Prokofiev: Symphony No. 3

Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Opus 44

SERGEI SERGEIEVICH PROKOFIEV
BORN: April 23, 1891. Sontsovka (now Krasnoye), an agricultural estate in the Ukrainian district of Ekaterinoslav
DIED: March 5, 1953. Nikolina Gora, just outside Moscow

COMPOSED: Prokofiev 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 is dedicated to his friend and confidant, composer Nicolai Miaskovsky

WORLD PREMIERE: May 17, 1929. Pierre Monteux led the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris in Paris

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1962. Enrique Jordá conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2013. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tambourine, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, bell, tam-tam, 2 harps, and strings

DURATION: About 35 mins

THE BACKSTORY  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 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.

He began writing The Fiery Angel in 1919, without a commission. As his source, Prokofiev—who crafted his own libretto in Russian—adapted a novel that Russian Symbolist writer Valery Briusov (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 cavorting with the devil and condemns her to be burned alive.

The Third Symphony received its premiere in the spring of 1929. Even the tetchy Stravinsky admired the piece, though he had scorned the idea of the original opera. By the time the work was first played in the Soviet Union, Prokofiev 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) or the popular First Symphony (with its channeling of the spirit of Haydn): “I believe that in this symphony I have succeeded in achieving greater depth of musical idiom.”

THE MUSIC  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 Prokofiev’s 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

Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. He blogs about the arts at memeteria.com.

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 Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca)

ReadingProkofiev: 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) 

(May 2018)