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Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
January 19, 2020
94th Season / Beyond the Score
Michael Allsen

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One of our more popular features over the past few seasons have been presentations in the Beyond the Score® series developed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. These innovative programs combine live actors, multimedia, and the orchestra to present deep and entertaining background on a featured work—followed by performance of the full work. In the past five seasons the Madison Symphony Orchestra has presented Beyond the Score programs on Dvořák’s “New World” symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”). At this program MSO pianist Dan Lyons, and actors James Ridge, Colleen Madden, Marcus Truschinski, and Tracy Arnold from American Players Theatre, will be on stage to help tell the story of Prokofiev’s grand patriotic wartime work, the Symphony No.5.


Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

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


Prokofiev composed his fifth symphony in 1944. The work was first performed in Moscow, on January 13, 1945. This is our fourth performance of the work: the first three took place in 1990, 2001 and 2011. Duration 43:00.


In Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, composers served the State, and musical style was expected to conform to the political needs of the moment and the philosophy of artistic authorities. Prokofiev’s Soviet colleague Dmitri Shostakovich chafed against these restrictions though his whole career, and even in his big, patriotic wartime symphonies (the seventh and eighth), there are hints of sarcasm and bitterness. For his part, Prokofiev seems wholeheartedly to have supported the government, and provided unabashedly nationalistic works, such as the bombastic Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution (1937) and the cantata Hail to Stalin (1939). He made every effort to assist when the Soviet Union entered the war in 1941, providing dozens of smaller patriotic works. However, Prokofiev’s most important artistic responses to the Great Patriotic War were the two largest scores completed in these years, the opera War and Peace, and the Symphony No.5. In a postwar interview, he discussed the composition of the fifth symphony:


“When the Second World War broke out, 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 always work that way, and that is probably why I write so fast. The entire score of the Fifth was written in one month in the summer of 1944. It took another month to orchestrate it, and in between, I wrote the score for Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible ...  The Fifth Symphony was a very important composition to me, as it marked my return to the symphonic form after a long interval. I regard it as the culmination of a large period in my creative life.”


Several of Prokofiev’s colleagues and friends from these years have commented on his businesslike approach to composition—he apparently maintained a precise “9 to 5” schedule, with composition in the morning and orchestration in the afternoon. Even periods when his life was in turmoil seem to have left this schedule intact. Beginning in 1941, the Soviet government evacuated artists and composers out of Moscow to safer locations in the southern republics. Prokofiev moved almost constantly during the next five years, his marriage broke up, and he suffered a series of heart attacks, but still he remained extremely productive throughout the years of the war. One particularly fertile period was the summer of 1944, when Prokofiev was staying in Ivanovo, an estate managed by the Union of Soviet Composers. It was during this stay that he completed the Symphony No.5, a work that had been in the planning stage since the 1930s. Prokofiev conducted the premiere performance at a concert of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in early 1945, and the symphony was welcomed ecstatically by both the audience and the official critics. Tragically, this was to be Prokofiev’s last performance. He suffered a concussion soon afterwards, and during his last eight years, he was prevented from performing by ill health, although he continued to compose. In 1948, Prokofiev—who considered himself a Soviet patriot—was censured by the Politburo, along with Shostakovich and Khachaturian. That same year his estranged wife Lina was arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage and sentenced to 20 years hard labor. Prokofiev lived the rest of his life under a cloud of suspicion and largely withdrew from public life. In one of music history’s great ironies, he and Stalin died on the same day, March 5, 1953.


The Symphony No.5 is patriotic music on a grand scale, though there are hints of uneasiness, particularly in the soul-searching third movement. The opening movement (Andante) is in sonata form, but it is also a succession of long, arching melodies—“slowly singing strata,” in the words of one early critic—above a constantly shifting rhythmic and harmonic background. The opening theme is an asymmetrical melody that rises an octave and a half in the space of two measures. A bridge section, characterized by a rising bass line leads to the second main theme, a dolce melody introduced by the flute and oboe. The exposition’s closing section contains two new ideas: a forceful melody in dotted rhythms and a nervous sixteenth-note figure. Prokofiev’s development is concerned largely with the first theme and material from the closing section. There is a conventional recapitulation, and the movement ends with an exultant transformation of the opening theme.


The two central movements are a study in contrast. The second movement (Allegro marcato) is set in three-part scherzo form. The outer sections are loosely based upon two ideas: an ostinato-style bass line, and a shrill Russian-flavored dance. Prokofiev developed and varied both ideas extensively. The central trio presents a more lyrical melody that is tinged with humor. Many of the musical ideas in this sardonic movement were apparently leftovers from his work on the ballet score Romeo and Juliet in the middle 1930s.


After the witty scherzo, the Adagio is pensive and somber. The long, wandering first theme is presented by the clarinets and then repeated and varied. The dirgelike second theme contains references to both the first theme of this movement, and the main theme of the opening movement. A development section, which combines material from the transition and the second theme, builds gradually into a huge orchestral climax. The opening triplet figure returns, and there is a brief recapitulation of the first theme only. The coda introduces a final melody: a consoling answer to the first theme.


The final movement (Allegro giocoso) is a rondo. The quiet introduction gives no hint of what is to come. The violas abruptly break in with a rollicking eighth-note figure, and the sarcastic main theme of this movement is played by the clarinet. The next section contains a pointed staccato melody in the oboe and piccolo, and a lyrical figure played by the flute. After a return of the main theme, Prokofiev makes a startling change of pace. The central section is based upon a hymnlike melody that recalls the style of many of his patriotic vocal works. The movement continues with restatements of the main and second sections in the tonic key. The symphony closes with a massive coda, combining the hymn with elements of the main theme. Soviet victory was clearly in sight in 1944, and this symphony’s triumphant ending reflects optimism and joy after years of horrendous struggle.


program notes ©2019 by J. Michael Allsen