Monday, August 22, 2011

Reading Prokofiev's Second

Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote his Second Symphony in Paris over a strenuous nine-month period in 1924-25. It was dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky, one of the great supporters of the major composers of his time, who conducted its premiere in Paris in mid-1925. Though it has never been very popular, and at the time of its first performance was met with sharp criticism, Prokofiev's Second has grown in the estimate of serious music lovers ever since.

Structurally modeled on Beethoven's last piano sonata, this symphony consists of only two movements: the first a taut, stormy, and dramatic sonata-form movement; the second, a set of variations whose depth of introspection provides a counterweight to the first. In spite of its reputation as the most brilliantly original of Prokofiev's seven symphonies, it is among the least performed because, frankly, it is a very strong flavor. The composer himself confessed that he didn't entirely understand it.

Here is a recording of Movement I for you to try for yourself.From this you can perhaps understand why Prokofiev described his Second Symphony as being made of "iron and steel." It is driven by almost incessant rhythmic energy. Its instrumental colors have a metallic brilliance. Its contrapuntal texture is thickly busy. Its harmonies, though tonal, are full of spiky dissonance. And its themes have a nervous edginess about them. An imaginative listener could hear in this music a grim musical landscape of a machine-driven world in which colossal forces are always colliding. Individuals in this world must either work at a fevered pace to fuel these machines or be crushed under their wheels; or, perhaps, by clinging to them with a white-knuckled grip, they may be carried along by the momentum. It's a tough, gritty movement dressed in shades of red, gray, and black, with a powerfully masculine energy that only thinly conceals a strain of neurotic anxiety. Not what you would expect in a great symphony, it's not entirely pleasant to listen to, but—and there's no use trying to explain this—I like it more every time I hear it.

Here is the the beginning of Movement II, which Youtube breaks into three segments.It is twice as long as Movement I, but its breadth and depth balances perfectly against the concentrated kinetic force of Movement I. It begins with a broad oboe theme, repeated by the strings, in a mood of outward calm. Variation 1, beginning around the 2'30" mark, has a more brooding aspect, with the theme in the low strings under an accompaniment that sounds vaguely troubled. A faster variation starts around 5'20", moving from an air of nervous lightness into a more heavily frenetic mood. Listen for motives from the theme being passed around the orchestra. Variation 3, coming in at about 7'30", carries forward the same energy but with a harsher mien. Instead of Variation 2's vision of ambiguously malignant fairies buzzing around the bottom of the garden, the evil pranksters depicted in the third variant have hobnailed boots on. What do you think is going on in the bassoon solo at the end of this variation?

Here is the second Youtube segment of Movement II.Other users have left some interesting comments on this video, in reference to Variation 4: "Magical and acid... It's like Prokofiev is poisoning me, killing me softly. So, so beautiful, yet malevolent..." My comment in reply: "Malevolence I don't get from this. Perverseness, maybe. Elegant, lyrical, serene wrongness." The lush harmony and orchestration of the accompaniment cannot overcome the fact that it is in the "wrong" key for the theme, and the result is something peaceful and lovely, yet at the same time strangely out of order. Truly remarkable music! Then at 5'45" in the above video comes Variation 5, whose headlong vehemence conceals the shape of the original theme so well that it all but disappears altogether.

Here is the third and last segment of Movement II.Variation 6 opens in the orchestra's lowest register, soon adding its highest register with nothing in between. With gathering energy, ideas from the first movement work their way into the argument, eventually combining with a statement of the variations' theme. The drama continues to build, pitting different instrumental choirs against each other (brass vs. strings, etc.), until the conflict reaches a pounding climax, about 4'10" in the present video. Then the mood relaxes again and the original oboe theme returns as at first. The movement concludes with a low-key coda full of ominous ambiguity.

Prokofiev himself didn't think as much of this symphony as his most appreciative fans do today. Its premiere was not a happy event, and subsequent performances have been rare. The composer meant to revise it into a three-movement work late in his life, but he didn't live long enough to do so. So we are left to wrestle with the work as he first wrote it in the prime of his creative life. I think it is worth wrestling with, especially compared to some of Prokofiev's other symphonies, which are uneven in quality and sometimes show scant effort to create anything original or even worthy of the name Symphony. And I also think we can be grateful that Prokofiev did not subject this symphony to the same kind of "socialist-realism" redaction as his Fourth Symphony. Better that it should remain as it is, with all the uncompromising pessimism of its first movement and the disturbing beauty of its second.

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