SchPro P2

Severance Hall
March 12 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

March 13 – Friday at 11:00 a.m.*
March 14 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 

Evening Concerts Only

Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Opus 40

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
composed 1924-25

At a Glance
Prokofiev wrote his Symphony No. 2 in 1924-25 during what the composer described as “nine months of frenzied toil.”  It was premiered in Paris on June 6, 1925, conducted by Serge Koussevitsky.  

This symphony runs about 35 minutes in performance.  Prokofiev scored it for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and english horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tambourine, triangle), piano, and strings.

The Cleveland Orchestra is presenting Prokofiev’s Second Symphony for the first time with this season’s concerts, in Miami in January, and in Cleveland and Europe this month.

About the Music
Prokofiev’s Second Symphony is a magnificent example of the craze for “machine music” that gripped composers — and the public — in the 1920s.  Steam trains had been represented in songs and piano pieces since their invention, but the idea of noise as an aesthetic concept belongs wholly to the period after World War I, when mechanisms of progress and industrialization — including aeroplanes, motor cars, and factories — suddenly provided modernist composers with a fresh source of inspiration.  The craze was especially virulent in France and Soviet Russia, offering up some incredible works, noises, and sounds.

Machine music was, in many ways, in direct conflict with the ideals of 19th-century Romanticism and turn-of-the-century Impressionism.  Its deliberate noisiness and its inescapably rhythmic beat were intoxicating elements — and a direct answer against earlier, lusher music.  

Some composers, especially in Italy, explored non-musical noises, including foghorns, sirens, and whistles.  Soviet composers were encouraged to applaud the work of hydroelectric dams and large-scale machines in the guise of orchestral music.  

In the meantime, French musicians favored making traditional instruments imitate clocks, hammers, and other mechanics or tools.  Ravel wrote an article titled “Finding Tunes in Factories.”  (Of course, there were some precedents, from the anvils in Verdi’s famous “Anvil Chorus” or in Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold, or the shoe cobbling of Hans Sachs in Act Two of Die Meistersinger.  But those were simple devices of everyday use, before the interlocking mechanisms of gears, furnaces, or waterworks increased the noise effect of industrial machinery manyfold.)

American composer George Antheil toured London, Berlin, and Paris in 1922-23, giving concerts that featured compositions with titles including Mechanisms and Airplane Sonata.  

At the time, Swiss composer Arthur Honegger was completing his famous Pacific 231, which represents a mighty steam locomotive getting up speed and, at the end, braking to a halt.  It first “pulled out of the station” and got underway at a concert in Paris under Serge Koussevitsky’s baton on May 8, 1924. 

Honegger and Prokofiev were friends.  Both had recently visited Russia, and both were alert to the latest aesthetic trends.  Directly inspired by Honegger’s pieces, and by the many new musical ideas and experimentation that were happening at the time, Prokofiev composed his Second Symphony, describing it in a letter as his symphony “of iron and steel.”  The music was not specifically related to machines, but was clearly inspired by the era’s cult of and fascination with mechanistic rhythm and brutal noisiness.

Listening to the music
All that said, hold on to your seats and don’t let the music’s violence scare you!  Its unrelenting rhythm, its heavy textures, and its loudness are reinforced by intense dissonance, with crunching harmony high in the trumpets or low in the trombones or everywhere all at once.  Think of it, yield to it as an experience. 

This is music that is exhilarating and exciting.  All in all, it is a virtuoso performance in audacity and cheek.  The better an orchestra manages to play its challenges, the clearer the line is drawn between music and noise. 

Much of the point was, in fact, to signal that this is modern music.  The year was 1925, and this was Prokofiev proving that he can be more advanced — or brutally noisy and clankery-clangy-bangy — than Stravinsky.  That he could, in short, shock the intelligentsia as well as the bourgeoisie.  

Of course, not even in the first movement can the heavy artillery keep firing throughout.  There is a very short moment where the tempo slackens, and later, some longer moments where the texture thins.  Yet with only one or two prominent thematic ideas — a downward glissando in the trumpets, the octave leaps in the violins — the music is powered not by themes and keys, as a conventional symphony might be, but by power itself. 

Why Prokofiev chose to model the second movement as a theme and variations is a mystery, for although it provides some welcome repose after the bludgeoning of the first movement, the new mood does not last — and soon again every opportunity for renewed violence is seized.  (Some commentators have suggested that Prokofiev modelled the Second Symphony on Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Opus 111, in key structure and the use of a theme and variations format.  Franz Welser-Möst says he is reminded of yet a different Beethoven sonata, the Hammerklavier, Opus 106, for the kind of wild and audacious experimentation that Prokofiev — and Beethoven — pursued in these two pieces.)

  The musical theme or melody/motif of the second movement, begun by the oboe, is long and elegant, not unlike some themes in Prokofiev’s later symphonies.  Its comfortable harmony is welcome.  In the first variation, the theme is heard in the lower strings, with delicate counterpoints wandering above and below it.  The second variation is more inventive, with some remarkable textures in the strings. 

In the third variation, a quicker tempo is reached.  There are hints of forceful dissonance, but the temperature is largely under restraint. 

The fourth variation is a beautiful Larghetto.  Yet this is the last chance for our ears to enjoy a peaceful resolution, because the fifth variation brings back the main sense of madcap activity and crunching dissonance, which was apparently merely taking a brief break.  Things intensify even more in the sixth variation, which builds to the most overwhelmingly brutal climax of all. In the midst of such turmoil, the theme can be heard, shouted out by trumpets and horns.

The return of the theme itself offers much needed consolation (for our ears and minds), and the music ends on a magically mysterious chord in the strings, played pianissimo.      

Hugh Macdonald © 2020

Reflections on the Machinery of War 

Franz Welser-Möst talks about Prokofiev’s Second Symphony

Prokofiev’s Second Symphony consists of just two movements.  The first of these is often described as being preoccupied with the fascination that artists of the time had with the growing world of machines.  The second movement — built as a theme and six variations — is said to have a connection to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.  As far as these ideas go, this is all true.  Yet I believe the symphony is also very much a commentary on the changing world of that particular era.

This symphony was written seven years after the end of the First World War.  The Roaring Twenties were in full swing.  It was an incredibly energetic, uncertain, and event-filled time.  

What I hear in this music is a fascinating examination both of the World War itself and a reflection on how it changed people’s views, how life had changed.  This is a piece that displays a far-sighted view of Modernity, and which shows us 

an Expressionist spirit that is still deeply moving — and disturbing — today.

The first movement begins with shrill fanfares of war, with the machinery of war moving immediately, inexorably, mercilessly, and relentlessly forward.  We hear dark brass choirs, influenced by Russian Orthodox church music.  We hear a melody complaining loudly in marching rhythms.  Cynical waltzes gives us the image of dancing on the fire of a volcano.  The whole thing ends in the key of D minor, symbolizing death.

The second movement features a reverberant theme played by the oboe (somewhat akin to a melodious idea from the first movement).  The music then illuminates this theme in different ways, as variations do:  first it lurks in shadows; then shows itself idyllically (here we hear a birdsong and the murmur of the wind); bizarre sections follow, sounding like a Scherzo, in a great lament, with flashbacks to the war machine with typical marches and, toward the end, a brutal climax, after which surely nothing and no one is left alive.  Still the theme from the beginning lifts itself up, sounding tired, moving more slowly.  And then, the clever Prokofiev attempts to “freeze” this tune within a strange chord. 

This, certainly, is the strangest and most Modern symphony Prokofiev wrote. 

—Franz Welser-Möst
March 2020