Prokofiev – Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131

by Max Derrickson

Sergei Prokofiev     (b Sontskova, Ukraine, April 27, 1891; Moscow,Russia, March 5, 1953)

Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131
1. Moderato
2. Allegretto
3. Andante espressivo
4. Vivace

Prokofiev’s musical talents were obvious from his earliest years until his all-but final piece, his Symphony No. 7.   In his biography (Prokofiev) he recounts writing a March for the piano at the age of 6 and his first opera was attempted around the age of 13.  And by the precocious age of 27, in 1918 he set off to tour the world as a concert pianist.
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His earliest works, such as his Scythian Suite and his Piano Concerto No. 1 of 1914 were full of ferocity, brashness and shock-value, earning him the nickname “Enfant Terrible” (Wild Child).  Works such as his Scythian Suite and his Piano Concerto No. 1 of 1914 were full of ferocity, brashness and shock-value.  Although Prokofiev had exceptional melodic talents, he relished his “bad boy” reputation and seemed to enjoy dismaying his audiences.

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Prokofiev first responded with Music for Children, easy pieces (12) for piano, Op. 65 (1936), a delightful set of piano vignettes that, rather than patronize children, brought music, rhythm and wonderful melodies to their level.  They were shortly afterwards orchestrated as A Summer’s Day and were soon followed by his beloved Peter and the Wolf, also meant for children.  And throughout the rest of his career, Prokofiev always seemed to be able to rise to the task of writing for children, a prospect that apparently endeared his creative spirit, and maybe his lingering Enfant Terrible, deeply.

In 1952 Prokofiev was commissioned by the State to compose a piece as part of a radio broadcast for children.  But by the time Prokofiev began this commission he was ill, impoverished by the Soviet system, had been vilified by the Politburo, and his first wife had been arrested on ridiculous charges of treason – Stalin’s Party had simply worn him down like so many others.  Yet, the notion of writing for children kindled enough in his spirit to create what became his magnificent Symphony No. 7, one that tells of two hearts: the older one that was essentially broken, and the one that remembers the innocence and frivolousness of childhood.

The first movement opens with a dark and almost sinister theme by the violins, but it’s soon underscored with a murmuring and busy-ness by the winds and other instruments.  The effect of the two elements together produces a kind of an awakening, which soon leads into a theme from the celli that exudes the soaring warmth of a summer day.  And therein Prokofiev has given us his two hearts, which will continue throughout the entire Symphony.  Looked at in another way, the first movement seems to fade in and out of “presence” and “reminiscence,” not only in spirit, but musically, as well.
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But then, almost as an afterthought, one last very minor chord ends the movement – Prokofiev has effectually given as a musical question mark.

In response to that curious question mark, the second movement Allegretto is at turns frisky, a little sarcastic, funny, and grand.  Prokofiev begins to more discreetly highlight different orchestral sections and instruments, a staple of any good children’s piece.  Still, every so often, by either some kind of orchestral eruption, or a hint of something below the surface, the music betrays some regret.  The movement ends with a clear tip of the hat for the fanfarish endings of grand Tchaikovsky waltzes.

The third movement is a soft and autumnal sentiment,
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The Finale begins with cheer and spirit, and is mostly lighthearted – though nothing of Prokofiev’s is ever entirely lighthearted.  Here, too, can be heard some pomposity, dark wit and intrigue.  A return of the first movement’s beautifully soaring cello theme, now cloaked in even more orchestral splendor, is truly magical, but it also invites another short motif back from the first movement.  This motif, which was rather innocent sounding two movements ago, eventually flushes out into a kind of ticking clock with the glockenspiel and xylophone seemingly pecking away at the wasted seconds of time, while dark, sometimes grim, orchestral chords slow the whole mechanism down to the Symphony’s last note.
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