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

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Alexander Vedernikov, conductor/Vadim Repin, violin, plays Brahms Nov. 5 - 7, 2009
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda
"In the Fifth Symphony I wanted to sing the praises of the free and happy man — his strength, his generosity and the purity of his soul. I cannot say I chose this theme; it was born in me and had to express itself." The "man" that Prokofiev invoked in this description of the philosophy embodied in this great Symphony could well have been the composer himself. The work was written in the summer of 1944, one of the happiest times he knew. His home life following marriage to his second wife four years earlier was contented and fulfilling; he was the most famous and often-performed of all Soviet composers; and Russia was winning World War II. In fact, the success of the work's premiere was buoyed by the announcement immediately before the concert that the Russian army had just scored a resounding victory on the River Vistula. The composer's mind was reflected in the fluency and emotional depth of his music.

The Fifth Symphony was composed in short score at lightning speed within a single month in 1944, though Prokofiev admitted collecting material for the work for some time on the sketch pads he always carried to jot down ideas as they occurred to him. This Symphony, his first work in the form since he had written the Fourth for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930-1931, was composed at a retreat in Ivanovo, some distance east of Moscow. The Soviet Composers' Union provided this country house as a peaceful refuge for musicians in which to gather and share their ideas, as well as for a quiet place to work. Glière, Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian and others were already in attendance there when Prokofiev arrived early in the summer of 1944. These others were content to take advantage of the restful nature of the surroundings, but Prokofiev was not, and Khachaturian recalled, "The regularity with which he worked amazed us all!" Prokofiev was never late for breakfast, always went promptly to his studio at ten, observed a strict schedule for his walks and tennis matches, and, at day's end, insisted that the inmates show each other exactly what they had accomplished that day. It is not difficult to imagine a certain relief among his fellows when Prokofiev chose to finish the orchestration of the Fifth Symphony in Moscow.

Prokofiev never hinted that there was a program underlying the Fifth Symphony except to say that "it is a symphony about the spirit of man." During the difficult war years, Soviet music, according to Boris Schwartz, "was meant to console and uplift, to encourage and exhort; nothing else mattered." Though some, like Martin Bookspan, find "ominous threats of brutal warfare" lurking beneath the surface of Prokofiev's music, there is really nothing here to match such symphonies born of the violence of war as Shostakovich's Seventh or Vaughan Williams' Fourth. Rather it is a work that reflects the composer's philosophy after he returned to Russia in the 1930s from many years of living in western Europe and America. In his 1946 autobiographical sketch, he wrote, "It is the duty of the composer, like the poet, the sculptor or the painter, to serve his fellow men, to beautify human life and point the way to a radiant future. Such is the immutable code of art as I see it." The Fifth Symphony is therefore addressed to the wide masses of the Soviet public, but couched in the venerable terms of the classical symphony, as was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 of 1937. Both of these well-known works look back to the formal models of Beethoven and the grand style of Tchaikovsky for their musical inspiration, but both also speak with the distinctive modern voices of their creators.

Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony is characterized by a rich vein of melody combined with his distinctively pungent harmonic palette in full, sturdy scoring. The opening movement is a large sonata form in moderate tempo that begins without introduction. The wide-ranging main theme is presented simply by flute and bassoon before being taken up by the strings. An arched-shaped complementary idea is given by tuba and other low instruments, and is combined with the main theme. The flute and oboe sing the lyrical second theme above a trembling, arpeggiated accompaniment in the strings. Two brief motives close the exposition. One, characterized by its dotted rhythms, arrives on the crest of the movement's first climax; the other is an angular, skittish fragment tossed off by high woodwinds, violins and cellos. The development, which rises from the low strings through the entire orchestra, gives prominence in its first portion to the opening theme and the skittish motive from the end of the exposition; it later focuses on the second theme and the arch-shaped complementary melody. The recapitulation is heralded by the stentorian sounds of the brass choir announcing the main theme. The movement is capped by a majestic coda that grows from the low summons of the trombones and tuba, buttressed by the rumbling of the bass drum and timpani, to an overwhelming wave of sound in its final measures. It was this section of the Symphony that most moved the audience at the work's premiere, prompting the composer's biographer, Israel Nestyev, to write, "This is perhaps the most impressive episode of the entire Symphony for it embodies with the greatest clarity the work's highest purpose — glorification of the strength and beauty of the human spirit."

The second movement, the Symphony's scherzo, is one of those pieces that Prokofiev would have classified as "motoric": an incessant two-note rhythmic motive drives the music forward through its entire first section. The principal theme arises from the solo clarinet, and much of what follows is a series of loose variations on this cheeky melody. The movement's central section is framed by a bold, strutting phrase from the woodwinds adorned with the piquant "wrong notes" that spice so much of Prokofiev's quick music. The clarinets and violas play the main theme of this middle section over another mechanized rhythm that gives these pages, despite their triple meter, the nature of a propulsive march. The strutting phrase reappears. The following section begins slowly, and, like the stoking of some giant engine, gradually gains momentum until the opening scherzo returns to bring the movement to a riveting close.

The brooding third movement is in a large three-part design. The outer sections are supported by the deliberate rhythmic tread of the low instruments used as underpinning for a plaintive melody initiated by the clarinets. A sweeping theme begun by the tuba serves as the basis for the middle section. An extended, searing climax links this section with the return of the plaintive melody high in the strings. The touching coda is suspended in the piccolo and strings high above a shimmering string accompaniment.

The finale opens with a short introduction comprising two gestures based on the main theme of the first movement: a short woodwind phrase answered by the strings, and a chorale for cellos. The main body of the movement is a sonata-rondo propelled by yet another insistent rhythmic motive. The movement accumulates a large amount of thematic material as it progresses, though it is the solo clarinet playing the main theme which begins each of the important structural sections of the form. A furious, energetic coda ignites several of the movement's themes into a grand closing blaze of orchestral color to conclude one of the supreme orchestral works of the 20th century.