Prokofiev’s Symphonies: A Cycle for the Ages?

In classical music we refer to Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies, or Schumann or Brahms’ Four, or the Nine of Bruckner or Mahler.  To a lesser extent, the Seven of Sibelius are invoked, or the Fifteen of Shostakovich, the Three of Rachmaninov, or the Nine of Dvorak (though almost no one plays the first four).  Then there are composers who despite writing a good deal of symphonies, never composed a true “cycle” in the Romantic sense.  For many critics, a composer’s symphonies need to have some kind of consistency or development which makes them all of a piece, each one building on the other or reaching to some immeasurable height.  Beethoven’s Nine are all great statements, even the early, Mozartian ones; this is certainly true of Bruckner’s massive essays in symphonic form, as each one attempts to take up the struggle where Beethoven’s Ninth left off. So what do we do with someone like Prokofiev, who wrote seven magnificent, eccentric, erratic works which often defy categorization and are almost never played (and rarely recorded as a set).  Can we approach his symphonies are a cycle, though his approach to symphonic writing was haphazard and often blatantly theatrical (as several works borrow from his stage music)?  Or even more to the point, does a cycle have to consist of equally popular and lasting works, or can some have almost no identity outside of the cycle itself?  Here’s a quick look at Prokofiev’s seven—er, seven and a half—symphonies and why they should be considered as a cycle in their own right, as well as magnificent compositions individually. 

Symphony No.1 “Classical” (1917): Some argue that this isn’t a true symphony in the real sense, or perhaps shouldn’t be his true First Symphony.  Partly this is suggested by the title itself, “classical,” which suggests it’s a pastiche or a musical stunt (though it’s far more than either).  Prokofiev, the young Modernist, decided to compose, purely for the fun of it, a work infused with the spirit of Haydn and without a single overt Modernist gesture (well, there are a few, but they’re cleverly hidden).  He also struggled to avoid minor keys altogether, producing a brief, cheerful work that somehow seems to thumb its nose at the establishment.  Though it sounds nothing like Haydn, it has something of the high spirits of Schubert’s early symphonies, and a lot in common with Prokofiev’s wittier music of later decades, such as Lieutenant Kije or Peter and the Wolf.  The famous Gavottte (third movement) was later recycled in his ballet, Romeo and Juliet, for the Capulets to cavort to.  However, for my money the highlight is the gorgeous, singing Larghetto, which manages to be chaste and seductive at the same time.  This is music that reeks of the teens and twenties: bright, sophisticated, yet slightly decadent.  It is an unusual but fitting start to the cycle, and in some ways, its brightest point. 

Symphony No.2 (1924): There is no symphony like this in the entire repertoire, which is perhaps because it makes little attempt to be a symphony. Rather, it sounds like a Modernist ballet or film score, and it resembles Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring more than any other work.  This is not surprising, since Prokofiev saw Stravinsky as his chief rival in Paris, and hoped to one-up him by scandalizing the Paris elite with his “savage” creations.  His earlier attempt to do this, the Scythian Suite was based on a failed ballet, though it, too, contains the seeds of the Second Symphony.  Ironically, Prokofiev found inspiration for this work in Beethoven’s 32nd Piano Sonata, though beyond the structure there is scant resemblance.  The work is in two large movements, a fierce, abrasive Allegro composed of “storm and steel,” to capitalize on the “factory music” of the 20’s, followed by a magnificent Theme and Variations.  What makes the Second Symphony a remarkable work is its schizophrenic identity: the work is audacious and beautiful, savage and demure.  For all his Modernist credentials, Prokofiev was a Romantic at heart, and always gravitated toward melody; indeed, he is perhaps the greatest melodist that ever lived, on a par with Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Rachmaninov.  After the assault of the first movement (which seeks to out-Rite the Rite of Spring), the second movement opens quietly with an eerie, yet serene melody.  Prokofiev intended this melody for a string quartet using only the “white” notes of the keyboard, and it retains its chamber-like intimacy.  The subsequent themes develop this melody in increasingly spooky ways, as we move inexorably toward a bombastic conclusion (which can be overwhelming in some versions).  Yet it all ends quietly, as if Prokofiev fully intended to join ranks with the Parisian avant garde but lost heart in the end.  Instead, he settled for being himself, and the violence of this work seems curiously theatrical—as if responding to a scenario not shared with the audience, without which it remains a fascinating enigma. 

Symphony No.3 (1928): I regard this as one of his symphonic masterpieces, a highlight of the entire cycle, and a woefully ignored work in the symphonic repertoire.  Composed from the ashes of his failed opera, The Fiery Angel, it combines the “storm and steel” violence of the Second Symphony but marries it with the profound lyricism of Romeo and Juliet or his Second Violin Concerto.  The opera told a lurid tale of the Spanish Inquisition through a fin-di-seicle Gothic lens; so, too, does this symphony seem decadent and at times truly terrifying.  The first movement opens with “alarm” music similar to the Second, but this dies down into a haunting threnody containing some of his best orchestration.  Much of the drama of the opera is collapsed into this opening movement, leaving the listener exhausted before the symphony is even halfway completed.  The second movement, perhaps aware of this, opens with an another eerie, yearning melody like the theme and variations from No.2.  This, too, becomes increasingly dark, suggesting the supernatural (if not Satanic) forces at work in the opera.  The third movement is the most immediately striking, a sinister scherzo that Prokofiev apparently modeled on the finale of Chopin’s Sonata No.2—the “wind whispering through the gravestones.”  It’s chilling and macabre, and a fitting prelude to the cataclysmic finale, which echoes the mood of the first movement.  Despite its darkness, the symphony also points ahead to the mature Prokofiev of the 5th and 6th symphonies. 

Symphony No.4 (1929, rev. 1947): This is truly the “ugly duckling” of Prokofiev’s symphonies, as it is almost never recorded owing to its lack of symphonic development.  Critics dismiss it as a suite from the opera, or a mere rag-tag divertimento.  There is some truth in this, as Prokofiev hastily adapted music from his successful ballet, The Prodigal Son, to meet a commission for the Boston Symphony (then celebrating its 50th anniversary).  The ballet is an out-and-out masterpiece, full of characteristic Prokofievan touches—not least the gorgeous melodies—and it is understandable Prokofiev would want it to reach a concert audience.  While the symphony is somewhat lightweight, it still has considerable bite (as in the second theme of the first movement) and sparkles with sardonic wit.  The symphony opens with a gorgeous hymn, slow and solemn, which abruptly gear-shifts into the motor rhythms of the second theme.  It’s very dance-like and exciting, and if it does sound like Suite No.1 from The Prodigal Son, so much the better.  The slow movement is gorgeous, coming from the end of the ballet when the son returns to his father.  This is one of his timeless melodies and it alone justifies symphonic treatment, even if the melody isn’t developed as much as some might wish.  The scherzo is a witty, ‘diabolic’ dance in Prokofiev’s early manner, and the Finale comes from the beginning of the ballet, introducing another classic theme full of beauty and yearning.  The entire symphony lasts all of 25-30 minutes though feels like even less.  Perhaps aware of this, Prokofiev went back in his Soviet period (around the time of the Sixth Symphony) and thoroughly revised it, almost doubling its length and adding Soviet-style orchestration. In most respects, the revision surpasses the original: it feels/sounds more like a symphony, the themes are developed rather than merely paraded before the listener, and Prokofiev introduces many novel touches, particularly in the second movement (such as mysterious, percussive moments that echo the Sixth Symphony) and the third movement, which becomes more humorous rather than merely seductive (and which ends with a haunting coda).  Why the revision isn’t played more often is a mystery, since it ranks with the 5th and 6th symphonies as a major essay in modern symphonic form, as well as a testament to Prokofiev’s ability to recast ideas from one form into another without merely repeating himself.

Symphony No.5 (1944): His most famous symphony and clearly his “best” in the sense that it is memorable, well-constructed, and iconic.  The Fifth was Prokofiev’s “war” symphony, written at the very close of WWII which inflicted terrible suffering on the Russian people.  Prokofiev played up the importance of this work to the authorities (who no doubt expected a patriotic work), writing “I regard [this work] as the culmination of a long period of creative life.  I conceived it as a symphony of the grandeur of the human spirit.”  Perhaps, though the work is thoroughly Prokofievan in its mixture of comedy and tragedy, satire and pathos.  The first movement is certainly epic in tone, speaking of a grave struggle and countless sufferings endured.  Yet high spirits soon emerge as well as the voice of the earlier Prokofiev, whose melodies transcend war or tragedy.  The orchestration of this work is massive yet clearly articulated, including notable use of piano percussion, which we also heard in Shostakovich’s 5th symphony from 1937.  In many ways, this is Prokofiev’s “Shostakovich” symphony, as he is consciously channeling the sound of his younger colleague/rival to create a signature Soviet symphony.  In doing so he failed and succeeded in equal measure.  On a first hearing, it strikes the appropriate heroic note, though subsequent listens reveal innumerable touches of satire—and nowhere more so than the second movement, which sounds like a parody of a marching army (as Shostakovich would do in his Seventh Symphony).  The percussion in this movement increases the mock effect, as if Prokofiev knew he could get away with saying anything under the circumstances.  He tempers this with the third movement, which is truly, and almost unbearably, tragic.  The heart-rending theme has something in common with the lament over the dead soldiers in Alexander Nevsky, yet with the same ardor as the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.  The Finale brushes this aside with perky humor and the motor drive of the scherzo, ending in a mad dash to the finish that somewhat resembles the Finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth.  But whereas that symphony seems full of forced rejoicing (according to his alleged memoirs, Testimony), Prokofiev’s seems to rejoice at someone else’s expense, an almost malicious fist-waving at the Leader and Teacher, Stalin (though too artfully disguised to seem explicit).  Though perhaps this is reading too much into a symphony which, like Copland’s Third, seems to speak to everyman in terms he or she understands: passion, laughter, love, and hope. 

Symphony No.6 (1947): Though the Fifth is his masterpiece, the Sixth is Prokofiev’s most uncompromising masterpiece.  Here, he makes few concessions to his audience and (shocking for the time) attempts no mass appeals to Soviet patriotism.  Instead, like the dour symphonies of his comrade Mayakovsky, he wrote a grim-faced symphonic essay full of anguish.  The first movement is the most despairing music he ever wrote, again seeming to echo the first movement of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony (1939).  Gorgeous, haunted melodies topple over one another to be heard, yet uncharacteristically, Prokofiev seems to wallow in them, as if writing a very intimate expression of grief.  The second movement opens even more pessimistically, with a grand display of grief, though ultimately it turns into a kind of sad waltz, perhaps of long-lost memories of a forgotten age.  Only in the finale is this thrust aside with a galloping dance movement, a throwback to his Parisian period and works such as The Prodigal Son (not surprisingly, he was working on his revision of the Fourth Symphony at the same time).  Darkness creeps into this movement as well, but he is determined to end it with a smile on—though in this case, the smile may be painted on. 

Symphony No.7 (1952): What a departure from the last few symphonies to this one, his final essay in symphonic form.  The Seventh is a light symphony, apparently inspired by children, and perhaps a way to dodge internal accusations of “formalism” and “decadence” in his music.  Whatever the initial inspiration, Prokofiev managed to compose something entirely unique and unexpected, a work that breathes in the same innocent air of the First Symphony, yet speaks with the Soviet accent of his latest works.  Musically, it also resembles his penultimate ballet, Cinderella, where his spikiness is toned down to create a pastel-colored, yet often wistful musical landscape.  The first movement opens with a gentle, yearning theme which transforms—like Cinderella—into a gorgeous outpouring of happiness.  Clever rhythmic touches abound in this symphony, again betraying a ballet inspiration (perhaps the music was cobbled together from a potential ballet or film score?).  We hear this in both the dancing second movement, which whirls and soars, the gentle third movement, and the rambunctious finale.  Originally, Prokofiev ended the symphony in silence, but decided against this and composed a loud, affirmative coda.  The latter is usually played in concert and recordings, but both have their points.  Though this symphony seems more backward-looking than the contemporary work of his peers (consider that Shostakovich was writing his powerful Tenth Symphony at the time), it rounds out his unusual cycle, returning to the child-like innocence and wit of the First.  While other symphonies are individually more important, the Seventh is a hard symphony not to love, and showcases the incredible range of Prokofiev as a symphonist—a range matched only by a chosen few such as Beethoven, Mahler, and perhaps Shostakovich himself. 

Recommended Versions: Despite their lack of performances (aside from the 1st and 5th), Prokofiev’s cycle is slowly being recorded by enterprising conductors.  Some of the best include Neeme Jarvi and the Scottish NSO, Theodore Kuchar and the Ukranian SO, and Jean Martinon and the National Radio Orchestra of France.  I particularly recommend Kuchar’s disc on Naxos featuring the complete Prodigal Son ballet coupled with the 1947 revision of Symphony No.4, and Martinon’s dashing account of the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th symphonies on the Vox label.  Individual performances of the First and Fifth are legion, though two of the best are Karajan’s classic account (which either couples 1 and 5 together, or couples 5 oddly with The Rite of Spring), or Rattle’s account coupling 5 with the Scythian Suite.