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Symphony No. 6 in E-flat minor, Op. 111

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Neeme Järvi, conductor / Yefim Bronfman, piano, plays Tchaikovsky May 5 - 7, 2011
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Israel Nestyev headed the chapter of his biography of Prokofiev dealing with the composer's life from 1945 to 1948, "The Difficult Years." In January 1945 Prokofiev conducted the premiere of the Fifth Symphony with great success, and it seemed that, at age 53, he had many years of untroubled service to Soviet music in his future. Such was not to be the case. Only two weeks after the Fifth Symphony was introduced, Prokofiev was leaving a friend's Moscow flat when he was suddenly stricken with a minor heart attack. He lost consciousness, fell down a flight of stairs, and was taken to the hospital, where his heart condition and a concussion were diagnosed. From that moment, his vigorous life style and busy social and musical schedules became things of the past. "Almost everything that made his life worth living was taken away," wrote Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson in their study of the composer. "He was forbidden to smoke, to drink wine, to play chess, to drive a car, to walk fast or far, to play the piano in public, to conduct, to stay up late, to excite himself by much conversation, to travel more than a few miles." He spent the rest of his life—he died in 1953, on the same day as Joseph Stalin—in and out of hospitals, constantly taking precautions against a relapse.

Late in the spring of 1945, Prokofiev went to the country retreat at Ivanova provided by the government for Russia's professional composers, and began there his Sixth Symphony in glad response to the end of the Second World War. He suffered almost daily from blinding headaches, and was further troubled by bitter frustration over his semi-invalid state. "Nevertheless," recalled the composer Dmitri Kabalevsky, who was also then residing at the Ivanova compound, "Prokofiev did not give up, did not lose his optimism, his joy of life, his courage and youthful cheerfulness, and a phenomenal capacity for concentration on his work….His whole existence, all his energies, his entire mode of life were directed to one aim, of saving for his works all the strength he had left. At times it seemed as if he knew that his malady would defeat him in the end and was deliberately hurrying to get all his ideas down on paper before it was too late." He guarded his health jealously, with one exception. While in the hospital and under orders not to do any work, he would post any trusted visitor at his door as guard and scribble a theme into the notebook he kept hidden under his pillow.

Prokofiev went back to his beloved Moscow in the fall, continuing work on the new Symphony. He was too ill, however, to participate in the bustling artistic and social life of the capital, and his condition was so severe that it even prevented him from attending the premiere of his opera Betrothal in a Monastery at the Kirov Theater and a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Bolshoi. The commotion of Moscow proved too much for his fragile health. Early in 1946 he moved to Nikolina Gora, a country village outside the city, and it was there a year later that he completed the Sixth Symphony. He found strength enough to travel to Leningrad for the premiere, one of his few public appearances after the onset of his illness. Initial reaction to the new work was favorable, and most saw the music as a continuation of the epic grandeur of the Fifth Symphony. Only four months after the premiere, however, Prokofiev along with Shostakovich and other prominent Russian composers were vehemently condemned for writing what the government abstrusely called "formalistic" music. Positive critical evaluations of the Sixth Symphony were hastily withdrawn, "corrected" judgments issued, and the work was assigned to temporary oblivion. The Russian public, however, continued to look upon Prokofiev as one of the country's greatest creative artists, and showed a steadfast interest in the man and in performances of his music. Officialdom was forced to back away from its denunciation to such a degree that Prokofiev was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1951, only three years after he had been told the most adventurous aspects of his music "must be liquidated."

Several stylistic streams flow into the Sixth Symphony. Israel V. Nestyev wrote, "It seems as though the two Prokofievs, old and new, were engaged in a struggle with each other, revealing in the course of this struggle both powerful, genuine lyricism and sudden outbursts of unrestrained expressionism." The composer offered a vague clue to the underlying meaning of juxtaposing such differing moods: "Yes, we are rejoicing in our magnificent victory [that ended the war], but thousands of us have been left with wounds that can't be healed—health ruined for life, dear ones gone forever. We must not forget this." (In the Symphony's jubilant finale, he said he brought back the somber music of the opening movement to remind those who listened that thankfulness for the victory must be tempered by thoughts of the price paid to achieve it.) Nestyev felt that the Symphony showed Prokofiev's "desire to carry on the tradition of lofty intellectualism and profound tragedy that characterized Beethoven's later works." Indeed, Prokofiev thought at one time about dedicating the score to the earlier master, since fortune decreed that its opus number—111—was the same as that of Beethoven's last piano sonata, one of the Russian composer's favorite pieces.

Prokofiev had only a terse comment about the musical nature of his Sixth Symphony: "The first movement is agitated, at times lyrical, at times austere; the second movement, Largo, is brighter and more tuneful; the finale, rapid and in a major key, is close in character to my Fifth Symphony, save for reminiscences of the austere passages from the first movement." The main theme of the first movement is ambivalent in character, a curious blend of slow march and lugubrious lyricism. The second theme (Prokofiev's "austere" music), presented by the oboes in stark octaves, is more flowing and melancholy than the opening melody. One of Prokofiev's distinctive ticking, motoric constructions occupies the central portion of the movement. The recapitulation of the main theme, here given an extensive developmental treatment, culminates in searing unison blasts from the horns. The second theme is recalled by the solo horn before a coda based on the rocking rhythms of the main theme draws this darkly powerful music to a close.

The second movement is steeped in the same expansive atmosphere as Prokofiev's magnificent ballet Romeo and Juliet. Its structure comprises several sections which are arranged in a symmetrical, arch form whose central portions are marked by a strident passage for full orchestra (note the entry of the woodblock) followed by a bittersweet tune for the horn choir. The finale is based on two themes: the first is a raucous ditty strutted out by the violins; the second, initiated by the solo bassoon above a skeletal string accompaniment, is filled with long-sustained notes and quick leaps. These two moods—the bumptious and the lyrical—are juxtaposed and combined for most of the remainder of the movement. In the closing pages, the oboes recall the "austere" theme of the first movement to inject a moment of thoughtful remembrance into the joyous finale. The tempo freshens, the finale's theme returns, and the Sixth Symphony is brought to a rousing conclusion by a brief, whirling coda.