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

Great Courses Launchpoint

The Teaching Company, LLC offers hundreds of video courses under the name “The Great Courses” on just about every subject imaginable, with more being added all the time.

Though offered for personal in-home viewing, these 30-minute lectures (or 45-minute in the case of Robert Greenberg’s engaging music courses) would make a wonderful centerpiece for a continuing education course.

As an instructor, what I would like to be able to do is show my class a Great Courses lecture, and then follow that with discussion and activities that reinforce and expand upon those  concepts during the remainder of a 60-minute or 90-minute class.

Not unlike what a good teaching assistant does in a college recitation section after a lecture by the professor, The Great Courses lecture would provide instructional scaffolding for both instructor and student.

I believe The Teaching Company has a great opportunity here.  Just by allowing an instructor to show a course to students (and charging a reasonable fee to do so), they would be opening up a new market for their products, and would no doubt bring in many new individual customers.

The Teaching Company could provide the courses “as is”, or could make available supplemental materials for the continuing education teacher and their students.

I even have a name for this new offering: Great Courses Launchpoint.

Currently, The Teaching Company doesn’t exactly encourage the use of their materials for face-to-face teaching:

My hope is that they will see the value of incorporating their video lectures into the classroom, and maybe Great Courses Launchpoint will roll out by the time I semi-retire in three or four years.  One of the frustrations of getting older is that my “day job” is taking a greater share of my time and available energy than ever before.  I love teaching, though, and semi-retirement will afford me the opportunity to begin teaching on a regular basis again.  Looking forward to it!

Shostakovich – Symphony No. 4

The Fourth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was completed in May 1936, but had to be withdrawn before it was performed due to the withering criticism and scrutiny Shostakovich was at the time receiving from Joseph Stalin and his increasingly repressive government.  This symphony did not receive its first public performance until 1961.  To get a sense of the enormous difficulties Shostakovich had to endure under the Soviet regime—and the extraordinary music of one of the 20th century’s most gifted composers, and indeed the last great symphonist—I highly recommend Robert Greenberg’s eight-part video course, Great Masters: Shostakovich – His Life and Music.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

The Fourth Symphony is certainly not one of Shostakovich’s more accessible works, but I want to draw your attention to the remarkable, ethereal conclusion of this symphony that few have ever heard.

My entire Shostakovich collection was lost in the Memorial Day weekend 2015 Houston flood, and I’m gradually trying to replace it.  I am currently listening to all fifteen Shostakovich symphonies in an excellent box set, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007).  Rostropovich was a close friend of Shostakovich.

Here is the final 4m45s of the third and final movement (Largo — Allegro) of the Symphony No. 4 in C minor, op. 43, by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich.  Turn up the volume—after the first couple of seconds, it is all very quiet.  Enjoy!

Einstein, Brahms, and Exoplanets

What do Albert Einstein, Johannes Brahms, and exoplanets have in common?  They are all great courses provided by The Great Courses.

Call me old fashioned, but I love a great lecture presented by an expert in the field.  What a wonderful way to get introduced to a new subject, or refamiliarize yourself with an old subject, or deepen your knowledge about a subject with which you are already familiar.

I recently finished watching the magnificent course “Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian” by Don Howard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, former Director of Notre Dame’s Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science, and a Fellow of the University of Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.

I have taken an interest in Einstein since I first encountered relativity in my early teens, and of course being a physics major in college I became much more familiar with Einstein’s remarkable scientific contributions.  But this course surprised and delighted me with many details about Einstein himself.  Howard obviously has a much deeper understanding of Einstein the person than most physicists do, and his enthusiasm for his subject comes through in every lecture.  I doubt you will find a more thorough treatment of Einstein anywhere short of reading a biography.  Recommended!

As luck would have it, while I was nearing the end of this course, Time came out with an updated reissue of its special edition, “Albert Einstein: The Enduring Legacy of a Modern Genius”.  Great photographs, great text.  Well worth every penny!


Robert Greenberg is music historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances and has produced a lot of high-quality music courses for The Great Courses.  I am in the process of watching all of them (yes, really, they’re that good!).  Recently, I finished his course on Johannes Brahms, who is probably my all-time favorite composer.

The music of Brahms is well known by many, but how much do you know about Johannes Brahms the person, and the events of his life?  This course is the perfect introduction to those subjects, as well as his extraordinary compositions.

It is amazing to me that no one has yet made a feature-length film about the life of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  A historically accurate dramatic portrayal could easily become one of the most significant musical film biographies ever made.  Brahms was one of the greatest composers who ever lived, and he had an interesting life—there is much material to draw upon for the making of this movie.  Greenberg’s course is a great place to begin, and I would also recommend the definitive biography, “Brahms: His Life and Work” by Karl Geiringer.


You’ve just got to love The Great Courses.  This is what television could have been.  PBS is the only thing that even comes close.  I recently completed “The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know” presented by Joshua Winn, now Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University.  Not since Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson have I been this excited about an astronomy presenter.  Josh Winn presents his exoplanets course with enthusiasm, precision, and a delivery that really draws you in to the subject.  I hope we see much more of him in the future.

Electronic Music

If you haven’t experienced any of the wonderful music courses taught by Dr. Robert Greenberg, available through The Great Courses, you’re missing a lot.  In episode 1, “The Language of Music”, of Understanding the Fundamentals of Music (Course No. 7261), Greenberg describes music not only as a language, but as what I would call a superlanguage.

Music is the ultimate language, a mega-language.  A language in which our hard-wired proclivities to use successions of pitches and sounds to communicate are exaggerated, intensified, and codified into a sonic experience capable of infinitely more expressive depth and nuance than mere words alone.

Greenberg goes on to present a definition of music that is far better than any you will find in the dictionary.

Music is sound in time, or, if you prefer, time ordered by sound.  That definition isolates the two essential aspects of music, sound and time, without any qualifications.

After defining timbre, Greenberg presents the five families of instruments in the Western musical tradition.  Aside from the human voice, they are

  1. Stringed instruments
  2. Wind instruments
  3. Brass instruments
  4. Percussion instruments
  5. Keyboard instruments

And, Greenberg states,

If this course had been written back in the 1970s or ’80s, it would have included a sixth instrumental category: electronics.  There was a genuine belief back then that digitally synthesized sound was the wave of the future.  And that an entirely new vocabulary of sound, one relevant to the technocracy of the modern world, was just around the corner.  You know what?  It never happened.  As it turned out, composers prefer to write for real people playing real instruments.  And audiences would rather listen to real people playing real instruments.  Ironically, more than anything else, digital electronics are used today to imitate those “antiquated” instruments that they were purportedly going to replace.

Though I certainly agree that electronic music will never replace natural instruments played by real people, and I hope that orchestral and chamber music will be with us centuries hence, I have no doubt that new instruments will occasionally be invented and join their venerated ranks, and that electronic music will one day garner enough respect that it will take a permanent seat as a sixth instrumental category.

The world has yet to see a composer of electronic music that can be considered on equal footing with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, or Mahler.  But it will happen.  Perhaps, even today, there lives a young girl or boy somewhere in the world who is already on the path towards becoming the world’s first great composer of electronic music.

Isao Tomita (1932-2016), of Japan, has arguably come the closest.  Yes, his music is idiosyncratic, and his best work a reinterpretation of existing orchestral pieces, but when you listen to Tomita at his best, you get at least a sense of what is possible within the electronic idiom.  Who wouldn’t be tempted by the ability to create any tone color or instrumental timbre imaginable?  It’s not for everyone, I know.

Here is a sampling of Tomita’s best work:

Snowflakes are Dancing (1974)

Pictures at an Exhibition (1975)

Firebird (1976)

Tomita was a pioneer.  The best is yet to come.