Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani, side drum, tamtam, castanets, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, bells, 2 harps; strings
Duration: 34 minutes
BACKGROUND – There is no doubt that Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich were two of the most important symphonists of the 20th century, but the unanimity ends there. Through the 1970s, their relative positions in the music world seemed clear, with Prokofiev the cosmopolitan international composer who knew how to handle the Soviet Union’s cultural bureaucracy, while Shostakovich was the prime example of the creative artist who was forced to compromise his artistic principles in the face of government threats to his friends, family and himself. All of that changed when Testimony, a volume purported to be Shostakovich’s own account of his life as a composer in the Soviet Union, became available in translation in the U.S. in 1979.
What did Soviet officials want from their composers? Music that was highly accessible to the proletariat and utile to the state, promoting the advantages of approved collective ideals and the values of the revolution. By the government’s reckoning, even non-programmatic music could conflict with these goals if it explored new ideas in composition, as both Prokofiev and Shostakovich wanted to do. According to Testimony, all of Shostakovich’s compositions after 1926, but especially his symphonies, were musical indictments of Soviet repression, and were constructed in a way that made his bold criticisms apparent to his audiences, but not to authorities. While the authenticity of Testimony has not been resolved, it has spurred re-evaluations of Shostakovich’s symphonies and Prokofiev’s, once considered less emotional and more “international” in style.
With reinterpretation of both composers’ works, Prokofiev’s were found to be more richly emotional than originally thought. But such considerations may be moot in the case of Prokofiev’s third and fourth symphonies, since these were based on musical materials originally developed for theatrical works, which were historically Prokofiev’s most popular and most emotionally transparent compositions. His Symphony No. 3 incorporated musical ideas from his score for the opera The Fiery Angel, which had been accepted by conductor Bruno Walter for performance in the 1927-28 season of the esteemed Berlin State Opera. Another misconception about Prokofiev, held over from his youthful post-conservatory days, was that he was something of an enfant terrible who composed what came easily to him. These symphonies, which show his care and craft in reworking narrative music in non-programmatic, symphonic form, contradict that idea.
The Fiery Angel was not staged during Prokofiev’s lifetime. An ambitious work set in the era of courtly love and chivalry, it combines a complex love story with lurid accounts of demonic possession, and has been called Prokofiev’s “craziest” score. But the Symphony No. 3 posed no such craziness, and received its premiere in 1929 by the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris under the baton of Pierre Monteux.
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR – If the Symphony No. 3 was born in a crucible of craziness, its construction shows little sign of that – though the music is, admittedly, quite intense. The introduction and development of thematic materials proceeds along traditional lines, but the resulting sound is hectic and almost scary. Few symphonies have a more emphatic opening, with violent chords sweeping through the orchestra. Tolling bells create a sense of foreboding that provides a foil for the formal symphonic development of the first movement, and an impression of force, energy and struggle – we’re reminded of the conflict, struggle and resolution of opposing forces in Beethoven symphonies – prevails until we arrive at the second movement. Here the music relaxes and takes an inward turn, and the booming energy of the first movement gives way to more delicate textures.
In the third movement, we hear hybrid elements from both of the movements that preceded it: though the textures are lighter than in the first movement, the sense of foreboding is back, as dithering strings create a chilling effect. They are intensified by insistent announcements from the brass choir and bass drum. Finally, in the fourth movement, Prokofiev reprises musical materials from earlier in the symphony, beginning at a comfortable andante pace and gradually accelerating, and we are left with the feeling that – despite the non-programmatic nature of the work – we have heard music with a narrative line. It’s almost as if we have experienced a ghost story in which the ghosts and the events are left to our own imaginations.