Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Opus 100

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Opus 100

BORN: April 11 (old style)/23 (new style), as he claimed, or April 15/27 (according to his birth certificate), 1891. Sontsovka, in the Ekaterinoslav district of Ukraine
DIED: March 5, 1953. Moscow

COMPOSED: During the summer of 1944, drawing on some material sketched in the preceding decade; the orchestration was completed that November

WORLD PREMIERE: January 13, 1945. The composer conducted the State Symphonic Orchestra of the U.S.S.R. in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory

FIRST US PERFORMANCES: November 1945. Serge Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony

FIRST SFS PERFORMANCES: May 1947. Pierre Monteux conducted

MOST RECENT SFS PERFORMANCES: February 2013. Pablo Heras-Casado conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, snare drum, woodblock, bass drum, tam-tam, and piano, harp, and strings

PERFORMANCE TIME: About 46 minutes

The seven symphonies of Sergei Prokofiev cover a span of thirty-six years, from his First, the much-loved Classical Symphony, composed in 1916-17, through to his Seventh, his last major work, written in 1951-52. But his involvement with the genre was even longer than that—covering fifty years, in fact—since he had produced a Symphony in G major back in 1902 when he was an eleven-year-old prodigy taking private composition lessons from Reinhold Glière.

His Fifth Symphony is the first of three that he would write while living in the Soviet Union. He had slipped away from Russia in 1918, just ahead of the worst of the Russian Revolution. New York became his base, more or less, for the next few years, after which he moved to Paris in 1923. By 1932, however, his steps began turning homeward to what in the meantime had become the Soviet Union. His homeland was very interested in having him back, international star that he was, and the courtship went on for a few years, with the composer and the U.S.S.R. assessing what each could provide for the other. In the spring of 1936, Prokofiev settled in Moscow for good. He must have wondered over the years if his decision had been for the best, although he did prove more adept than many in navigating the dangerous shoals of Soviet cultural politics.

The Second World War was in full swing while Prokofiev worked on this symphony, during the summer of 1944, but he was sheltered from the conflict, living in an artists’ retreat 150 miles northeast of Moscow. “I regard the Fifth Symphony as the culmination of a long period my creative life,” he wrote shortly after its premiere. “I conceived of it as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit ... praising the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul.” The opening movement, which at Andante is somewhat slower than traditional symphonic first movements, does indeed convey a sense of grandeur, solidity, and heroism, nowhere more than in the epic vision of its spectacular coda. The orchestral sonority is imaginative yet instantly recognizable as Prokofievian—as in the octave-doubled opening theme, sung forth by flute and bassoon, soaring in its notes but initially reticent in its spirit.

A fast movement follows, so full of satire and hilarity (even though tempered by the minor mode) that it qualifies as one of the composer’s most irrepressible scherzos. Its opening melody seems to begin in lighthearted menace and to conclude, just a few measures later, somewhere near Tin Pan Alley. Prokofiev was a master melodist, and one marvels throughout this symphony at not just the elegant craftsmanship of his melodies but also at how memorable they are, easily recognized even as he augments their rhythms (essentially slowing them down to half-time), robes them in new apparel through refashioning of orchestration, or tosses them about from one player to another. 

The lengthy third movement is a study in elegant lyricism, though not without tragic overtones. Both of these middle movements suggest differing aspects of “the balletic Prokofiev” in the way they summon up a specific character and sustain it over an extended span. In fact, the second movement develops out of material the composer had sketched for, but not used in, his ballet Romeo and Juliet in the mid-1930s. The third movement, by contrast, traces its ancestry to a different project of about the same time, a score Prokofiev was planning for a film of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades that never reached fruition.

The finale begins by reminiscing introspectively with a variant on the theme that had opened the first movement, which here gets worked up into rich five-part harmony spread through the cellos and double basses. After a minute of this nostalgia, the strings start chugging away, providing a foundation over which the solo clarinet can reel out the movement’s principal theme. It seems intent on squirming away from the tonic key of B-flat, but its efforts prove to be fruitless sidesteps that decorate, rather than steer, the harmonic trajectory. This theme, often transferred to other instruments, recurs in alternation with other material as the movement unrolls as a rondo that is mostly filled with giddy high spirits and optimistic affirmation.

Public curiosity ran high when this work was introduced. Everybody who was anybody in Moscow’s musical community was present. The audience’s spirits were buoyed by the knowledge that troops of the Red Army were at that moment embarking on their triumphant march into Nazi Germany. Soviet artillery was standing at the ready to signal to the Muscovites when the advance was underway. The eminent pianist Sviatoslav Richter, seated in the third row of the auditorium, offered this account:

The Great Hall was illuminated, no doubt, the same way it always was, but when Prokofiev stood up, the light seemed to pour straight down on him from somewhere up above. He stood like a monument on a pedestal. And then, when Prokofiev had taken his place on the podium and silence reigned in the hall, artillery salvos suddenly thundered forth. His baton was raised. He waited, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something very significant in this, something symbolic. It was as if all of us—including Prokofiev—had reached some kind of shared turning point.

Prokofiev wrote that his Fifth Symphony was “very important not only for the musical material that went into it, but also because I was returning to the symphonic form after a break of sixteen years.” It scored a huge success at its premiere, on an all-Prokofiev program that also included the Classical Symphony and Peter and the Wolf. Its wide-ranging but overwhelmingly uplifting spirit combined with the circumstances of wartime patriotism to create a perfect storm of enthusiasm on Soviet stages, and it wasted no time whipping up similar excitement in the United States. On November 19, 1945, a week after Serge Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony in the American premiere, Prokofiev’s picture graced the cover of Time Magazine, and the magazine’s lengthy profile of him quoted Koussevitzky’s assessment: “[The Fifth Symphony is] the greatest musical event in many, many years. The greatest since Brahms and Tchaikovsky! It is magnificent! It is yesterday, it is today, it is tomorrow.”

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Neeme Järvi conducting the Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos)  | Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  | Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI)  | Valery Gergiev conducting the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theater Orchestra (Mariinsky)

Reading: The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years, by Simon Morrison (Oxford)  | Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, by Harlow Robinson (Viking)  |  Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings, translated and edited by the composer’s son Oleg Prokofiev (Faber & Faber)  

(October 2015)