I never gave much thought to Prokofiev symphonies until my orchestra needed to hire a new conductor. We interviewed six semi-finalists and listened to them explain a sample program. Five of the six built their proposed program around Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony! We’re working on performing it now.
Prokofiev as symphonist
When Sergey Prokofiev first performed some of his piano music in public (in 1908) critics found it unintelligible. In response, he carefully maintained his reputation as an ultramodern radical.
After he had published 24 works, he decided to write a symphony. And what could have been more radical for a composer with his reputation than closely modeling it after Haydn? The Classical Symphony (his own name for it) gave him his first taste of international acclaim.
Most of the rest of his symphonies found much less success. The Second, Third, and Fourth earned such a lukewarm response that he stopped composing symphonies until after he decided to move back to the Soviet Union.
In 1944, 14 years after the premiere of the Fourth Symphony, Prokofiev again decided to write a symphony. The Third and Fourth had both been based on earlier dramatic compositions. So the Fifth was actually his first completely abstract large-scale work since the Second Symphony of 1925.
Soviet music was expected to portray heroism and the glories of communism. For Prokofiev and any other noteworthy composer, any apparent conformity to “socialist realism” was little more than a façade.
The premiere of the Fifth Symphony, however, took place just as the Russian army was beginning to repel the German invasion. It was immediately successful as a victory celebration. Far from being mere occasional music, has since become his most frequently performed symphony.
But if his first Soviet symphony kept him in the good graces of the government, the next was another matter. He tried to present the Sixth Symphonty’s unrelenting bleakness to the authorities as a reaction to the trauma of the war. They did not accept that explanation, and the work was quickly withdrawn.
Worse treatment at the hands of government officials soon followed, and the Seventh Symphony must be understood in that context.
Prokofiev’s last years
Josef Stalin and Andrei Zhdanov, the man in charge of Soviet cultural policy. attended a performance on January 1, 1948 of music they disliked. The composer was a non-entity, but with the war over, they decided to use it as a pretense to crack down on all Soviet composers.
Prokofiev, along with every other noteworthy Soviet composer, was denounced as an un-Soviet formalist. The Sixth Symphony headed a list of his works that Zhdanov’s group deemed worthless. That list, by the way, included a piano sonata that the government had earlier promoted as part of the wartime propaganda effort.
Zhdanov objected not only to the music, but also to Prokofiev’s bourgeois lifestyle. He wore foreign-made clothing and shaved with an imported electric razor! Prokofiev responded to the official condemnation with a letter of apology that must have been humiliating to write. It was widely published.
By this time Prokofiev’s health had broken. He had suffered a concussion from a fall shortly after the premiere of the Fifth Symphony and later developed severe hypertension. His doctors tried to limit the amount of work he did.
His political standing improved enough by 1952 that orchestras again dared to perform his music. His health had deteriorated greatly. Prokofiev’s final works include his Seventh Symphony.
One would hardly expect much of music composed under such a combination of bad circumstances. But one biographer writing in 1971 noted that the Seventh Symphony had “already conquered a large international audience.”
Prokofiev was well enough to attend the first public performance of the symphony. It was the last concert he ever attended.
The Seventh Symphony
Prokofiev announced in late 1951 that he planned to write a symphony for children. That must have been a sop to the censors. He submitted it to a committee meeting he was too sick to attend, but a performance of an adaptation for piano four hands won approval for a premiere to take place.
It looks like he put one over on the censors. What about an abstract work in a minor key is for children? On the other hand, it is one of the least complicated and most accessible pieces he ever wrote. It completely lacks the daring contrasts that mark so much of his music. Some writers have found it placid and lacking in energy and a poor way to end a distinguished career.
The first movement, in sonata form, opens with a serious, almost mournful theme in C-sharp minor. The broad and lush second theme, in F major, has a flurry of rapid figurations for its accompaniment.
Such an accompaniment could give the music a restless feeling, but here it’s more like swift but serene river. A third important thematic idea, in contrast, features very short bursts of chirping from the woodwinds. Although sonata form invites dramatic exploitation of thematic contrasts, Prokofiev hardly emphasizes them at all.
The second movement starts as a rather wistful sounding waltz, but it doesn’t take long for it to turn into a rollicking romp. Again, there are three main themes, along with a repeated-note motive reminiscent of the third and fourth movements of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This movement has perhaps more drama than the first, but no conflict. If the government was expecting the introduction of a joyful hero, they could have easily heard it here.
The third movement introduces and varies two themes. It begins in A-flat major and goes through several other major keys before returning to the original tonic. It is nominally the slow movement, but with a tempo of andante espressivo, it is not particularly slow. The overall mood is once again serene and calm. The major keys give it a more hopeful tone than the first movement.
It’s about time for something besides some kind of calmness, so the final movement begins with a mad dash. The opening theme comes close to being trite, but Prokofiev provides enough harmonic surprises and sudden key changes to maintain interest. Several other cheerful themes chase each other around for a while, but then a theme from the first movement returns, and the symphony ends as quietly as it began.
At least that’s what Prokofiev wanted. The conductor of the premiere asked for a more rowdy ending, so Prokofiev tacked on a few measures that restate the movement’s opening vivace . He hoped not only to satisfy the conductor, but perhaps win a Stalin prize. But then he told his musical friends that he disliked the fast ending and wanted them to make sure that it would not be published with the symphony.
No recording uses the fast ending, but it was published with the score. Some orchestras play it.
The symphony had a mixed initial reception. In Russia it became immediately popular and has remained so. Dmitri Shostakovich, among other distinguished musicians, appreciated it very much. It won the Lenin Prize in 1957.
Western critics almost unanimously dismissed it as a disappointment, an unworthy end to a distinguished career. That hasn’t kept orchestras from performing it and audiences from enjoying it.
Do you want a recording? Choose from 24 available recordings here.
Do you want a score?
Claude Samuel. Prokofiev (New York: Grossman, 1971)
Masayuki Yasuhara. Commentary in the study score (Tokyo: Zen-On Music)
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
Victor Seroff. Sergei Prokofiev: A Soviet Tragedy (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968)
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons