PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 6 / Waltzes, Op. 110
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Sergey Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)
Symphony No.6 in E Flat Minor, Op. 111
Six Waltzes, Op. 110
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estate manager. An only child, his musical talents were fostered by his mother, a cultured amateur pianist, and he tried his hand at composition at the age of five, later being tutored at home by the composer Glière. In 1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parents allowed him to enter the St.Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianist and as a composer until 1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented by Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer, arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, now director of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of The Scythian Suite, fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemption from military service by enrolling as an organ student and after the Revolution was given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originally commissioned by Dyagilev, the Classical Symphony and his first Violin Concerto.
Unlike Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia with official permission and with the idea of returning home sooner or later. His stay in the United States of America was at first successful. He appeared as a solo pianist and wrote the opera The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Opera. By 1920, however, he had begun to find life more difficult and moved to Paris, where he re-established contact with Dyagilev, for whom he revised The Tale of the Buffoon, a ballet successfully mounted in 1921. He spent much of the next sixteen years in France, returning from time to time to Russia, where his music was still acceptable.
In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country, taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first official onslaught on music that did not sort well with the political and social aims of the government, aimed in particular at the hitherto successful opera A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Shostakovich. Twelve years later the name of Prokofiev was to be openly joined with that of Shostakovich in an even more explicit condemnation of formalism, with particular reference now to Prokofiev's opera War and Peace. He died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin, and thus never benefited from the subsequent relaxation in official policy to the arts.
As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable The Fiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris the year after his death, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The last of his seven symphonies was completed in 1952, the year of his unfinished sixth piano concerto. His piano sonatas form an important addition to the repertoire, in addition to his songs and chamber music, film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes of the state. In style his music is often astringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn of melody and, whatever Shostakovich may have thought of it, a certain idiosyncratic gift for orchestration that gives his instrumental music a particular piquancy.
Prokofiev completed his Sixth Symphony in February 1947, in spite of recurrent illness. The work was explicitly condemned in 1948, although the immediate critical reaction had been very favourable. The composer himself saw the symphony as to some extent an elegy for the losses of war and he thought at one time of dedicating the work to the memory of Beethoven. It is scored for the usual pairs of woodwind instruments, with piccolo, cor anglais, E flat clarinet, bass clarinet and contra-bassoon. The brass section consists of three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, while the percussion section includes timpani, triangle, tambourine, side-drum, wood-blocks, cymbals, bass drum and gong, with celesta, harp and piano, in addition to the usual strings. There is a brief and startling introduction from the brass, with plucked notes from the lower strings, before muted violins offer the first theme. A melancholy second theme is introduced by the oboes. Cor anglais and violas usher in a mournful funeral march, with a use of trumpets, muted and unmuted, that suggests the writing of Mahler. The movement comes to a sombre conclusion. The following Largo opens ominously. The first theme emerges, for trumpet and first violins and leads to a less forbidding second theme from the cellos, abetted by the bassoons, and a lyrical element offered by the violins. There is a moving passage for the horns, before the final section of the movement, in which earlier material is recalled. The last movement returns to a happier world, the familiar mood of the Classical Symphony, at least in its first subject, with heavy-footed peasant interruptions. The upper woodwind provide further energetic material, with the assistance of interjections from the tuba. The movement continues its relentless course, propelled by motor rhythms that are so often a feature of Prokofiev's writing. Suddenly this comes to a halt and bass clarinet and bassoon lead to a return of the first movement second subject, played again by oboes in octaves. An ominous and insistent march rhythm, that had appeared in happier circumstances earlier in the movement is now used to provide a sombre ending to a symphony that laments the tragedies of war rather than celebrates victory.
The Six Waltzes that form Opus 110 consist of three waltzes from the ballet Cinderella, two from War and Peace and the Mephisto Waltz from the film Lermontov. Each dance was given a title and the whole suite was first performed in May 1947. The ballet Cinderella was completed in 1944 and first staged in 1945. The three waltzes are the Grand Waltz and Waltz-Coda in the second act of the ballet, the ball scene, and a slow waltz from the third act. Prokofiev's opera War and Peace had a less favourable reception. The possible use of Tolstoy's novel as the basis of an opera had occurred to Prokofiev as early as 1935 but it was during the war that he turned in earnest to the task, seeing in Napoleon's invasion of Russia a parallel with the assault launched by Hitler. Staging of the work proved difficult, largely owing to political intrigue. Scenes were performed in concerts in Leningrad in June 1945 and further scenes were staged in May 1946. He continued to work on the second part of War and Peace and various revisions, while completing the Sixth Symphony. The opera was never staged in the composer's life-time, although there were limited closed previews. The first waltz Since we met and New Year's Eve Ball are from War and Peace, the second, fourth and sixth waltz from Cinderella and the Mephisto Waltz, appropriately enough, from Lermontov.
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, known under several different names in the present century, has long had a special relationship with the music of Prokofiev. Once his international reputation was established, he often returned to his native Ukraine, whether as soloist or conductor or as a musician whose works formed the principal repertoire of a concert. There are those who still recall his return in 1927 as an accomplished composer, now sitting in the audience an