Spring Symphonies: 24/60 Prokofiev: Symphony No 6
When Sergei Prokofiev returned from a regime blessed existence for 18 years in the musical hot spots of America and Europe in 1936 he must have known what he was doing. The apparatus for State approval of music was in place, Stalin had been in charge for more than 10 years and the warnings of other artists must have been ringing in his ears. He may have been home sick. The results were to change his vision of success and of course the Soviet state artists had a particularly acute perception of the suffering and turmoil of war and it’s its terrible aftermath in the Soviet Union.
As Alex Ross details in his excellent account of this period in “The Rest is Noise” Soviet musicians paid with their lives for their art. Prokofiev’s survived the war but suffered the peace - it was not how it was supposed to be. The post war years suffused with illness, musical disenfranchisement and poverty. The establishment turned against him just after this symphony was written n 1947.
The ultimate bit of bad luck was the death of Stalin on the same day as the chronically ill composer at the comparatively early age of 61. His death was a footnote in most periodicals: according to one source one of the leading music periodicals carried Stalin’s death on the first 115 pages with Prokofiev’s death reported in a note on page 116.
The Second World War had a huge effect on Soviet artists and the political establishment - the latter used the former. Prokofiev’s piano sonatas 6, 7 and 8 form a picture of his war years which is immediate and terrifying but ultimately optimistic. His symphonies 5 and 6 paint (within a constrained view applied by State sanction limits for expression) a similar picture. But in all Soviet high art of the time we must be alert for irony - the shared language of the knowing. Prokofiev and Shostakovich became masters of ambiguity in these dreadful post war years.
The Sixth symphony was written in 1947 an elegy it is said. There are three movements with no obvious scherzo.
The ambiguity is clear from the start - conductors have some very difficult choices to make and these can make or break a reading. For example the opening “fanfare” is biting in some readings but more of a lethargic drudge in others - the difference is telling. The music of the first group is dynamic but unsettled, that of the second group is wistful, simple and nostalgic. Its return about 8 minutes in is much more energetic and distinctly less ambiguous - interjections from the vast percussion section make it clear this is a dance of death or some such ghoulish celebration. The return of ten second group is much more straightforward. And the music in between is either almost on a chamber scale or utilising every force at his disposal - including a piano to especially telling effect. The coda is is underpinned with some snarling brass and the dance in more hectic mode momentarily but the movement subsides into a decayed version of the slow tune and surprisingly a feeling of calm.
The slow movement starts on a discordant shout and this unwinds in several directions. A trumpet led tune of many moods - again reinforcing ambiguity. it dwindles to nothing with a guarded assurance. Prokofiev is a master of the slightly unsettling transition - it’s maybe a feature more of his later music - he can maintain a smile but hide more turmoil behind his eyes than those who muster great forces can do overtly. A sign of the time he lived I’m sure. The movements has a little mechanical outburst - no guessing what part of the Soviet system that might represent. Horns usher in another ambivalent passage - nothing feels quite real here. It is a stroke of genius I think that this music can seem beautiful and desultory at the same time. The ending is sublime and equivocal.
The finale starts like a scherzo and drops into a trio like section to match - but then goes on to flower as a single movement. It shoots out the blocks and has much of the élan and character of his earlier works - much as I love the orchestration here I’m still tone by the potential for this to have been composed as a series of empty-gestures. And therein I suspect we get a a feel for the subtlety of our response to music on close acquaintance but also we see how the Soviet authorities might have seen this all as showboating. In the end I pump for Prokofiev’s over-riding talent to please with scores which intrigue, excite and enjoy. The slow section just before the explosive final passage, is I suspect based on a folk melody and probably says something more about Prokofiev and the love of his country than all of the politics in the rest of the symphony. Its heart rendering and tragic at the end of its outbursts - cries for something. The coda is terse and I think bloody minded.
Some will say that this is Prokofiev’s last great work: his Seventh symphony an assemblage of tunes written for the low paid work which Prokofiev was able to get as a punishment for writing notes on a stave the tone of which some people didn’t like. The dazzling career in Paris, Hollywood and across Europe long behind him, with illness a perpetual problem and the establishment against him his final years must have been hellish. But he was home.
Here’s Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting it, in Russia in the Soviet era. Make of it what you will. It is a great symphony.