Neoclassical Era: Prokofiev

As we delve further into the Neoclassical era of music, you’ll notice a distinctly large Russian representation, and this is in part because of the censorship imposed upon artists and musicians in Russia during the interwar and postwar period. Composers in 20th-century Russia always lived with a looming, watchful government eye over their work, as the Soviet government wanted music in the USSR to be beautiful, consonant and traditional. Meanwhile, the recently ended Romantic period had created a trajectory of exploring dissonant sounds, new harmonies, and darker emotions expressed in music. What was a soviet composer to do?

Neoclassical-style music was the answer. The government would be happy with the music’s form-driven, clean structure, but the composer could “sneak in” some of their own true voice in the harmonies themselves. We saw this phenomenon last week with Stravinsky’s ballets, and this week we’ll look at how it influenced the works of Sergei Prokofiev. Stravinsky and Prokofiev were both permitted to leave the USSR, and I encourage you to take note of how their works compare to one another in sound, character, and how you feel when you listen to it, due to their very similar life paths. Still, their later years differ, and this may also be evident in their music. Stravinsky stayed away from the USSR for his entire later adult life, while the great depression severely impacted Prokofiev’s performances in the West and he returned to the USSR in his later years.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Pioneering Musical Sarcasm

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is known today as one of the major musical figures of the 20th century due to his fascinating sound; Prokovief’s works mix frivolous, fun-loving, almost fairytale-like wonder with immense dissonance, complexity and contrast. This cosmopolitain sound is a direct result of Prokofiev’s life in the United States and Germany, living outside the USSR for most of his adult life, before returning for government commissions.

Perhaps even more than Stravinsky, whose works were indeed dissonant, evocative and daring, Prokofiev adds biting sarcasm to the palette of emotions that music can express. Prokofiev also expresses melodrama, bitterness and heartbreak in more depth than Stravinsky, at least to me, perhaps because Stravinsky was more interested in the evocative power of rhythm and other structural, not emotional, elements of music. Not to say that Stravinsky wasn’t capable of emotional heft, but I hear more of it in Prokofiev’s music.

One final note of context for Prokofiev is that, after his return to the USSR as a successful but recently cash-starved composer in the West, he was one of several local Russian composers to be denounced as “degenerate” by the same government that invited him back in the first place. As part of the “Zhadanov Doctrine,” designed to censor art and culture in postwar USSR, Prokofiev and several other composers were given an ultimatum in 1948. They were accused of “formalism,” described as the “renunciation of the basic principles of classical music” in favor of “muddled, nerve-racking” sounds that “turned music into cacophony” (Tomoff, Kiril (2006). Creative Union: The Professional Organization of Soviet Composers, 1939–1953.) They had to publish prettier, less offensive music or face very serious consequences. Let’s see what kind of music was deemed so offensive by the Soviet government, but is so popular today.

Symphony Number 5 (1944)

Prokofiev’s most often-performed symphony is also one of the first works Prokofiev completed upon his return to the USSR after a life abroad. His experiences in Europe and the United states shines through in the emotional, colorful Fifth Symphony. I particularly enjoy the contrast between the movements, as well as the creative use of accompaniment, range, and harmony.

The first movement is marked at a slow tempo, and opens the work in what seems like a positive, panoramic light. One might imagine a film starting with music such as this. The use of exposed, dissonant lower strings adds an element of discomfort, or at least alerts the listener that this work was written not in 1744, but 1944! The commentary of snare drum rolls also creates an atmosphere of military-like presence, a popular theme in postwar Soviet music which has come to be associated with the oppression that composers and musicians felt. The rest of the movement makes use of all kinds of interesting, unique accompaniment lines under the original melodic material. The orchestral piano also adds unique color, as it is unusual (even still today) to have a piano as a member of the orchestra.

The second movement is the “Scherzo” of the symphony, and the quotes are there not to imply that it isn’t a scherzo, but to emphasize that this is a direct link to the Neoclassical concept of copying older formats. This movement is absolutely a scherzo, with short, energetic rhythmic patterns and an upbeat character. The dissonance is biting, especially in the melodies, which are based largely on half steps, chromatic motion between notes, and tritones, which are all traditionally displeasing intervals. The B section, or the “trio,” shows off Prokofiev’s time in the USA with a jazzy set of harmonies, bright orchestration, wood blocks, and an almost Gershwin-esque character.

The third movement is the emotional center of the symphony. It begins with a distinctive accompaniment pattern, active and expressive, and over this the clarinet presents the main melodic material for the movement. The strings quickly take over and in this passage I see Prokofiev’s mastery of emotional writing. The melody rises to sky-high pitches in huge, emotional leaps. Many of Prokofiev’s melodies are very difficult to sing along to, both due to the confusing smaller intervals and the massive leaps between pitches. A counter melody is introduced, and various combinations of instruments expressing both the main and contrasting melodic material adds orchestration interest to this movement. There is a shocking change of mood at climactic point of the movement, one of foreboding darkness, but it disappears as quickly as it came. The movement closes with a recap of the original material, with subtle hints from the disturbing climax added in as haunting, high-reaching runs in the cellos. Is all well? Or not?

The fourth movement opens with a cello chorus of the opening melody from the first movement, as if our film has reached a nostalgic close. The violas interrupt to begin on a completely different, new path, one similar to the scherzo. The skittering strings interact with sardonic, playful woodwind interjections. Despite the playful call-and-response structure, all melodic intervals are dissonant and jarring. The ear spends most of this movement wondering what to make of what it’s hearing, whether it’s a playful mood or one much darker. The end of the piece is a louder, more exciting iteration of this material again, with elements of earlier movements as well. Is this ending positive? Negative? And why are the snare drums (war, local oppression) and wood block (jazz, frivolity, the West) back, at the same time?

Perhaps the best word for it is simply, sarcastic.

Romeo and Juliet

Commissioned by the premiere ballet and opera theater in Russia (known today as the Marinsky Theater), Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was supposed to be an attempt to move back from works based on innovation and modernity (in line with the USSR’s vision of old-style, utopian sounds). Somehow, Prokofiev managed to write music inoffensive enough to skate by the higher-up scrutiny, but still thoroughly of himself in style. This is one of Prokofiev’s most popular works, performed not just as a full ballet but often as an orchestral suite. It has many similarities to the Fifth Symphony, with added playfulness to tell a “fairy tale.” This combination of small-scale, “kid-friendly” sounds, and immense emotional power when necessary, makes for a truly evocative work.

Some favorites from the ballet are the “Montagues and Capulets,” which depicts the bitter feud between the two families, the “Balcony Scene” in which Romeo and Juliet finally meet, and the “Death of Tibalt” (near the beginning) which is depicted almost as a crazed, fun-loving hoedown before the characters realize what has happened in the frenzy, and the mood darkens inconsolably. Enjoy this premier screening from the Royal Ballet in London as part of their response to the pandemic.

More Prokofiev

If you are curious about more of Prokofiev’s work, I recommend these below. Primarily a pianist himself, many of Prokofiev’s most personal works are for solo piano, or piano and orchestra. His second piano concerto, written for a friend who committed suicide, is intensely emotional and full of Prokofiev’s darkest harmonies as he responds to the death of his friend.

Finally, take a listen to Prokofiev’s Piano Sonatas number 6, 7 and 8, also grouped together and called called the “War Sonatas.” They have a complex relationship to the Zhadanov Doctrine. It is said that Prokofiev wrote these three sonatas with his “true feelings” despite the wishes of the USSR regime, and how ironic that Stalin himself loved one of these works. Sonatas number 6 and 8 were explicitly banned as degenerate, while number 7 was not only allowed to be performed but even won a “Stalin Award” for its appeal to the regime.

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