Symphony No. 7
Length: 32 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet,
2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, tambourine, snare drum, triangle, xylophone), timpani, piano, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 10, 1955, Alfred Wallenstein conducting
Prokofiev returned to Russia in 1933, and the decade-and-a-half that followed saw the composer produce some of his greatest music, including the ballet score Romeo and Juliet, the film scores Lieutenant Kijé and Alexander Nevsky, the opera War and Peace, and the Symphony No. 5. Each of these works confirmed his position as one of Soviet Russia's leading composers, a figure of international stature. But an event in 1948 that initially had nothing to do with Prokofiev called all of that into question.
The premiere of a new opera by a young composer at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater was the match tossed into the powder magazine, so to speak. Stalin was in the audience, and he was infuriated by the opera's inadvertent exaltation of one of his most hated rivals. In the purges of musicians that followed, many less prominent figures were arrested, and much of Prokofiev's music was proscribed. In another indication that his former privileged status was a thing of the past, Prokofiev's first wife Lina was arrested (they had separated in 1941), charged with espionage, and sent to Siberia. For the remaining five years of his life, Prokofiev would live in poverty and fear, sometimes on the verge of starvation, composing to the very end.
The Seventh Symphony was Prokofiev's last completed major work. It was written for the Soviet Children's Radio Division, but the simplicity of the composer's approach in the work often conceals deeper expressive currents. Though the Symphony adheres to the typical four-movement layout - opening movement in sonata form, scherzo, slow movement, and finale - it is hardly an easy work harmonically, with its home key of C-sharp minor.
The Moderato opens with an emotive string theme that sounds more wistful and nostalgic than anything else. This mood dominates for much of the movement. The only material in the movement that sounds at all "childish" is first introduced at the end of the exposition by flute and glockenspiel, and even this will take on greater weight when Prokofiev revisits it in the finale.
The second movement, a spirited waltz, shows Prokofiev's mastery of the orchestra with its abundant imaginative instrumental effects - languid winds, comic bassoons and trumpets, rushing strings, and so on - and recalls some of his more successful ballet music. The ensuing Andante espressivo is warm in tone and almost pastoral in character. Moments such as the soaring outburst from the cellos over a trudging ostinato about a minute and a half into the movement recall the mood of the Symphony's opening Moderato.
The rambunctious finale, with its galloping main theme, chugs along in delightful perpetual motion for most of its eight-odd minutes. Prokofiev seems to revel in enchanting instrumental combinations and in playing around with the theme - a march here, a bit of the dance hall there. In the work's coda, Prokofiev brings back a rapturous theme from the opening movement before revisiting that little flute-and-glockenspiel motive. Here, unsettled by shifting harmonies and punchy brass chords, this material takes on a different significance, bringing the Symphony to an enigmatic close.
During rehearsals before the work's first performance, the conductor suggested that Prokofiev rewrite the ending to make it more uplifting, since this could mean the difference between a first-class and a third-class Stalin Prize. The first-class Prize carried a 100,000 ruble reward, so Prokofiev submitted to the suggestion. This revised coda, published as a supplement to the Symphony's score, simply tacks on a return of the finale's opening material to the end of the movement.
-- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.