Program 5

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major, Op. 10

Composed in 1912.

Premiered on August 7, 1912 in Moscow, conducted by K.S. Sarajev with the composer as soloist.

Sergei Prokofiev kept a scrapbook of the reviews of his performances and compositions. There is nothing unusual in this practice, of course, except that Prokofiev saved only the most scathing comments and ignored the congratulatory ones. A special place in his collection must have been occupied by the words of the American critic who castigated the First Piano Concerto with the puzzling epithet: “If that is music, then I really believe I prefer agriculture!” Prokofiev had his supporters as well as his detractors, however, and the most important of these boosters were the enthusiastic audiences that heard his early concerts in Russia. The academics huffed and puffed over the scandalous way this young upstart flouted their tidy system of rules and the critics were too busy chasing the snappy bon mot to penetrate to the essence of the music, but listeners simply sat back and enjoyed the fresh, brilliant, invigorating works of this young iconoclast. The audience proved to be the wisest of the three.

Prokofiev began his First Piano Concerto at the age of nineteen, while he was still a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, headed at that time by the estimable but conservative Alexander Glazunov. Having given the Concerto’s public premiere at a summer park concert in Moscow in 1912, Prokofiev submitted the score when he needed a work for his graduation performance competition two years later. Since students usually chose a concerto from the Classical literature for this purpose, a piece that the jury would know well, Prokofiev’s selection presented him with something of a problem. The judges could hardly be expected to evaluate him from a work with which they were unfamiliar, so the school required that he provide a full score to each of the panel members a week in advance. Prokofiev did not want to miss this opportunity to startle the more staid among this august group, so he cajoled Peter Jurgenson, who had already published a selection of his solo piano pieces, into printing the Concerto. To Prokofiev’s delight, Jurgenson agreed. “When I came onto the stage,” he later recalled, “the first thing I saw was my Concerto spread out on twenty professorial laps — an unforgettable sight for a composer who was just beginning to see himself in print.” Prokofiev won the competition, though by a split decision, and proudly claimed the impressive first prize, a grand piano.

In his autobiography of 1946, Prokofiev wrote of his single-movement Piano Concerto No. 1, “The First Concerto was perhaps my first more or less mature composition both as regards the conception and its fulfillment. The conception is expressed, first, in some of the means used for combining piano and orchestra, and, second, in the form; a sonata-form Allegro with the introduction repeated after the exposition and at the end; a short Andante inserted before the development; development in the form of a Scherzo; and a Cadenza to introduce the recapitulation. True, this form was criticized on the grounds that the Concerto consisted of a succession of unrelated episodes, but these episodes were held together quite firmly.” Prokofiev’s description indicates a strong sonata-allegro element in the structure of the Concerto, but the work is really too sectionalized to qualify as a full-fledged realization of that venerable form. What it does possess of that procedure is the return of the beginning themes to round out the composition and a certain developmental elaboration of its melodic materials.

Though the three sections separated by silences comprising the First Concerto grow from the fast–slow–fast ordering of the Classical form, the work is also akin in its scale and structural logic to the one-movement symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. The Concerto opens with a sweeping, athletic theme, which is heard again to close the first fast section. The four episodes that occur before the repeat indicate that Prokofiev’s individual style was fully formed by even this early time in his career. The slow central section, music not untouched by the Romanticism of Rachmaninoff, displays a secure sense of harmony and orchestration. The concluding fast section recalls the four earlier episodes, somewhat elaborated, and the Concerto closes with the grand melody with which it opened.

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26

Composed in 1921.

Premiered on December 16, 1921 in Chicago, conducted by Frederick Stock with the composer as soloist.

In a 1962 interview, Madame Lina Llubera Prokofiev, the composer’s first wife, recalled her husband’s working method at the time he wrote the C major Piano Concerto: “Prokofiev toiled at his music. His capacity for work was phenomenal. He would sit down to work in the morning ‘with a clear head,’ as he said, either at the piano or at his writing desk. He usually composed his major works in the summer, in the mountains or at the seaside, away from the turmoil of city life. Always he sought places where the rhythm of work was not interrupted, where he could rest and take long walks. So it was with the Third Piano Concerto, which he completed during the summer of 1921 while staying at St. Brévin-les-Pins, a small village on the Atlantic coast of Brittany in France.”

The composition of this Concerto was not a sudden inspiration for Prokofiev. The plan for a large virtuoso work to follow the first two piano concertos emerged in 1911, but he made little progress on it except for one passage he eventually placed at the end of the first movement. By 1913, he later recalled in his memoirs, “I had composed a theme for variations, which I kept for a long time for subsequent use. In 1916-1917, I had tried several times to return to the Third Concerto. I wrote a beginning for it (two themes) and two variations on the theme for the second movement.” At that time, he was also working on what he called a “white” quartet (i.e., in a diatonic style, playable on the white keys of the piano) but abandoned it because he thought the result would be monotonous. He shuttled two themes from this aborted quartet into the Concerto. “Thus,” he continued in his autobiography, “when I began [in 1921] working on the Third Concerto, I already had the entire thematic material with the exception of the subordinate theme of the first movement and the third theme of the finale.”

Prokofiev completed the Third Concerto in time to take it on his 1921 American tour, which also included the world premiere in Chicago of his opera The Love for Three Oranges. The excitement (and publicity) surrounding that production generated a sympathetic interest in the new Concerto played by its composer, and the work was a considerable success at its first performance. Despite a cool reception when it was introduced to New York only a month later, this Concerto has become one of the most popular works of 20th-century music, and is a staple of the concert repertory.

Prokofiev provided the following description of the score: “The first movement opens quietly with a short introduction (Andante, 4/4). The theme is announced by an unaccompanied clarinet and is continued by the violins for a few bars. Soon the tempo changes to Allegro, and the strings have a passage in sixteenths, which leads to the statement of the principal subject by the piano. Discussion of this theme is carried on in a lively manner, both the piano and the orchestra having a good deal to say on the matter. A passage in chords for the piano alone leads to the more expressive second subject, heard in the oboe with a pizzicato accompaniment. This is taken up by the piano and developed at some length, eventually giving way to a bravura passage in triplets. At the climax of this section, the tempo reverts to Andante, and the orchestra gives out the first theme, fortissimo. The piano joins in, and the theme is subjected to an impressively broad treatment. In resuming the Allegro, the chief theme and the second subject are developed with increased brilliance, and the movement ends with an exciting crescendo.

“The second movement consists of a theme with five variations. The theme is announced by the orchestra alone, Andantino. In the first variation, the piano treats the opening of the theme in quasi-sentimental fashion, and resolves into a chain of trills, as the orchestra repeats the closing phrase. The tempo changes to Allegro for the second and third variations, and the piano has brilliant figures, while snatches of the theme are introduced here and there in the orchestra. In Variation Four the tempo is once again Andante, and the piano and orchestra discourse on the theme in a quiet and meditative fashion. Variation Five is energetic (Allegro giusto). It leads without pause into a restatement of the theme by the orchestra, with delicate chordal embroidery in the piano.

“The finale (Allegro ma non troppo, 3/4) begins with a staccato theme for bassoons and pizzicato strings, which is interrupted by the blustering entry of the piano. The orchestra holds its own with the opening theme, however, and there is a good deal of argument, with frequent differences of opinion as regards key. Eventually the piano takes up the first theme and develops it to a climax. With a reduction of tone and a slackening of tempo, an alternative theme is introduced in the woodwinds. The piano replies with a theme that is more in keeping with the caustic humor of the work. This material is developed, and there is a brilliant coda.”

Symphony No. 6 in E-flat minor, Op. 111

Composed in 1945.

Premiered on October 10, 1947 in Leningrad, conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky.

Israel Nestyev headed the chapter of his biography of Prokofiev dealing with the composer’s life from 1945 to 1948, “The Difficult Years.” In January 1945, Prokofiev conducted the premiere of his Fifth Symphony with great success, and it seemed that, at age 53, he had many years of untroubled service to Soviet music in his future. Such was not to be the case. Only two weeks after the Fifth Symphony was introduced, Prokofiev was leaving a friend’s Moscow flat when he was suddenly stricken with a minor heart attack. He lost consciousness, fell down a flight of stairs, and was taken to the hospital, where his heart condition and a concussion were diagnosed. From that moment, his vigorous life style and busy social and musical schedules became things of the past. “Almost everything that made his life worth living was taken away,” wrote Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson in their study of the composer. “He was forbidden to smoke, to drink wine, to play chess, to drive a car, to walk fast or far, to play the piano in public, to conduct, to stay up late, to excite himself by much conversation, to travel more than a few miles.” He spent the rest of his life — he died in 1953, on the same day as Joseph Stalin — in and out of hospitals, constantly taking precautions against a relapse.

Late in the spring of 1945, Prokofiev went to the country retreat at Ivanova provided by the government for Russia’s professional composers, and began there his Sixth Symphony in glad response to the end of the Second World War. He suffered almost daily from blinding headaches, and was further troubled by bitter frustration over his semi-invalid state. “Nevertheless,” recalled the composer Dmitri Kabalevsky, who was also then residing at the Ivanova compound, “Prokofiev did not give up, did not lose his optimism, his joy of life, his courage and youthful cheerfulness, and a phenomenal capacity for concentration on his work.... His whole existence, all his energies, his entire mode of life were directed to one aim, of saving for his works all the strength he had left. At times it seemed as if he knew that his malady would defeat him in the end and was deliberately hurrying to get all his ideas down on paper before it was too late.” He guarded his health jealously, with one exception. While in the hospital and under orders not to do any work, he would post any trusted visitor at his door as guard and scribble a theme into the notebook he kept hidden under his pillow.

Prokofiev went back to his beloved Moscow in the fall, continuing work on the new Symphony. He was too ill, however, to participate in the bustling artistic and social life of the capital, and his condition was so severe that it even prevented him from attending the premiere of his opera Betrothal in a Monastery at the Kirov Theater and a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Bolshoi. The commotion of Moscow proved too much for his fragile health. Early in 1946, he moved to Nikolina Gora, a country village outside the city, and it was there a year later that he completed the Sixth Symphony. He found strength enough to travel to Leningrad for the premiere, one of his few public appearances after the onset of his illness. Initial reaction to the new work was favorable, and most saw the music as a continuation of the epic grandeur of the Fifth Symphony. Only four months after the premiere, however, Prokofiev along with Shostakovich and other prominent Russian composers were vehemently condemned for writing what the government abstrusely called “formalistic” music. Positive critical evaluations of the Sixth Symphony were hastily withdrawn, “corrected” judgments issued, and the work was assigned to temporary oblivion. The Russian public, however, continued to look upon Prokofiev as one of the country’s greatest creative artists, and showed a steadfast interest in the man and in performances of his music. Officialdom was forced to back away from its denunciation to such a degree that Prokofiev was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1951, only three years after he had been told the most adventurous aspects of his music “must be liquidated.”

Several stylistic streams flow into the Sixth Symphony. Israel V. Nestyev wrote, “It seems as though the two Prokofievs, old and new, were engaged in a struggle with each other, revealing in the course of this struggle both powerful, genuine lyricism and sudden outbursts of unrestrained expressionism.” The composer offered a vague clue to the underlying meaning of juxtaposing such differing moods: “Yes, we are rejoicing in our magnificent victory [that ended the war], but thousands of us have been left with wounds that can’t be healed — health ruined for life, dear ones gone forever. We must not forget this.” (In the Symphony’s jubilant finale, he said he brought back the sombre music of the opening movement to remind those who listened that thankfulness for the victory must be tempered by thoughts of the price paid to achieve it.) Nestyev felt that the Symphony showed Prokofiev’s “desire to carry on the tradition of lofty intellectualism and profound tragedy that characterized Beethoven’s later works.” Indeed, Prokofiev thought at one time about dedicating the score to the earlier master, since fortune decreed that its opus number — 111 — was the same as that of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, one of the Russian composer’s favorite pieces.

Prokofiev had only a terse comment about the musical nature of his Sixth Symphony: “The first movement is agitated, at times lyrical, at times austere; the second movement, Largo, is brighter and more tuneful; the finale, rapid and in a major key, is close in character to my Fifth Symphony, save for reminiscences of the austere passages from the first movement.” The main theme of the first movement is ambivalent in character, a curious blend of slow march and lugubrious lyricism. The second theme (Prokofiev’s “austere” music), presented by the oboes in stark octaves, is more flowing and melancholy than the opening melody. One of Prokofiev’s distinctive ticking, motoric constructions occupies the central portion of the movement. The recapitulation of the main theme, here given an extensive developmental treatment, culminates in searing unison blasts from the horns. The second theme is recalled by the solo horn before a coda based on the rocking rhythms of the main theme draws this darkly powerful music to a close.

The second movement is steeped in the same expansive atmosphere as is Prokofiev’s magnificent ballet Romeo and Juliet. Its structure comprises several sections arranged in a symmetrical, arch form whose central portions are marked by a strident passage for full orchestra (note the entry of the woodblock) followed by a bittersweet tune for the horn choir.

The finale is based on two themes: the first is a raucous ditty strutted out by the violins; the second, initiated by the solo bassoon above a skeletal string accompaniment, is filled with long-sustained notes and quick leaps. These two moods — the bumptious and the lyrical — are juxtaposed and combined for most of the remainder of the movement. In the closing pages, the oboes recall the “austere” theme of the first movement to inject a moment of thoughtful remembrance into the joyous finale. The tempo freshens, the finale’s theme returns, and the Sixth Symphony is brought to a rousing conclusion by a brief, whirling coda.

©2013 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

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