’s a lot of trilling and fluttering going on.

These foul central movements are all of similar duration, all quite brief, and remind me at times of the chamber symphonies of Milhaud, and it’s a wonder to me that there’s anything possibly balletic about this. It’s often more driving and rushed that I envision a ballet being, but then again, I know very little about ballet. Prokofiev’s color and texture are magnificent here, hence the likeness to Milhaud. The tension in this movement is akin to the winding of a cord or rubber band, and is almost dizzying.

Another interesting marking for the fourth movement, ‘adagio pesante,’ a heavy adagio, rather than the typical soft kind. The oboe mourns, and the whole movement sounds injured, torpid, with scratchy sul ponticello bowing throughout. This may be to me the most compelling movement both because I can hear it standing alone without any programmatic elements, but also because it seems like it could be very dramatically staged, and not just in a helter-skelter fashion.

The fifth movement bears a marking we know from Prokofiev, the raucous final movement of the seventh piano sonata, at least that’s the only other place I know it from. It doesn’t have anything to do with chemistry. Apparently in English, the word ‘precipitately’ has the connotation of something done ‘hastily.’ This is the one of the five that I find gets stuck in my head constantly. There are harsh, acrid elements of Webern here, in the scratch of strings, but also captivatingly interesting rhythms. It’s troubled and unstable, but alluring in a mesmerizing way, with bass underpinning (plucking) the whole thing. This movement seems to reach a fitting climax for the piece, but nope.

This content seems like a reduction of something right out of one of the composer’s symphonies. The oboe takes the lead here in a memorable but also almost unnerving quacking theme. Do you hear a fairytale, storybook-type quality to this music? On the one hand, it has elements of playfulness and fun, like a children’s puppet show, but there is throughout a sort of uneasiness in the work; it’s a little poignant and harsh for kids, I think.

I can’t fathom this piece is played all that often, and it didn’t interest me very much except as a bit of an oddity, a quirky piece, but the more I listened to it, the more I came to appreciate its peculiar flavor, and with such a small output of chamber music from Prokofiev, this is a little something worth getting to know.

We’ll be seeing more Russian stuff next week, so stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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