Prokofiev’s misunderstood seventh symphony

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev finished his seventh symphony in 1952. Written for young listeners at the end of a tragic and repressive Stalinist era, it is often criticised as simplistic or banal. But still waters run deep.

With the onset of the Cold War, Stalin isolated his people from the countries of the West, extolling the superiority of Communist culture and ideology. Chief architect of the return to Soviet orthodoxy in the arts was Andrei Zhdanov, then a member of the newly reformed Politburo. Zhdanov systematically went through works of literature, film, and art, publicly denouncing artists with ties to the West. In early 1948, he attacked the composers Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian for being cosmopolitan and formalist.

The effect on Prokofiev (left), weakened by illness, was demoralizing and he only made a few half-hearted attempts to defend his music. Out of official favour, he struggled to balance his artistic credo with his love of Russia. To appease the Party, Prokofiev churned out a series of bland patriotic works, including the opera “Story of a Real Man” (1948), Winter Bonfire (1950), and the oratorio “On Guard for Peace” (1950). Then came the seventh symphony, which was premiered as part of a radio programme for children and because of this it has been called the “children’s symphony”. The orchestration includes high-pitched bells or chimes of the kind that might be found in a nursery. The symphony is written in one of the bleakest keys in music – C sharp minor – which is disconcerting because childhood is usually expressed in C major. Or was Prokofiev lamenting the loss of childhood in the Soviet Union?

The seventh symphony is a combination of beautiful but nostalgic melodies. Its darker undercurrents have been persuasively revealed by conductors such as Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Klaus Tennstedt, Mariss Jansons, and Valery Gergiev. Much of it is emotionally ambivalent, despite the seemingly romantic nature of its lyrical first theme on violins, contrasted with a warmer, second theme on cellos. After a brief development section, the two themes reappear before the movement ends in deep reflection with glockenspiel and xylophone.

The second movement is a delightful, autumnal waltz, reminiscent of Prokofiev’s ballet “Cinderella”, while the third is an expressive, reserved slow movement. The finale, in C-sharp major, is all fun and rambunctious cheerfulness until the return of the warm cello theme from the first movement, after which the symphony fades away with the same distant bell-like sounds as the first movement.

After the premiere, Prokofiev was persuaded to devise an alternative, energetic coda, which he did in order to win the Stalin Prize of 100,000 roubles (Prokofiev was living in poverty at the time). But just before he died in 1953, Prokofiev told his friend, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (seen with the composer, right), that the original ending was to be preferred. According to Daniel Jaffé in his book Sergey Prokofiev (2008), he said, “Slava, you will live much longer than I, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me.” Unfortunately, both versions survived and audiences are apt to miss the point when the quiet ending is abandoned.

Reminiscing about Prokofiev in 1954, Rostropovich wrote, “Listening to his music I am always reminded of his manner of speaking – witty, candid, at times brusque, but often gentle… this man who was at once a great composer and a human being with an ageless, crystal-pure spirit.” Prokofiev’s underrated seventh symphony may, in fact, be his greatest.

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