Prokofiev’s Last Symphony

Photograph of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. Dated 1950.

Sergei Prokofiev was truly one of the most remarkable composers of the 20th century. His signature disjunct melodies and quirky, perky compositional style is so interesting and unique that his music is instantly recognizable, even today. When critics complain that the wellspring of current musical idioms has become exhausted or derivative, along comes a composer like Prokofiev who surprises everyone and does something completely different. That is why I believe that even within established musical forms it is possible to invent something completely new and exciting—it just doesn’t happen very often.

Regrettably, no English-language documentary about the life and music of Prokofiev has ever been produced. While we wait for someone to do that, perhaps Robert Greenberg might add another excellent installment to his “Great Masters” series for The Great Courses by profiling Sergei Prokofiev in eight 30-minute episodes as he did for Shostakovich, Brahms, and others.

Sergei Prokofiev composed his last completed work, the Symphony No. 7, between December 1951 and July 1952 at the age of 60-61. Its first public performance in Moscow on October 11, 1952 would be the last public performance Prokofiev would attend. He died less than five months later.

Dmitri Shostakovich attended the premiere, and quickly sent a letter of congratulations to Prokofiev, “I wish you at least another hundred years to live and create. Listening to such works as your Seventh Symphony makes it much easier and more joyful to live.” Shostakovich would attend Prokofiev’s funeral in March 1953.

Iconic photo of the three greatest 20th-century Soviet composers, together. Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). Dated 1940.

The most inspired recording I have ever heard of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrew Litton conducting. Even though I was already familiar with this work, listening to this performance was like hearing the work for the first time. This interpretation is intimate and compelling.

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The last years of Prokofiev’s life were difficult ones. His health was deteriorating and Stalin’s terrible regime was a constant threat and source of anxiety. Official disapproval had led to a life of poverty for Prokofiev.

With that as a backdrop, Prokofiev was eager that his new symphony would be well received by the authorities as well as the public, hoping that it would earn him a First Class Stalin Prize—he needed the money. But like Shostakovich, Prokofiev took his symphonies seriously, pouring his heart and soul into them while cleverly embedding what he wanted to say musically in a way that would elude the authorities with their limited musical sophistication and intelligence.

Prokofiev even wrote two endings for the symphony. The “real” ending and a contrived ending to please the authorities and help him win the prize. (He did not win the hoped for Stalin Prize, but he was posthumously awarded the Lenin Prize for this symphony in 1957.)

Prokofiev told his friend, the young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, “Slava, you will live much longer than me, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me.” As Andrew Huth writes in the liner notes, “Both versions of the ending are included on this disc so that listeners can judge the very different effect each makes.” Track 9 is the final movement of Symphony No. 7 played again with the alternative ending that Prokofiev wrote to please the authorities.

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) with Sergei Prokofiev

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