Prokofjev: Symphony No. 7
Recording with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, May 19, 2022, Gothenburg Concert Hall.
Prokofiev gave his seventh symphony a simple form with unusually transparent instrumentation and rather straightforward rhythms. One could say that the mighty Prokofiev who had become familiar over the years had given way to a resigned and nostalgic shadow. He was only 62 years old, but his final years were tinged by illness and he was aging quickly. At the same time, the symphony is unusually clear and immediately accessible, because the music was composed for children – it was intended for a children’s programme on Soviet radio. In any case, it was Prokofiev’s last entirely new piece. The premiere on 11 March 1952 was performed on Soviet radio and was the last concert attended by the composer; he died five months later.
He worried about the reception of the symphony – was it too simple? But he was met with positivity and this symphony would come to be played regularly. It was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1957. The first movement begins in C-sharp minor, with a theme that is more melancholy than tragic. The music gradually becomes increasingly restless as the strings take over the broad melody.
The allegretto is more of a waltz than the sarcastic scherzos to which listeners had become accustomed with Prokofiev. The andante begins tenderly and gradually presents numerous variations on the main theme. The vivace finale is playfully humorous and incorporates several spiritual themes. It even contains a brisk and vibrantly orchestrated march, until we finally rediscover the C-sharp minor of the introduction – which is how he intended to conclude the symphony.
But in rehearsals, he began to wonder if a more affirmative conclusion might in fact be preferable. Meanwhile, he kept the original ending, and noted that it could be used as an alternative. The result was a lyrical and easily accessible symphony, surely with memories of the 1948 attack, when the Soviet Politburo accused Prokofiev, Shostakovich and other modernists of “formalism”. Still, this symphony contains a great deal of substance and artistic elevation. Listeners do not particularly detect Prokofiev’s illness here, but he was in fact too weak to clearly write the score – a task carried out by his friend, pianist Anatoly Vedernikov.
Unfortunately, Prokofiev never got to experience the post-Stalin thaw – by chance, they died on the same day: 5 March 1953.