Length: 43 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, wood block), harp, piano (= celesta), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 7, 1957, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting
About this Piece
Prokofiev made his initial impact as an iconoclast at home, in tsarist Russia, before the First World War or the 1917 Revolution. He left Russia shortly after the Revolution to make his reputation in the West and met with success as a composer, but even more as a pianist, before returning to the Soviet Union, disillusioned with Europe and America - perhaps more with himself, and the compositional rut he had entered.
As far back as 1927 the respected Russian (not always dogmatically Soviet) critic Leonid Sabaneyev remarked, "Deep down in Prokofiev... there lies hidden something far more profound and genuine than that to which he gives expression. There may suddenly unlock itself that 'holy of holies' of his inner essence which at present he so laboriously screens with all manner of sarcastic jests." The holy of holies was unlocked, but not immediately, when Prokofiev returned home in 1932.
Not quite knowing what to expect on his return, Prokofiev said what he thought his Izvestia interviewer wanted to hear: "In the Soviet Union, music exists for the millions who had formerly lived without or rarely came in contact with it. It is to these new millions that the Soviet composer must cater." His subsequent compositions glorified simple folk, the state, and their not-so-simple leader, Joseph Stalin. Whether they were from the heart or not, these scores at least bought him some peace from governmental interference.
Prokofiev would thereafter make public two rather disparate kinds of music: of a deeply lyric sort, exemplified by his ballet scores, chief among them Romeo and Juliet of 1936, and the Second Violin Concerto (1935), contrasted by - with a considerable assist from World War II - the piano sonatas Nos. 6, 7, and 8: He could get away with writing such harsh music as the sonatas because, in official eyes, it "realistically depicted the enemy" or the "emotions of turmoil." The hugely successful Fifth Symphony, of 1944, is a further synthesis - a coming together of virtually every element of Prokofiev's personality to date, all within the framework of a heroic, but by no means hackneyed, Russian symphony.
The Sixth Symphony dates from a more conflicted time, 1947: postwar Stalinism, the Cold War. It plays its emotions close to the vest. The Symphony was, surprisingly, well-received by the press and the cultural commissars when Evgeny Mravinsky conducted its first performance in Leningrad in November of '47. By the time of the Moscow premiere, a month later, official attitude toward the arts and artists - Stalin unwittingly paid artists the great tribute of fearing their influence - had changed drastically. The notorious Congress of Composers, presided over by Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's artistic hatchet-man, was taking shape and would damn to hell the music and musicians who/which did not adhere to certain guidelines as to what was "morally acceptable." As a foretaste of the Congress, the Sixth Symphony was cold-shouldered in Moscow. Later it - and its composer - would be scathingly denounced for having committed the cardinal sin of creating "anti-Soviet," i.e., downbeat, or at best insufficiently upbeat, art.
The Sixth opens darkly, sternly (unlike its celebrated predecessor, the Fifth Symphony of 1944, or its successor, the Seventh of 1952 - the composer's last), in the low strings with an idea more suggestive of some gigantic, lurking subterranean beast than the sun-dappled cornfields of Soviet official dreams. When it is followed by a gentle, innocently lyric theme, one might suspect that a sly parody is being played out. But that 6/8 tune in fact becomes the movement's principal theme, developed in a manner than brings to mind Mahler (a composer more commonly associated with Shostakovich), transformed into something faintly menacing. The movement, like much of the Symphony, is unsettled, unsettling in the wide range of emotion - and tonality - presented.
Movement two opens with a cry from the heart, approaching hysteria when the woodwinds set up their shrieking. But, again, a contrasting melody, announced by the low strings, a "love theme" of the Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev's) sort, breaks the tension.
The finale begins in the composer's purest fun-in-the-fields vein, with a Peter and the Wolf-like role for the clarinet, until, with a master's subtlety, the first movement's second theme - but at its least frivolous - begins to bubble to the surface. The vivace material is then reintroduced and the Symphony ends on a cheerful, E-flat, note.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.