Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Symphony #5 in B-flat, Opus 100 (1944)

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Sergei Prokofiev (April 27, 1891–March 5, 1953)

  1. Andante
  2. Allegro marcato
  3. Adagio
  4. Allegro giocoso

Prokofiev was an odd looking fellow with a pipe stem neck, thick, protuberant lips, piercing eyes, and pink skin, which turned red during his frequent rages. His conversation could be crushing; his overpowering repartee, outspokenness, irritating chuckle and caustic incisiveness did not endear him to people. He was muscular enough to occasionally be mistaken for a boxer. His compositional style and virtuoso pianism were, in their athletic angularity, colored by his temperament. An only child (two sisters died before his birth), his early works were sharp, dissonant, and “objective". He recognized four qualities that mixed, to varying degrees in his work: classical, modern, motoric, and lyrical. Prokofiev should be considered an Anti-Romantic composer; his music is muscular and athletic, rather than consumptive, clear, pointed, and slashing, rather than swooning; sarcastic rather than earnest.

Here is music “glorifying the human spirit,” Prokofiev said of Symphony #5, which he considered to be one of his best compositions. The symphony was composed at the height of World War II, in the House of Creative Work, a government-sponsored refuge for composers. Prokofiev shared this refuge with such composers as Shostakovitch, Glazunov, Khachaturian, and Kabelevsky. The symphony, completed in a single month in 1944, incorporated material sketched out over the past seven years. It had been 14 years since his last symphony, and the Fifth, unlike its two predecessors, was not an amalgam of extant theatrical music. While Prokofiev conducted its January 13, 1945 premiere with the Moscow State Philharmonic Orchestra, gunfire was heard, marking the Soviet army’s final push to victory. As a measure of the symphony’s success, Prokofiev was pictured on the cover of TIME magazine the week after the symphony’s American premiere.

The four movements are arranged in a slow—fast—slow—fast scheme. Filled with an abundance of melody, the symphony’s development is driven theatrically: a plastic shifting of moods and scenes seems to take the place of standard symphonic form. The opening Andante contrasts two themes, the first in triple meter, the other in duple meter. At the end of the exposition, Prokofiev pretends to repeat the exposition, but as in Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartet #1, he has actually begun the development. The coda is a reflection on the first theme. The scherzo, marked Allegro marcato, contains material originally sketched for the Romeo and Juliet ballet (1936). The Adagio is a weighty slow movement. The theme comes from an abandoned film score on Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades. The opening features an arpeggiated triplet accompaniment a la “moonlight” sonata, Lenin’s favorite piece. This oblique tribute may have paid off; the Symphony was awarded a Stalin Prize, first class. Allegro giocoso means literally, “happily humorous.” The last movement begins quietly, recalling the opening of the first movement (this time, for a divided cello section). The music that follows is, save for a solemn interlude, joyous and athletic. Energy builds, and the symphony ends with a bang.