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

by Serge Prokofiev

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

      By Serge Prokofiev

     Born April 23, 1891, in Sontsovka, Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine
     Died March 4, 1953, in Moscow, Russia)

     The date was January 13, 1945, and it was late evening in Moscow.  The State
     Philharmonic Orchestra was assembled before a capacity audience in the Great Hall of
     the Moscow Conservatory.  At precisely 9:30, a severely-dressed woman strode
     purposefully to stage center and announced, “In the name of the fatherland there will be a salute to the gallant warriors of the First Ukrainian front who have broken the defenses of the Germans—twenty volleys of artillery from 224 guns.”  Serge Prokofiev stood, with head bowed, facing the orchestra, while the sound of the artillery fire shook the building and rumbled throughout the city.  As the twentieth volley echoed away, he raised his baton and began the world premiere performance of his Fifth Symphony.  

It must have been an unforgettable experience that night.  The turning point had been reached and an end to the long and devastating war was now in sight. The terrible siege of Stalingrad was over and the victorious Red Army was crossing the Vistula River into Poland.  Once again, at great cost, the Russians had driven an advancing enemy from their homeland.  The pages of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony clearly reflected the torture of those times and the elation which the Russian people felt after their bitter ordeal.  Prokofiev’s powerful wartime testament to the spirit of man and the joy of life was an immediate and unequivocal success.  Ten months later, the symphony received similar acclaim in the United States when Serge Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the American premiere on November 9, 1945.  Other American performances followed in quick succession and the work soon came to be regarded as Prokofiev’s prime achievement in the symphonic structure. 

Prokofiev composed his Fifth Symphony at Ivanovo, near Moscow, during the summer of 1944, after his return from the war-imposed evacuation of the Soviet capital.  The work marked the composer’s return to the symphonic form after an interval of fourteen years.  During an interview shortly after the work’s premiere, Prokofiev briefly recounted the genesis of his Fifth Symphony.  “When the Second World War broke out,” he said, “I felt that everyone must do his share, and began composing songs and marches for the front.  But soon events assumed such gigantic and far-reaching scope as to demand larger  canvasses.  Finally, I wrote my Fifth Symphony, on which I had been working for several years, gathering themes in a special notebook  I regard the Fifth Symphony as the culmination of a large period of my creative life.”  The Fifth Symphony is a work which represents Prokofiev at the height of his powers.  Although the work abounds with complex rhythms, changing meters and mildly pungent dissonances, the music remains essentially lyrical and melodic and, in the first and third movements particularly, the romanticism of the late nineteenth century is not far removed.

The first movement, a broadly paced Andante which follows the traditional patterns of sonata form, conveys a feeling of unrest and churning turmoil.  The first theme is a broadly arching melody introduced immediately at the onset of the symphony by the flutes and clarinets in octaves.  After this theme passes through several instrumental combinations, the second theme is softly sung by the flutes and oboes over a delicate string accompaniment.  In the development section, the mood alternates between subdued introspection and passionate struggle as the movement builds to an emotional climax.  An extended coda based on the opening theme brings the movement to a close on a positive note with a feeling of triumph and exultation.

The second movement, a lively scherzo marked Allegro marcato, is light­ hearted and sardonic by turns.  After two initial measures of a light hammering rhythm in the first violins, the solo clarinet introduces the mercurial, syncopated principal theme.  As the scherzo progresses, the thematic materials are quickly passed from one instrument to another.  A more lyrical central section is Prokofiev’s concession to the traditional trio.  After this, the brasses, sounding like some misplaced fugitives from the duck pond in Peter and the Wolf, humorously quack their way through a long, gradual accelerando which provides the transition back to the scherzo.

The third movement, an eloquent and tensely dramatic Adagio, demonstrates Prokofiev’s superb gift for broad, singing, bittersweet melodies.  The principal theme is heard first in the woodwinds, then in the strings. The mood becomes restless, and a strongly agitated climax occurs at the midpoint of the movement, after which the opening theme returns quietly in the strings. The movement concludes with a graceful rising arpeggio by the clarinets.

The finale, marked Allegro giocoso, begins ambiguously with a brief recollection of the opening theme of the symphony, but the pensive mood is soon broken by a motor-like figure played first by the violas, then the horns. A shrill, impudent clarinet theme leads into the finale proper.

For the remainder of the movement, the music is quintessential, “public square” Prokofiev:  boisterous good humor, driving rhythms, whirlwinds of melody and brilliant orchestral fireworks.

As the movement draws toward its conclusion, grotesque “wrong notes” begin to appear and the music becomes more raucous and agitated.  Then, just as everything appears to be losing momentum and growing softer, the symphony ends suddenly with a quick crescendo which skyrockets through the orchestra.

©Kenneth C. Viant, Canton Symphony Orchestra