Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100

Written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

In the summer of 1944, Sergei Prokofiev was working on his Fifth Symphony at an artists’ retreat far outside Moscow, where he had been evacuated to safety from the war. On the other side of Europe, Allied troops were landing on the Normandy beaches, beginning the liberation of France. The following winter, when the Symphony premiered on January 13, 1945, Soviet troops were starting their final advance into German-held territory. Two weeks later, they would liberate Auschwitz. In the spring, they would reach Berlin, and soon the Western and Eastern Fronts would meet, sealing victory in Europe.

Unlike so much wartime music that reflects overwhelming horror and suffering, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 is filled with warmth and measured optimism. It seems to acknowledge the heaviness of the war while looking ahead to the future, and recognizing what was worth fighting for. “I conceived of it as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit,” Prokofiev said, “praising the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul.”

The night the piece premiered in Moscow, artillery fired a salute to the 1st Ukrainian Front, which had broken through German defenses hundreds of miles to the west. Time magazine later reported: “The first distant volley shook the hall. A lank, bald-headed man in white tie and tails… mounted the podium and stood with bowed head, facing the Moscow State Philharmonic. He seemed to be counting off the rumbles of artillery. At the 20th, he raised his baton and began the world’s premiere of his newest symphony. The bald-headed conductor was Russia’s greatest living musician, Sergei Prokofiev.”

The pianist Sviatoslav Richter was in the audience and also described the scene:

When Prokofiev stood up, the light seemed to pour straight down on him from somewhere up above. He stood like a monument on a pedestal. And then, when Prokofiev had taken his place on the podium and silence reigned in the hall, artillery salvos suddenly thundered forth. His baton was raised. He waited, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something very significant in this, something symbolic. It was as if all of us—including Prokofiev—had reached some kind of shared turning point.

The following November, after the end of hostilities in both Europe and the Pacific, the Fifth Symphony received its American premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Serge Koussevitzky. It was a tremendous success, resulting in the Time article with Prokofiev on the cover.

The Music

The symphony’s first movement is enormous in scale and lushly orchestrated. The opening Andante glows, working its way up to a climax of tam-tam crashes. The second movement, Allegro marcato, is more spritely, beginning almost like chamber music, and then gaining velocity through propellent motor rhythms. It cuts off abruptly, as if to say, “that’s enough.”

The third movement, Adagio, is reminiscent of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata in its lilting, nocturnal backdrop. Contrasting ideas intervene, but when the “Moonlight” accompaniment returns, it has become horrible and overwhelming. Finally it fades and moves on, dream-like. The finale begins with the cello and basses contemplating a return of the first movement’s main melody. But then the tempo picks up and starts to shake off enormous tension—the first celebration in a long time.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.