Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Prokofiev Symphony No. 5

Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was composed during the Second World War and was therefore referred to as his ‘war symphony’. At the time of its premiere in 1945 the Soviet Union was well on track for a victory over Germany and the worst of the war was soon to be over. Prokofiev himself said — politically correctly — about the symphony: “I thought of it as a work glorifying the human spirit. I wanted to sing of mankind free and happy; his strength, his generosity and the purity of his soul”. He seemed to be doing exactly what was expected of every Soviet artist: producing accessible and socially relevant art. It was understandable that the general public would interpret this grandiose and compelling music as a sign of hope for the future.

The circumstances under which Prokofiev worked on his Fifth Symphony, however, give a somewhat different impression. The great purges by Stalin’s regime in the 1930s had created appalling consequences for artistic life in the Soviet Union; many Russian artists saw the war almost as a relief,  for the authorities had more important matters to deal with and less attention was paid to them. Artists were evacuated in droves from Moscow and Leningrad during the war years to safer places where they could work in relative peace. Prokofiev himself spent a large amount of time in Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan.

Given its content, Prokofiev’s Fifth can not really be regarded as a war symphony. His colleague Dmitri Shostakovich, who himself had almost become a victim of Stalin’s purges, had demonstrated to the authorities that he could indeed write socially relevant music with his Seventh and Eighth symphonies that were composed during the war years; the heroics and terrors of war are almost tangible in these two works. There is little indication of a people at war in Prokofiev’s Fifth; if his music seems to refer to anything, it is to ballet. Romeo and Juliet are not far removed from the third and fourth movements and music from his Cinderella can be found in the second movement. It is fascinating to note that Prokofiev reused the music that he composed for the original happy ending to Romeo and Juliet note for note at the beginning of the second movement.

Prokofiev had written his symphony in exactly the same way as he would have written it if he had been in America or in Paris. If he had truly intended to transmit a message about ‘mankind free and happy’, then he would have done it with theatre music — opera and ballet — or with vocal music. In instrumental forms such as the sonata, the symphony and the concerto he could make music for music’s sake.

This ‘Western’ outlook of his was to cost him dear in 1948. The Politburo published an official ukase in which Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian were accused of formalism, this being ‘a renunciation of the basic principles of classical music’ in favour of ‘muddled and nerve-racking sounds’. Eight of Prokofiev’s works were proscribed; for safety’s sake concert halls and opera houses also declined to perform his compositions that were not subject to the ban.

Translation: Peter Lockwood