Sergey Sergeevich Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Number of Discs:
The Year 1941, Symphonic Suite, Op.90 (1941)
- In Battle 5:01
- At Night 4:26
- Brotherhood of Nations 5:24
Symphony No.5, Op.100 (1944)
- Andante 14:03
- Allegro marcato 9:20
- Adagio 12:21
- Allegro giocoso 10:02
Total Time: 60:59
St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Titov, conductor
The unique relationships of Sergey Prokofiev with his times, epoch, and political events showed up intensely in his ‘wartime’ compositions, that is, of the time of the WWI and the Great Patriotic War. His First (“Classical”) Symphony, an amazingly joyful, bright and clear opus, was composed in no other year than 1917, between the February and October Revolution. The loveliest Cinderella and the Mozartean flute sonata created during the Great Patriotic War seemed to deny the very idea of war, death, and human sufferings. So Prokofiev’s music, often remaining a ‘thing-in-itself,’ sometimes existed in a plane parallel to the surrounding world without contacting it.
However, the composer’s heritage also includes opuses directly addressing contemporary events. Intentionally piled orchestral assemblages and hammered-in dissonances of the Scythian Suite (1914-15) were inspired by the nervous atmosphere of the early 20th century and anticipation of still more terrible events. The soundtrack to Sergey Eisenstein’s film and cantata Alexander Nevsky (1938-39) with their battle scenes and patriotic élan became harbingers of the forthcoming war. And from June 1941 till the end of 1945 Prokofiev wrote several pieces directly related to the things going on: the symphonic suite The Year 1941, cantata Ballade of a Boy who Remained Unknown, several film soundtracks on war themes, the opera War and Peace, Fifth Symphony, and Ode to the End of the War. Two of these works are presented on this disk of the “Wartime Music” series.
Prokofiev’s life in wartime was not so easy, although he surely was a person ‘strategically important’ for the Soviet government. In over two years in evacuation at several places of the vast Soviet Union, he lived in Nalchik (from August 1941), Tbilisi (from November 1941), Alma-Ata (from June 1942), and Perm (called Molotov at that time; from June 1943), to return to Moscow in October 1943. Even for Prokofiev famous for strict organization of his creative process, working under “campaign conditions” was far from easy. On the other hand, separation from usual circumstances of life, and lack of the habitual concertizing and “social” life and ample leisure helped to concentrate on creativity. Anyway, the scope of music written by Prokofiev in wartime is impressive. But it is not just the quantity that matters in this case. What is important is that more than one half of pieces written in those years are “absolute” masterpieces of Prokofiev and belong to the greatest achievements of the 20th century music in general. It was also peculiar that opuses whose themes and intonation were directly influenced by the war’s events are mostly inferior in their qualities to compositions not directly related to the events.
It is evident in respect of the Symphonic Suite The Year 1941. The opus was among the first one written in the initial months of the war (as well Symphonies Nos. 22 and 23 by Myaskovsky). Simultaneously, Dmitry Shostakovich was creating his colossal monument to the epoch. His Seventh Symphony, which had an immense public resonance both in and outside the Soviet Union from the end of 1941 (even before the premiere), clearly overshadowed other war-related compositions. Besides, the premiere of the suite The Year 1941 was not played before January 1943. It is quire natural that the opus did not impress much even Myaskovsky, the most loyal admirer of Prokofiev’s music. Up to now, this opus remains among the “not-quite-opened-yet” pages of the genius’s heritage.
It should be realized, too, that the writing of the suite The Year 1941 had its special goals and purposes. As is usual with Prokofiev, the suite’s parts are rather short and separate. They are based on a loose and sometimes a bit kaleidoscopic alternation of episodes.
The military theme tells on the pictorial nature of the music. In the first part, “In Battle,” one can hear the aggressive rhythm of a skirmish, and a cannonade of the percussion, and temporary suspenseful quiet, and a field march. The images of the second part, “At Night” fluctuate between the fragile feeling of silence, “reminiscence” of the pastoral, and the twinkling fantastic of the night. The third part, “Brotherhood of Nations,” is an exalted hymn to the future victory, with an organically interwoven solemn waltz movement and the march from the first part.
Despite all of its “battle spirit,” grandiosity, and sound force, the suite is emotionally rather neutral. This feature sets a certain facet between the declared content and music as such. Given all that, it is Prokofiev’s untamed style that is the piece’s greatest attraction Later the composer himself felt the universal genre abilities of the suite’s music, and used it in the film Guerillas in the Ukrainian Steppe in December 1942.
A quite different fate awaited the Fifth Symphony, non-descriptive and not directly related to the time, created in just one month in 1944 on the basis of themes that had been accumulated for many years. It became one of the masterpiece “Soviet war symphonies,” was quickly recognized as one of the most remarkable compositions of our times both in the composer’s own country and in the West, and is firmly rooted in the repertoire of the world’s leading orchestras.
The official praise to the symphony in the Soviet Union was explicable. It grew as it was becoming clear that Soviet music had no masterpieces dedicated to the great Victory. Therefore, Prokofiev’s hymnal opus first performed in January 1945 as if in anticipation of the celebration gained a special “politically musical” weight with time – which was honored with the Stalin Prize of the 1st degree.
The composer himself, as if abstracting away from things present, wrote about his symphony in a rather neutral way, “In the Fifth Symphony I wanted to praise free and happy man, his mighty powers, his noble qualities and purity;” “I tried to convey the main idea of this symphony, which is the grandeur of the human spirit.”
Indeed, the composition contains actually no drama, conflict, or deep psychological emotions. Against the background of Shostakovich’s Seventh and Eighth, unsurpassed monumental epics telling a tragic story excitedly and expressively, Prokofiev’s reassuring opus looked immovably confident, and nearly imperturbable emotionally, as if compensating the dark greatness of Shostakovich’s drama with its spiritual soundness.
The symphony displays the composer’s usual optimism, energy, and amplitude of emotions. Prokofiev’s triumphant major predominating in the music is his own image.
Of course, under those conditions, the opus could not avoid an influence of Socialist Realism that dominated Soviet art almost totally. Prokofiev who had become part of the world’s musical elite long before found that ideological and aesthetical doctrine questionable, but could not ignore it completely. As a result, the Fifth marked the master’s turn towards the concept of Russian heroic and epic symphony “officially welcome” in the Soviet Union. Prokofiev made an unexpected step towards the attitudes and images of symphonies of Borodin and even of Glazunov (while he had previously been bitterly critical about his artistic manner). The reviewers responded immediately, “…the Heroic Symphony of our days.” The reasons were the objectively happy nature of the music, song-like epic phrases, unhurried evolution of ideas, inclination to extend and intensify the development, orchestral polyphony, and dense and massive sounds. All that combined with the tonal accent prompted analogies to the Fifth by Glazunov, a masterpiece of Russian epic symphonism.
However, Prokofiev would not have remained himself had he merely followed the pattern, like so many of his Soviet contemporaries, authors of smoothened and tame “Socialist Realistic” opuses. On the contrary, the first bars of the Fifth sound more like a demonstration of its traditional attitude, while the “museum-peaceful” model is transferred to the bona fide 20th century. It is “encased in the armor” of the up-to-date grand structures of sound; it is saturated with the energy of Prokofiev’s “Scythian” drive of the 1910s and avant-garde of the 1920s. Harsh intonations, and stiffness and sweep of the orchestral flow that came to replace the search for “new simplicity” of the 30s add spontaneous force and power to the music. The ‘unglossed’ apotheosis of the Fifth Symphony filled with solemnity of victorious salute transfigures the standard concept forcefully and resolutely with its rejoicing hymnal spirit.
Sergey Prokofiev himself briefly described the cycle as follows, “The symphony’s 1st movement is a sonata-like andante, of a somewhat dithyrambic nature; the 2nd movement is a scherzo; the 3rd movement is a lyrical adagio, with a gloomier middle and a very calm end; and the 4th movement is a finale classical in its appearance, sounding themes of a folk feast.”
However, the author’s concise and ‘official’ comment looks too modest against the music itself, and hardly suits the halo around the composition. Admiration of the symphony cannot probably be expressed better than it was done by Soviet piano genius Sviatoslav Richter, a sincerest admirer of Prokofiev’s creativity, “A milestone came for us all… and for Prokofiev too. The Fifth Symphony embodies his complete inner maturity and his look back. He looks back from a height on his life and everything he has had. There is something Olympic about it… In the Fifth Symphony he rises to the full height of his genius. Moreover, we see their Time and History, War, Patriotism, Victory… Victory in general and Prokofiev’s victory. This was when he won finally. He had always won before, that’s true, but this time he as artist won forever.”