Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony

Tuesday, August 13, 2019 , 6:30 PM

Clyne: Masquerade

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

Anna Clyne (b. 1980)


Composed: 2013
Instrumentation: 2 flutes plus piccolo, 2 oboes plus English horn, 2 clarinets plus bass clarinet, 2 bassoons plus contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion (bass drum, suspended sizzle cymbals, castanets, 3 kazoos, snare drum, cowbells, crash cymbals, motor horn, whip, tam-tam, suspended cymbal, ratchet, vibraslap, triangle, tambourine), 2 harps, piano, and strings

Anna Clyne is a young British composer who relocated to New York for her music studies and has been earning a steady stream of accolades for her dramatic and communicative scores. Her music is eclectic but can be described as evocatively vivid, often combining acoustic and electronic media and crossing traditional genre boundaries. Clyne’s music has been featured by mainstream and experimental artists all over the world. She served as composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2010 to 2015, the youngest composer ever to hold the post, and went on to serve as composer-in-residence with the Baltimore Symphony and the Berkeley Symphony.

Her gloriously colorful Masquerade was written for premiere at the final concert of the 2013 London Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. The culminating concert of each season of the summer festival, known as The Last Night of the Proms, is a wildly popular affair, full of pomp and circumstance (both generally and Elgar’s), of revelry and good cheer, and of all things British. Clyne’s piece pays tribute to the roots of the Proms, as she explains:

Masquerade draws inspiration from the original mid-18th century promenade concerts held in London’s pleasure gardens. As is true today, these concerts were a place where people from all walks of life mingled to enjoy a wide array of music. Other forms of entertainment ranged from the sedate to the salacious with acrobatics, exotic street entertainers, dancers, fireworks, and masquerades. I am fascinated by the historic and sociological courtship between music and dance. Combined with costumes, masked guises and elaborate settings, masquerades created an exciting, yet controlled, sense of occasion and celebration. It is this that I wish to evoke in Masquerade…. It is an honor to compose music for the Last Night of the Proms and I dedicate Masquerade to the Prommers.

Clyne’s piece uses two main themes. The first, introduced by swirling strings, involves a sweeping chord progression that suggests an entry to a mythical, fantastic world. The second, entering about halfway through, is a little dance tune that Clyne based on the old English drinking song “Juice of the Barley.” As with most such ballades, the verses are endless and ever changing, but many versions seem to include the appropriately defiant refrain for Last Night:

I cannot go home, nor I will not go home,
It’s ‘long of the oyle of Barly,
I’le tarry all night for my delight,
And go home in the morning early


 Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

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

Composed: 1944
Instrumentation: 2 flutes plus piccolo, 2 oboes plus English horn, 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons plus contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 5 percussion (snare drum, bass drum, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, woodblock, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine), harp, piano, and strings

During the horrific worldwide conflicts of the 20th century, many working composers eschewed large-scale works for multiple reasons. On the practical side, it was extremely difficult to stage symphonic performances during times of turmoil due to the lack of musicians, venues, and funds. Often the composers’ own lives were thrown into disarray as they were forced to relocate (or were themselves imprisoned), cut off from the usual systems of support, and/or compelled to join in the war effort either through military service or patriotic musical contributions. Finally, composers who did have time and inclination to create new works during such historical moments seemed drawn to more intimate, personal reflections, saving their grander statements for retrospective post-war works.

There are notable exceptions to this generalization. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”) was likely conceived mostly prior to the Soviet Union’s entry into WWII, but his Symphony No. 8 was composed during the conflict (and censured by the government soon after). Stravinsky wrote Symphony in Three Movements after arriving in the United States in the early 1940s, a direct response to the violence engulfing the globe at the time.

By the time of the surprise Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941, Prokofiev was a national treasure in the Soviet Union. He had left Russia after the 1917 revolution, but returned in 1936 with promises of privileges and freedoms (which turned out to be only partially honored). Soon after the 1941 attack, Prokofiev was evacuated—along with other important artists—from Moscow for his safety. He spent the next several years moving from place to place in the Caucasus and Urals, in what is now Russia, Georgia, and Kazakhstan.

Despite this chaotic period of uncertainty, Prokofiev was surprisingly prolific during the war years. His efforts mostly focused on chamber music and propagandist works of Soviet patriotism (these latter works are mostly forgotten now). However, his Symphony No. 5 represents another exception in terms of both his own output at the time and the general wartime musical trends. The piece was written at breakneck pace during a single month in July 1944. By this time, the momentum of the war had clearly turned to the side of the Allies. At the beginning of the year, the Soviets had finally broken the 2½-year German siege of Leningrad, a disastrous blockade that had cost nearly 2 million lives. The D-Day landing in June and subsequent invasion was coordinated with a number of massive Soviet offensives on the Eastern front in June and July of 1944, sealing the Nazis’ fate.

Just three days after D-Day, Prokofiev had arrived at the Union of Soviet Composers’ summer retreat a day’s trip outside of Moscow, rustic farmland which Prokofiev affectionately referred to as the “State Chicken Farm.”  The 3-month stay in the company of great Soviet artists (including Shostakovich and Kabalevsky) was rejuvenating, Prokofiev noting, “Our room is big and quiet and they feed us wonderfully. Best of all is the forest with its fresh young leaves, profusion of flowers, and aroma of pine needles.”  Days were spent socializing and sharing ideas, playing volleyball (Prokofiev was terrible), playing chess (Prokofiev was quite good), and composing.

Prokofiev had completed his Symphony No. 4 in 1930, and the fourteen-year gap seemed to weigh heavily on him as he strived to create a work with appropriate sweep and depth. He wrote at the time:

I regard the Fifth Symphony as the culmination of a long period of my creative life. I conceived of it as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit… praising the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul.

Progress on the work was remarkably swift. By the end of July, he had played the first movement (on piano) for Kabalevsky who was deeply impressed, describing it as “humane.”  Before he left the retreat in August, he was able to play the entire symphony for a larger group of colleagues (performed in his “little peasant hut”). Kabalevsky reported: “The symphony made an excellent impression on all of us and we heartily congratulated him. He was very pleased, for he always (and rightly) considered the Fifth Symphony one of his best compositions.”

The opening movement, cast loosely in sonata form, is one of brightness and determination, creating the sense of clouds breaking after a long storm. The thematic material here is so distinctive and subjected to constant repetition and variation that tracking them might help the listener appreciate Prokofiev’s craft here. The two initial themes are closely related:  both striving upwards before floating back down gently (Themes 1A and 1B). Prokofiev introduces these separately, but quickly begins to use them in tandem. The lyrical, sustained F major melody (Theme 2) first played by flute and oboe follows quickly on the heels of this initial material. After a brief passage of climbing dotted rhythms (Theme 3), the music moves on to a section (the closing material of the exposition, Theme 4) that features quick staccato 16th notes (often hammering on the same pitch) over a low bass pedal. The development section creates a sonic collage of all the themes which end up working remarkably well together. After an unusually strict recapitulation, Prokofiev brings the movement to a rousing close by deconstructing Theme 1A and rebuilding it with a gradually thickening orchestral texture.

The second movement acts as the scherzo for the symphony. Continually oscillating staccato eighths permeate the texture throughout the A section, accompanying a tonally slippery melody which constantly seems to be dancing to a different place. The result is jaunty and humorous, but also disconcerting, edging towards menacing with the entrance of the martial percussion line. The middle section is framed by a woodwind gesture that resembles the flute opening of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (here without the sinewy mystery), but the heart of the section features one of the most delicious viola melodies in the symphonic literature. The return of the initial material emphasizes the more threatening side of its character, ending with relentless, emphatic chordal repetitions.

Far from a peaceful respite, the Adagio movement is eerie and unsettled. Prokofiev turns the initial theme—which could have become the basis for a lyrical meditation—into an anguished plea as the strings move to their upper tessitura in a polyrhythmic mélange that cascades downward into deep reverie. The stillness that follows feels like an emptiness that cannot be filled. In the middle section a dotted rhythm motive emerges that creates the feeling of a funeral march, though belied by its triple meter. The emotional unrest in this movement is raw, and Prokofiev allows the movement to speak its sorrow freely and broadly, ending with a note of optimism with a sublime rising clarinet line.

The overall effect of the energetic Allegro giocoso vanquishes the somber mood of the Adagio, restoring the more playful aspects of the second movement as it interweaves thematic elements from the opening Andante: a perfect finale. The slow introduction features a revisitation of the main theme in a rich arrangement for the cellos divided into four separate parts. The soaring primary theme enters after this in the clarinet and is enthusiastically seized by the strings. Prokofiev follows this with an incredibly rich array of complementary themes and motives that drive the movement forward in good spirits (and in loose rondo form). The movement builds to a frenetic closing section that evokes a kind of repetitive mechanized chaos—here, more likely to delight than menace—that resolves with an oddly dissonant chamber subset leading us to a final triumphant crash.


Program notes by Jon Kochavi