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20 Aug 2019

PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 5

by Michael Clive

Performance time: 46 minutes

Prokofiev would compose seven symphonies in all. His fifth took shape while World War II was still raging, fourteen years after he published his Symphony No. 4, and in its ardent expression of idealism and humanistic affirmation, it may be heard as a statement of patriotism and a vision of a more peaceful world. Freshness and energy are characteristic of all Prokofiev scores; but where some of his major works — for example, his five great piano concertos — thrill with their power and percussiveness, others are written in a more lyrical style.  The latter group includes his popular ballet scores, which shine with narrative expressiveness and singing melodies. His Symphony No. 5 combines all of these qualities.

Despite the horrors and privations suffered by Soviet citizens during the war, music historians tell us that Prokofiev produced the Symphony No. 5 at one of the most optimistic moments of his life. He wrote it in an impassioned burst of creativity during the summer of 1944, reportedly in a single month. In a note on the score, he wrote that he intended the symphony as “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit…I cannot say that I deliberately chose this theme. It was born in me and clamored for expression. The music matured within me. It filled my soul.”

Sergei Prokofiev

Like many of Shostakovich’s political symphonies, Prokofiev’s fifth was intended to console and uplift the listener, a testament to art’s ability to inspire us at times of desolation. We hear this most clearly as the first movement draws to a close; following a long and formally constructed development, the recapitulation and coda come to us with sounds of triumph expressed through the brasses and percussion that seem to confirm what is most noble in the human spirit. In the second movement, Prokofiev’s characteristically driving rhythms — composed at a time when Soviet citizens were exhausted nearly beyond human endurance — seem to energize us as we listen. While the eloquent third movement can be heard as an unflinching depiction of war’s brutal realities, the final movement’s gathering energy gives rise to a profusion of orchestral color that blazes with excitement for the future. In its totality, the work is a towering symphonic assertion of humanism and of triumph over despair.