Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100
So popular was Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony that, within months of its American premiere, a portrait of the composer was featured on the cover of Time magazine, in November 1945. In a period when Russia and its people were still regarded as our allies in the victory over fascism, the Symphony was a hit at home and abroad, the musical celebration of the war’s conclusion. But was it that?
When we read about this work, we see again and again the same adjectives circling – “heroic” or “joyous.” And always in the context of a nation’s victory, a people’s victory – but was it that? The decades do not bring this enigmatic man or his music into precise focus; he seems to evade scrutiny.
We know that this four-movement Symphony was composed in the summer of 1944, shortly after the landings of Allied troops on the beaches of Normandy and throughout the westward pushes of the Russian forces toward Berlin. By the time of its premiere in Moscow in January of 1945 under the composer’s direction, distant celebratory artillery fire would cause Prokofiev to pause, arms raised, as he prepared to begin the performance – the Russian army had crossed the Vistula.
Certainly the Symphony opens with an upward soaring, unmistakably optimistic theme, and the grinding climax at the end of the movement is a crisis vanquished. The second movement is a nervous scherzo, a stark contrast to the doleful third movement. But is the victory described in the final movement a personal or a public conquest? Is this, as Prokofiev wrote, “a symphony of the greatness of the human spirit, a song of praise of free and happy mankind,” or is it, perhaps belying his official public statement, the struggle of the individual artistic spirit in the stifling confines of Stalin’s cultural stranglehold? The greatness of this Symphony is inherent in this ambiguity. It can support a number of interpretations and no single one of them can confine it or bind it to the ground.
As you listen to the rousing final minutes of this Symphony, and make no mistake, it ends with a thrilling bang, ask yourself what adjectives and nouns come to mind. Victory, escape, joy, frenzy, finality, vigor, closure, terror? — Grant Hiroshima