Symphony No. 5 (Prokofiev)
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Sergei Prokofiev wrote his Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major (Op. 100) in Soviet Russia in one month in the summer of 1944.
Fourteen years had passed since Prokofiev's last symphony.
World War II was still raging during the symphony's gestation, and Prokofiev composed it in a safe haven run by the Soviet Union. He gave out in a statement at the time that he intended it as "a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit." He added "I cannot say that I deliberately chose this theme. It was born in me and clamoured for expression. The music matured within me. It filled my soul."
The piece is in four movements, lasting 40–45 minutes:
- Andante (in B-flat major)
- Allegro marcato (in D minor)
- Adagio (in F major)
- Allegro giocoso (in B-flat major)
The first movement embodies what Prokofiev envisioned as the glory of the human spirit. In a tightly argued sonata form, there is an elaborate and climactic development of the two themes - one calm and sustained, the other soaring with tremolo accompaniment from strings - after the exposition section. It represents the pinnacle in Prokofiev's symphonic thought. The movement is wrapped up with an electrifying coda, punctuated by a roaring tam-tam and low piano tremolos.
The third movement is a dreamy slow movement, full of nostalgia, which nevertheless builds up to a tortured climax, before receding back to dreaminess.
The finale starts with a cello choir playing a slow introduction containing elements from the first theme of the first movement, which then launches into the movement proper, a rondo. The playful ("giocoso") main theme is contrasted with two calmer episodes, one played by the flute, the other a chorale on strings. At the end, just as the movement is striving to end in a victorious tone, the music unexpectedly degenerates into a manic frenzy (rehearsal mark 111), which is then interrupted by a string quartet playing staccato "wrong notes" (rehearsal mark 113) with rude interjections from low trumpets, making the ultimate B-flat major chord sound all the more ironic.
The work is scored for the following:
- 2 Flutes
- 2 Oboes
- Cor Anglais
- E-flat Clarinet
- 2 Clarinets
- Bass Clarinet
- 2 Bassoons
The symphony was premiered on January 13, 1945 in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Prokofiev himself. The premiere was very well received, and the symphony has remained one of the composer's most popular works. Then, in November of that year, Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra introduced the score to America and recorded it for RCA Victor, using an optical sound film process introduced by RCA in 1941; it was initially issued on 78-rpm discs and later on LP and CD.
- Schwarz, Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, p.196, cited in Preston Stedman, The Symphony, p.290
Notable recordings