SchPro P3

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. 

Morning Concert Only

Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Opus 44

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
composed 1928-29, from musical material created 1919-27

At a Glance
Prokofiev composed this symphony in 1928, basing its themes on music from his opera The Fiery Angel, which he had written in 1919-27.   (At least one theme had also appeared in an unfinished string quartet from the years just before he began writing the opera.)  The work was first performed on May 17, 1929, in Paris, with Pierre Monteux leading the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris.  The score was published in 1931 with a dedication to Nikolai Miaskovsky, a close friend of the composer.  

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

The Cleveland Orchestra first presented this symphony in March 1976, led by Kirill Kondrashin.  The most recent performances were under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst during the 2018-19 season, in Cleveland and on tour in Asia.

About the Music
As a group, Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonies present an ever-changing range of musical style and evolution, created over the composer’s lifetime of geographic wandering, evolving political allegiance, and musical experimentation.  After the modernly, classical First (Haydn updated, with spices), he headed in continually different directions.

Ten years after the premiere of that Classical Symphony (later reluctantly designated as Symphony No. 1) in 1918, and his impulsive departure from Russia in the throes of that year’s revolutionary tumult, Prokofiev was still abroad and unsettled.

The first four years had been divided between Chicago and New York, followed by a spell in Bavaria, and then, after his marriage, a longer period in Paris.  He was often on tour, including several return visits to the Soviet Union.  His eventual return there, in 1936, was at least partially a reflection of his attachment to his roots and the neverending challenge of getting his operas performed onstage.

Prokofiev wrote both his Third and Fourth Symphonies speedily, the Third in 1928 and the Fourth in 1930.  The speed, however, was in large part because both were based on material from operas which had been in gestation for many years — and which were still awaiting performance.  

In the case of Symphony No. 3, the musical source material was the opera The Fiery Angel, which Prokofiev had started creating in 1919.  Despite discussions with opera companies in Berlin and New York, the opera was never staged in the composer’s lifetime, and is still a rarity today.  It portrays an unsettling story, of dark medieval forces in a nunnery with, for principal character, a woman possessed by the devil who is in a state of high hysteria throughout, making demands that few sopranos are able to meet or willing to attempt. 

The obsessive, expressionistic character of the opera is reflected in the Third Symphony.  Prokofiev composed it, in part, as a reaction to Bruno Walter’s inability to get the Berlin Städtische Opera to stage it.  Working to salvage some of the opera’s material — and perhaps continue generating interest in that work — the composer, rather than creating a straight-forward suite of its music, instead re-crafted musical material from it into symphonic form, repackaged and reimagined into a symphony’s traditional four-movement structure.  Significantly, the composer chose not to give the symphony a title related to the opera, and, in fact, claimed that the symphony was separated from the opera’s storyline and meaning.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 of 1925 had been inspired by the craze for machine music and factory music current at that time — including a sense of mechanical rhythms and related gearings.  The Third Symphony is equally noisy and dissonant. What makes the music so absorbing is the incredible inventiveness of Prokofiev’s mind.  There is not a single bar when something remarkable, even extraordinary, is absent.  Throughout these four movements, the orchestration is intricate and very busy, giving few of the players any significant moments of respite.  To use a metaphor that, admittedly, applies more specifically to the content of the Second Symphony, the Third is firing on all cylinders throughout.

One difference with the previous symphony is the larger number of tunes, often plain-sounding and simple, which ride over the orchestral sound. These had important roles as motifs in the opera, but Prokofiev protested against any attempt to detect a program or story in the symphony, pointing out that the themes in question had always been conceived in an instrumental, not vocal, form.  The symphony is, nonetheless, nothing if not dramatic. 

After a noisy introduction, the first true melody of the opening movement is laid out with unmistakable force by four horns and the violins.  A second theme, which will be heard again in the finale, belongs to the first violins, milder in character, and, a third, of a forceful rising figure in the brass, provides material for the orchestral mayhem unleashed as the climax of this opening movement.  At the end, there is stillness and quiet.

The second movement reflects a less frantic aspect of the action, highly-colored and resourceful in the interplay of instruments, and full of melody.  The third movement, in contrast, is a unique creation, frenzied and furious, with a recurrent passage in which the strings produce the eeriest whispery sounds possible, juxtaposed with sudden musical explosions. The middle section, while hardly relaxed, brings along a certain steadiness, with more tunes, artfully orchestrated. 

It is the finale fourth movement, though, that brings a definitive sense of character to the symphony.  Here, an atmosphere of evil and diabolism is pervasive, clothed in orchestration of terrifying power.  There is momentary easing, when the second movement’s theme is recalled, and again for a return of the second principal theme of the first movement, but the horrific dissonance on which the symphony ends can only be seen as an attempt to erase from our consciousness any sense of good manners and well being — negating, perhaps, the kinds of Classical values and proportions that the composer’s first symphony has brought into the world. 

—Hugh Macdonald © 2020

In the Composer’s Own Words

Prokofiev described the origins of his Third Symphony: 

“In Paris in 1928, Serge Koussevitzky led a performance of several excerpts from my opera.  The selections were well received and I was sorry the opera had not been staged and that the score lay gathering dust on the shelf.  I was about to make a suite out of it when I remembered that for one of the entr’actes I had used the development of themes from the preceding scene, and it occurred to me that this might serve as the kernel for a symphony.  I examined the themes and found that they would make a good exposition for a movement in sonata allegro form.  I found the same themes in other parts of the opera differently expressed and quite suitable for the movement’s recapitulation.  In this way, the plan for the first movement of the symphony worked out quite simply.  The material for the Scherzo and Andante movements was also found without difficulty. The finale took a little longer.  I spent far more time whipping the thing into final shape, tying up all the loose ends and doing the orchestration.  But the result — the Third Symphony — I consider to be one of my best compositions.  I do not like it to be called the ‘Fiery Angel’ Symphony.  The main thematic material was composed quite independently of the opera.  Used in the opera, it naturally acquired its coloring from the plot, but being transferred from the opera to the symphony, it lost that coloring, I believe, and I should therefore prefer the Third Symphony to be re­garded as pure symphony.”