War is the background of this work, the greatness of the human soul its overall theme. The composer considered it “very important not only for the musical material that went into it, but also because [he] was returning to the symphonic form after a break of sixteen years”. Sergei Prokofiev labeled his Symphony No. 5 in B flat (Op. 100) as the culmination of an entire period in his work, it remains until today one the most best-known and most frequently performed symphony.
Prokofiev’s biographer Harlow Robinson observes that the 45 minutes long piece has its roots in the late Romantic tradition of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. At the same time the composer used parts of the iconic Soviet musical vocabulary, these massive and patriotic elements expressed by the combination of winds and percussion, and touches of irony elements as they have been conceived earlier by Dmitry Shostakovich. I have listened many times to the recording by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa and each time I have been a little more impressed.
Prokofiev and the Socialist Realism
Symphony No. 5 came into being in 1944, almost a year after the battle of Stalingrad, that turned the tide on the Eastern front. Soviet armies had liberated most of the Soviet Union’s territory that had been occupied by the German armies, the Allies had landed on the coast of France, victory seemed close and Prokofiev had every reason to be aggressively optimistic. He wasn’t blind to Stalin’s autocratic rule, but he certainly was proud upon the heroic struggle of his countrymen against an enemy deemed invincible at the beginning of the Nazi invasion.
While Prokofiev had found a way to reconcile his music ideas with the ideal of “Socialist Realism”, Moscow’s official cultural policy, it did not prevent the Communist Party to condemn him and his works three years later. At the same time it was innovative enough for Robinson to conclude that “even as most twentieth-century composers were turning away from the symphony, dismissing it as an exhausted form, Prokofiev was exploring its undiscovered possibilities”, just as Shostakovich did.
The “white heat of inspiration”
The symphony was written at lightning speed within a single mont of the summer of 1944. Prokofiev was totally focused on this work – Robinson speaks of the “white heat of inspiration” – and tolerated no distraction. In July he would decline an invitation of the producer Sergey Eisenstein to discuss his soundtrack for the movie “Ivan the Terrible” with the words. “Its composition is proceeding at full speed, and I can’t possibly break it off to switch over to Ivan the Terrible. I’m sure that you’ll understand.” he finished the orchestration by November and the symphony would see its premier in January 1945.
I would like to close this post with the central credo of Prokofiev for it may attenuate the bewilderment that the music’s harsh contrasts and deep emotionality may trigger: “It is the duty of the composer, like the poet, the sculptor or the painter, to serve his fellow men, to beautify human life and point the way to a radiant future. Such is the immutable code of art as I see it.”
© Charles Thibo