Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born on April 23, 1891, at Sontsovka (now Krasnoye), an agricultural estate in the Ukrainian district of Ekaterinoslav, and he died in Nikolina Gora just outside Moscow on March 5, 1953. He composed the third of his seven symphonies in the summer of 1928, using musical material from his still-unperformed score for the opera The Fiery Angel (begun in 1919 and completed in 1927). The Third Symphony, dedicated to his friend and confidant, composer Nicolai Miaskovsky, was premiered on May 17, 1929, in Paris, with Pierre Monteux conducting the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the Third Symphony in March 1962, with Enrique Jordá conducting; the most recent performances, at the Prokofiev Festival in June 2007, were led by Michael Tilson Thomas. Prokofiev’s score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tambourine, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, bell, tam-tam, two harps, and strings. Performance time: about thirty-five minutes.
Music depicting the ravings of demonic possession, eroticized spiritualism (or spiritualized eroticism), medieval witchcraft and sorcery, and a convent of nuns whipped into mass hysteria—no, it’s not the score to a Stephen King film but a work that has a decent claim to being Sergei Prokofiev’s operatic masterpiece: The Fiery Angel (Ognenniy angel in Russian). A labor of love—and great frustration—The Fiery Angel also served as the source for his Third Symphony (even including much of its orchestration). Prokofiev wrote that he considered the latter “to be one of my best compositions.”
The composer understandably went on the defensive regarding the tendency to read this symphony as a programmatic work—“The Fiery Angel Symphony,” so to speak—as it recycles music from his opera. At the same time, Prokofiev somewhat disingenuously exaggerated the distinction between the symphony and the opera: “The leading themes of The Fiery Angel were composed as symphony music long before I began work on the opera, and when I subsequently used them for the Third Symphony, they merely returned to their native element without, as far as I am concerned, being the least tainted by their temporary operatic sojourn.”
To be sure, the Third Symphony makes compelling sense within an independent framework; its enjoyment doesn’t require antecedent knowledge of the opera. (Prokofiev’s rethinking of his material for the concert hall context might be compared to John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007). Adams fashioned the symphony from his 2005 opera Doctor Atomic, aiming to tighten the screws of symphonic language and give his material space for an autonomous, purely musical workout.) Prokofiev shows no interest in simply repackaging his operatic source into a suite of “highlights,” nor does the sequence of movements in Prokofiev’s Third parallel the progress of the operatic drama.
Yet Prokofiev’s suggestion that any association between his Third Symphony and The Fiery Angel was merely superficial remains less than convincing. If the composer had really wanted to compartmentalize the two, observes biographer David Nice, “he would have attempted to free his material from the opera’s dense malignant textures; in the symphony, the oppressive aura of catastrophe is, if anything, even more concentrated.”
The young Prokofiev had found the spotlight early on, first as a prodigy and, after graduating in a spectacularly showy fashion from the pre-Revolutionary Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1914, as an enfant terrible eager to compete with fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky (his senior by nine years). But Prokofiev was dealt a remarkably unlucky hand when it came to a career as an opera composer; he died without ever seeing The Fiery Angel or the last of his seven mature operas produced. Writing for the stage (opera and ballet) was nevertheless a passion and, particularly in his earlier years, it furnished an important platform for Prokofiev to work out some of his most advanced musical ideas.
As a boy of eight, Prokofiev was bedazzled by his first trip to Moscow and the opera house: his parents took him on a binge to see The Sleeping Beauty, Prince Igor, and Faust (an early penchant for the diabolical already showing itself—he especially loved the Gounod).
His first mature opera, The Gambler, a bold and experimental musical reimagining of Dostoyevsky’s short novel, reveals his strong attraction to literary sources and to the theme of destructive sexual relationships. But the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 scuttled plans for the premiere and, in the following year, with the chaos spreading, Prokofiev decided to leave Russia for a voluntary exile which would last until the mid-1930s.
Not long after his arrival to the New World, already fed up with the situation, Prokofiev again packed his bags and headed to Paris. He meanwhile began The Fiery Angel in 1919, before he had seen either of his first two mature operas on a professional stage, and, even more incautiously, without a commission. As his source, Prokofiev—who crafted his own libretto in Russian—adapted a novel that Russian Symbolist writer Valery Bryusov (1873-1924) had published in 1908. Although set in sixteenth-century Germany, on the threshold of an era ruled by superstitious fears of witchcraft and emergent rationalism, The Fiery Angel works through a personal love triangle experienced by the novelist in pre-Bolshevik Russia. Its heavy symbolism exudes a sadomasochistic, fin-de-siècle aroma and, perhaps, a hint of Freud’s insights into psychosexual disturbances and the mechanism of repression.
The story revolves around a strangely alluring, troubled young woman, Renata, and her struggle with the maddening visions she retains of the flaming angel Madiel who visited her as a child. Eventually Renata desired to lose her innocence to this special friend but was angrily repulsed and has been desperate ever since to find the angel’s human incarnation. The knight Ruprecht, recently returned from a voyage to America, falls in love with Renata and is persuaded to help her on this quest—which involves the use of sorcery. But the man Renata tracks down, Count Heinrich (a former lover), rejects her, and Renata goads Ruprecht on to duel with the Count. Badly injured, the knight barely survives. Renata later decides to leave him to join a convent, where her presence is suspected of being responsible for recent disturbances among the other nuns. The opera culminates in a frenzied scene of mass exorcism as the visiting Inquisitor accuses Renata of having sex with the devil and condemns her to be burned alive.
The material—and, just as importantly, the proper tone to set (i.e., a “realistic” staging or something more symbolic and abstract)—poses enough theatrical challenges of its own, but Prokofiev compounded these by writing an exceedingly difficult vocal part for the role of Renata. Still, it’s not difficult to see how he would have been attracted to the opportunities for writing music to depict extreme states, while a sardonic subplot involving a kind of parody of Faust and Mephistopheles allowed the composer to exercise his more satiric vein.
The entire genre of opera itself was actually frowned upon as passé, a relic of pre-World War I bourgeois tastes, by the likes of Serge Diaghilev and the avant-garde artists in his Parisian circle, though the impresario played a key role in nurturing Prokofiev’s early career as a ballet composer. Eventually Prokofiev managed to secure the promise of a production in Berlin for the 1927-28 season. He rushed frantically to complete the intricate orchestration (using a special scoring method that allowed him to rely on an assistant). All told, the opera took eight years: an unusually protracted project for this normally speedy composer. But Bruno Walter, who was scheduled to conduct the premiere, called it off. Biographers speculate that he may have been disturbed by the story as well as alarmed by the technical challenges for the performers. Prokofiev was bitterly disappointed, and the full score wasn’t performed until after his death, in Paris in 1954; the stage premiere followed in Venice a year later. Given its trappings of religious-sexual fantasies, the opera had little chance of winning approval in the Soviet Union when Prokofiev settled there, shortly after Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been denounced for its “decadence.”
Following Walter’s cancellation, Prokofiev had to content himself with a concert performance of extracts, led by Serge Koussevitzky. He then decided to create an independent work for the concert hall, without any vocal parts, which he initially imagined as “a symphonic paraphrase in the manner of those operatic paraphrases like the one Liszt wrote on Rigoletto.” But this new project “to my surprise assumed the form of a four-movement symphony.” Hesitating over the “s” word, Prokofiev nevertheless goes on to write in the same letter that “I’m very tempted by the prospect of writing a new symphony ‘for free’!”
The Third Symphony’s premiere the following spring was scheduled within days of another major unveiling: The Prodigal Son, Prokofiev’s last ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. This latter work, which similarly provided the material for the Fourth Symphony, scored an enormous triumph, while the Third was at least accorded a respectful reception. “The Scythian,” wrote one critic, as Prokofiev notes in his memoirs, “has come down to the southern shores and become more human.” Even the tetchy Stravinsky admired the Third Symphony, though he had scorned the idea of the original opera. By the time the work was first played in the Soviet Union, Prokofiev—who was now contemplating returning to his homeland for good—had come to think of it as an important calling card. He wanted the Third to alert his new public that he had far more to offer than the lighter, ironic touch of The Love for Three Oranges (his second mature opera, a product of his American sojourn) or the popular First Symphony, with its neoclassical channeling of the spirit of Haydn: “I believe that in this symphony I have succeeded in achieving greater depth of musical idiom.”
The first movement (longest of the four) is an especially impressive achievement and the most traditionally “symphonic” segment of the Third in its organization of musical ideas transformed through juxtaposition with one another. A ferocious call to attention—like church bells possessed—sets everything in motion, as obsessively repeated figures emerge from the din.
The hysteria dies down and a widely spanning diatonic theme is sung by horns and strings. Originally conceived for string quartet, this serves as the opera’s dominating leitmotif for Renata and her fixation on her angel. Another richly expressive theme (easily recognizable from its stepwise ascending tags) carries associations with the knight Ruprecht: it naturally dominates and is dramatically transformed in the movement’s central developmental area, which is taken from an interlude in The Fiery Angel depicting his duel with the Count. A third thematic group announces itself with jerky rhythms and triplets that evoke Renata’s eerie agitation. Prokofiev’s recapitulation and coda form an imaginative highpoint: the dynamic level dims but the ostinato figures generate an effect that’s even more hair-raising, until the contrabassoon escorts us into hellish silence.
Renata’s quest for peace of mind in the convent, portrayed in the prelude to the opera’s final act, is the source of the contemplative string chorale that opens the Andante. Prokofiev’s brilliance as an orchestral colorist can be especially savored in the two middle movements, with their woodwind phrases and “special effects” from the strings—material contrasting with the convent setting and taken from an encounter with supernatural elements elsewhere in the opera. The composer’s famous “diabolical” side is given vent in the main part of the scherzo, a minefield for the string section with its complex partitioning of the players. They perform harrowing, knifelike glissandos that overlap in a dense texture anticipating the “themeless” fabrics Ligeti would later weave. The lilting middle section provides not merely contrast but the eye of the storm, wistful and anxious at the same time.
The scherzo originates from The Fiery Angel’s second act, where Renata, still desperate to find her reincarnated angel in the Count, resorts to the black arts. Its stark final declamation corresponds to the opera’s ending, in which she is condemned. To round out his symphony, Prokofiev proceeds to rework music from later in the second act portraying Ruprecht’s consultation with a powerful sorcerer. This final movement thus has a more “episodic” feel. Even so, as the Prokofiev scholar Harlow Robinson points out, The Fiery Angel itself was written to call for more active participation from the orchestra than the two earlier operas: “In The Gambler and Oranges, the orchestra is there primarily to accompany the text; here, it participates aggressively as a dramatic force in its own right.” The themes impressed on our ears during the opening movement are threaded into the narrative before the Third comes to rest on a fearsome juggernaut of violent chords.
Thomas May is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.
More About the Music
Recordings—Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra (Philips) | Neeme Järvi and the Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos) | Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca)
DVD—The Fiery Angel, with Gergiev conducting the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Opera (Philips)
Reading—Prokofiev: A Biography, From Russia to the West 1891-1935, by David Nice (Yale University Press) | Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, by Harlow Robinson (Viking) | Prokofiev, Claude Samuel, translated by Miriam John (Marion Boyars) | Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, edited and translated by Harlow Robinson (Northeastern University Press) | Sergey Prokofiev: 20th Century Composers, by Daniel Jaffé (Phaidon) | Sergei Prokofiev: Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences, edited by Semyon Shlifstein and translated by Rose Prokofieva (University Press of the Pacific)