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

Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka (now Krasnoye), Government of Ekaterinoslav (Dniepropetrovsk), in Ukraine on April 23, 1891, and died in Nikolina Gora near Moscow on March 5, 1953. Using some material dating back to the late 1930s, he composed his Symphony No. 5 during the summer of 1944 and on January 13, 1945, led the Moscow State Philharmonic Orchestra in the premiere. Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra introduced the work in the United States in November 1945. The first San Francisco Symphony performances were conducted by Pierre Monteux in May 1947; the most recent performances, in September 2008, were given under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two B-flat clarinets plus E-flat and bass clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, piano, harp, timpani, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, snare drum, wood block, bass drum, tam-tam, and strings. Performance time: about forty-five minutes.  

Although he never returned to his native country after the Revolution and though he became an ardent American patriot, Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony’s conductor from 1924 to 1951, maintained a profound inner identity as a Russian. As such, he sympathized passionately with the Soviet Union’s war effort against the Germans, and his performances of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, many of them American premieres, were acts of commitment that went beyond the ordinary range of professional responsibility. Aware of the material difficulties over there, Koussevitzky arranged for regular shipments of music paper to the Soviet Composers’ Union. When he began to study the Prokofiev Fifth before introducing it in America, it gave him special pleasure to see that the score was written on paper that had made the long round-trip from a music store on Boylston Street, just a few blocks from Boston’s Symphony Hall.

Prokofiev and Koussevitzky had been in each other’s lives a long time. In 1914, Prokofiev was invited to play his Piano Concerto No. 1 with Koussevitzky in Moscow. This marked the beginning of more than thirty years’ devoted sponsorship on Koussevitzky’s part. Between 1916 and 1937, he published many of Prokofiev’s works, including the Visions fugitives, the Third and Fourth piano sonatas, the Scythian Suite, the Dostoyevsky opera The Gambler, the ballet Chout, the Lieutenant Kijé Suite, and several books of songs. In addition, he invited Prokofiev to appear with the Boston Symphony in five different seasons as pianist or conductor.

Like Koussevitzky, Prokofiev had left Russia in 1918. Until 1922 he spent most of his time in the United States, then moved to Paris. His return to the Soviet Union was a gradual process that began in 1933, when he gave concerts there and was asked to score the film Lieutenant Kijé. His homecoming was complete in 1936, when he, his wife, and their two sons took an apartment in Moscow.

Prokofiev composed his Fifth Symphony at Ivanovo, some 150 miles northeast of Moscow, where the Composers’ Union had set up a House of Creative Work to allow members a more peaceful setting than the hubbub of wartime Moscow or Leningrad. The population of the House in 1944 was a Who’s Who of Soviet music. Among those whom Prokofiev joined there or who arrived later were Glière (Prokofiev’s first composition teacher), Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and Kabalevsky. A mood of optimism was in the air. A few days before Prokofiev’s arrival at Ivanovo, the Allies had invaded Normandy, and only a couple of weeks later, the Soviet armies launched massive and successful offensives in Byelorussia and Poland. Seven months later, when he stood on the podium of the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory to lead the first performance of the Fifth Symphony, the Soviet armies had just begun what would prove to be their final push to victory. As Prokofiev raised his baton in the silent hall, the audience could hear the gunfire that celebrated the news, just arrived, that the army had crossed the Vistula.

That evening was the high moment of Prokofiev’s career. A few days later, apparently as a result of high blood pressure, he blacked out, fell, and suffered a concussion. He was never in full good health again. In 1946 he won a Stalin Prize, First Class, for the Fifth Symphony (and another at the same time for the Piano Sonata No. 8), but no new work of his was ever again acclaimed with the same enthusiasm. In 1948, along with Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and others, he was subjected to brutal bullying by Andrei Zhdanov’s government committee. He continued to compose, but when he died—not quite an hour before Stalin—he was a defeated man.

In the United States, too, the Fifth Symphony was a tremendous success when Koussevitzky introduced it in Boston, New York, and Washington. The week after, Prokofiev’s picture was on the cover of Time. Within the year, Victor and Columbia both came out with first-rate recordings. When Artur Rodzinski, Eugene Ormandy, and George Szell played it with their orchestras in New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, their success was no less than Koussevitzky’s. The Fifth was a repertory piece from Day One. Five years later, the climate in the US had changed. When the Utah Symphony announced the Salt Lake City premiere, the conductor, Maurice Abravanel, received an anonymous death threat over the phone.     

When Prokofiev began work on his new score, he had not written a symphony since 1930, when he completed his Fourth, a Koussevitzky commission to celebrate the Boston orchestra’s fiftieth anniversary. It was also the first time he set out to write a symphony from scratch since No. 2 in 1924-25. The Third and Fourth had both been byproducts of his work for the theater, the former using material from the opera The Flaming Angel, the latter from the ballet The Prodigal Son. The Fifth had no program, but Prokofiev announced that it was music “glorifying the human spirit . . . praising the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul.” Soviet composers at this time often sent their new works into the world freighted by rhetoric of this sort.

More interesting and consequential was Prokofiev’s statement that he thought of his new Fifth Symphony as “[crowning] a great period of my work.” The Prokofiev of the Fifth Symphony is a composer in command. Many composers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, even very good ones, were baffled by the problem of how to confront the sonata style defined by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, of how to get at its substance and not just its shell, that shell being an exposition of a movement’s basic materials, which are then developed as the movement progresses, and finally recapitulated. Here, in his Symphony No. 5, the fifty-three-year-old Prokofiev takes on the challenge with a master’s confidence, skill, and freshness of approach.

The work is in four movements, but they are not quite the conventional four of the Classical and Romantic symphony; rather, what Prokofiev gives us here is a slow/fast/slow/fast sequence familiar from Baroque music. The first melody soars, but Prokofiev presents it, to begin with, in austere woodwind octaves and almost unharmonized. He picks up from Beethoven and Brahms the device of seeming to embark upon a formal repeat of the exposition, only to have a dramatic turn of harmony reveal that the development has begun. The sequence of events for the recapitulation is normal, but their unfolding is compressed. The concluding coda, which twice attains a towering fortissimo, reflects at length on the first theme.

The second movement is a scherzo. With violins marking the time, the clarinet proposes an impertinent little tune, to which the oboe and the violas make equally impertinent response. Here is a touch of the old Prokofiev, the wry humorist from whom Shostakovich learned so much. A slightly slower passage leads into the middle section, which itself is actually a little faster than the main part of the movement. Clarinet and violas lead off with a sinuous and high-spirited tune. The same bridge that brought us into the movement’s central section takes us out again. The repeat of the scherzo is twisted, even sinister, and it ends with a bang.

Then comes a weighty slow movement. The music is at once somber and lyric. An accompaniment figure, which moves in triplet broken chords, sets the pulse. The dynamic level is a restrained mezzo-piano, but the sound is weighty and dense. It supports an expansive and very beautiful melody. The middle section of the movement is darker in character, suggesting a cortege. After an intensely emotional climax, the first theme returns in a whispered pianissimo, but in a newly elaborate scoring.

The finale begins in a reflective mood, with woodwinds and strings engaged in quiet dialogue. This is followed by something surprising and extraordinarily beautiful, the return of the first movement’s opening theme, scored now for the cellos divided four ways. Abruptly, these moods are swept away. Except for a single brief somber interlude, the mood now is joyous, the motion athletic. Throughout, Prokofiev keeps finding new ways of heightening the voltage until, after a dizzying swirl of music, he brings his symphony to an end on a rush to a final bang.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. Weare privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Jean Martinon conducting the ORTF National Orchestra (Vox Box)  |  Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (RCA Red Seal)  |  George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Classical Masterworks)

Reading: Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, by Harlow Robinson (Viking)  |  Prokofiev: A Biography, From Russia to the West, 1891-1935, by David Nice (Yale University Press)  |  Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, edited and translated by Robinson (Northeastern University Press) |  Prokofiev’s Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings, translated and edited by Oleg Prokofiev (Faber and Faber)  |  Prokofiev’s Diaries, 1907-1914: Prodigious Youth, translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips (Cornell University Press)  |  Sergei Prokofiev: His Musical Life, by Israel Vladimirovich Nestyev (Knopf)