The Symphonic Juncture

A [Symphonist]: "The one who is not afraid to raise the primal force."

- Boris Asafiev (1917)

In Retrospect: The DSO and their Symphonism Pt. 2

Welcome to the inaugural post of In Retrospect, an opportunity to go head-first into the sonic world of music and discover what makes it goes 'boom' and what that 'boom' means. Each post will correlate to a different performance that was simply too marvelous to not allocate more time towards, and thus The Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Feb.12th Digital Concert was the perfect beginning! Their concert program was Magnus Lindberg’s three-movement, 'Chamber Symphony' Souvenir which was then followed by Prokofiev's Op.25 First Symphony, a fitting pair which would make even B. Asafiev proud.

Interesting fact: Prokofiev's Op.25 was dedicated to none other than the famed Soviet Musicologist Boris Asafiev himself who, with just cause, considered Prokofiev a true, pre-revolutionary Russian composer!

[This is Pt.2 of a two-part post, be sure to check the previous posts for Pt.1]

[For $12 dollars, you can follow along and hear the concert by clicking here]

The sun’s rays seeped through my mediatory portals to Nature, accompanied in suspended animation with their eternal, guardian shutters, giving me a chance to complimentarily absorb in its wake benevolent illumination and unmitigated warmth. As the omniscient cause of life itself casts its organic cheerfulness, rendered veiled by the coverlet of night then pre-dawn opacity, across the Earth’s Western face once again in her 4.6 billion-year maturity, one is unavoidably reminded of the ephemerality of all things both sinister and pleasurable. Even music, at its core being a simple, fugitive result of oscillating frequencies generated by nothing more than vibrations of various natures manifested from an instrument of choice, has no lasting body to which one can reference back to, video and recordings being yet another variation of man’s attempt to forestall the inevitability of death’s final kiss [recordings and videos could be considered sonic fossils and by no means truth of any sort]. This dilemma of ‘what is real music’ and ‘is a recording real music’ must be saved for another post, but it stands to note that even Asafiev, the great Soviet Musicologist whose formidable legacy carved a socio-psychological path from music back to its source [life], had agreed with such a point, ‘there is no music outside living reproduction and reception.’

However, when Detroit Symphony Orchestra performed Prokofiev’s first numbered symphony, namely Symphony No.1 [Op.25], the first symphonic iteration of Prokofiev’s confident sagaciousness, after having read Boris Asafiev’s appraisal, “This music is is reflects ugly and caricaturist...sides of it in the sharp, sarcastic, and whimsical figures[...],” my qualitative hesitancy ceased to be and all that remained was an excitable anticipation to ‘hear.’ Described as, ‘touchingly romantic...and irresistibly attractive’ through sonic gems conveying ‘diary-like moods,’ harnessing the undulating complexities of human existence from the perspectives of proletariat peasantry all the way to ballroom-bound gentry and up, Sergei Prokofiev certainly lives up to the title of ‘Symphonist’ through his willingness to save Russia through sonifying ‘the consciousness of the mass.’ Prokofiev’s clear reverence for the tumultuous fragility of man was conditioned 1) by his tenuous acceptance of Stalin’s mandated ‘trend’ of Socialist Realism at odds with his ‘stagnant, non-political musical environment’ yet ‘profound love for man and nature’ (Nestyev 1946).

Additionally, 2) by his fundamental Russianness, whose fully-integrated amalgam of ‘modern European exotics’ and ‘Russian folk’ produced a ‘cinematographic’ hallmark capable of upgrading the Western world’s rationalist default with a ‘melos’ [song-like lyricism] reproducible nowhere else but within Russia and by Russians themselves. Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1 could then be considered an inadvertent tribute to the Mighty Five’s commitment to Russia’s folk heritage, in particular Borodin’s ‘Polovtsian Dances’ as recognized by Asafiev, and testament to his juxtapositional devotion to 1) a ‘romantic national mythology’ (Taruskin 2010), the musical variant of the ‘Official Nationalism’ (Doub 2019) of burgeoning pre-Soviet but certainly, at least internally, post-Tsarist 19th-c. Russia and 2) Western[?] modernist fantasticalism, unblushingly adopted on his own terms and in his own way, i.e., compositional radicalism, dramatic libretticism, and distorted traditionalism (Guillaumier 2011). As a patron of the people, Prokofiev fully embraced the dichotomous aspects of the human condition, utilizing ‘healthy primordial savagery’ [unprocessed, realistic coarseness] interwoven with ‘grimaces of horrible spectres’ all greeted with a cynical snigger and a sardonic handshake.

With a convincing brilliance persistent in its effervescent naturalness, Movement One’s whimsical, thematic juxtapositions and continuous, symphonic movement harness on one end the capriciousness of a man and his sympathies for life in full. However, on the other end the movement fully confirms Prokofiev’s ability to take a traditional form, infuse the fabric with a sophisticated elegance and yet perfectly deviate from a normal, consonant trajectory. From the onset, a full-force exclamation birthing the momentous sounding current, this ‘becoming’ exuberance is paired with delicate, instrumental refinement, constantly oscillating between minor modalities, polyphonic texturalism, and fluctuating brush-strokes, however all unified under the auspices of an unresolved instability. A youthful spontaneity to experience unabated the fluctuations of the human will and freely investigate the Scythian fields of human emotion transforms the listener from a passive inspector of wonderful music to engaged auditor of Prokofiev’s fascination with the human will’s indeterminacy. Shall I be satisfied, resigned, and content, or will I yearn for more, question, provoke and stay on my search for something more? Movement Two switches the paradigm and beckons us to enter into divine sublimity, where the caustic anxiety of ‘what shall I do’ and ‘how shall I do it’ are relinquished and subsumed by a ‘continuous musical consciousness’ beckoning us to hope once more in the forthcoming spring tide and restoration of the soul.

Acting as this movement’s vital-organ and the primary ‘transmitter of the cosmos,’ Prokofiev bestowed his sanguine main-theme to the violins, an instrument whose timbral vulnerability and vocalic likeness seems to invoke the depressing irony that Soviet Russia brought, ‘We want freedom from Tsarship, but we shall enslave our people to do so.’ It is important to note that this Symphony was written in 1916/17 and premiered in 1918, the same year of Prokofiev’s departure from mother Russia due to the quickly burgeoning reality of Soviet Russia. This unfortunate fate forced the likes of Rachmaninoff [Composer, 1917], Stravinsky [Composer, 1918], Diaghilev [Choreographer, 1918], and Pavlova [Dancer, 1914], among others, to leave their native land and, in many cases, sealed their emigre fate for life. This movement could be split into two parts if we follow this narrative then, Part 1) a melancholic Pollyannaism [positive-oriented recollection] manifested first by the violins then flute, and Part 2) a lionhearted marriage to that ‘vital fluctuating impulse,’ in other words that ‘will to creation’ that engrossingly drove him to develop life’s soundtrack. Prokofiev did not avoid sadness, but rather understood it as a step towards joy, as without one the other cannot be reached.

Clocking in at less-than 2-minutes, Movement Three again uses thematic opposition yet harmonic adjacency to its benefit. In this short burst of pre-Soviet gorgeousness, Prokofiev relishes in a Gavotte-like formality, harnessing his historical acuity through the mode of intonational story-telling by conjuring up the days of Tsarist pomp and circumstance. Yet, he goes further, ushering to mind the many elegant nights of opulent dresses and gowns, esteemed guests by the hundreds engaged in all types of cordialities and stately catillions, all unconsciously accompanied by the sumptuous waltzes of [contemporaneously-unknown] Russian and French composers like I. Shatrov, P. Gapon, and E. Waldteufel. But again, in accordance to a staple Prokofievian-ism it seems, a sharp transformation of theme occurs and subsequently, we are propelled into the liberational ‘Wild-West’ of Movement Four and its ecstatic motor powered by an ouroboric impulsiveness to live in all its self-generated resplendency. Although one of the shorter movements of the four, lasting only four minutes, the absolute technical mastery Prokofiev had over not only the piano and his playing but over every facet of his compositional output [and likewise career] is on full display, the flutes and the winds being given blistering arppegiatic movement while the strings form the complementary foundation.

The break-neck rapidity and resonant consonancy produces a libertarian pleasure reminiscent of certain American composers and their unrelentingly hopeful, ‘to-the-rising-sun’ musical idiom like Copland’s ‘Rodeo’ [1942], John Williams ‘Cowboys Overture’ [1972], or even Jerome Moross’s iconic soundtrack, ‘The Big Country Suite’ [1958]. I say this in the best way, but this movement with its unabashed fervency and rhythmic independence instigating mental-images of backyard gaieties seems incredibly unrussian, begging the question where could have Prokofiev picked-up this stylistic peculiarity? Although unanswered, what is interesting to note is that shortly after leaving Russia, he spent a considerable amount of time in The United States, during his stay writing and premiering some of his most beloved works like Op.26 [Third Piano Concerto, 1921], Op.33 [Love For Three Oranges, 1921], but more importantly here his Op.42 [‘American’ Overture, 1926/8], composed after returning back to Moscow, infusing his signature technical proficiency with the soundscape of the American jazz scene, a souvenir of his sojourn in the New World.’

This work is regarded as a ‘Classical’ Symphony for its formal similarities with Haydn and Mozart, indicated by Prokofiev himself in a quotation when asked about the work’s manifestational journey, “It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived into this era, he would have kept his own style while absorbing things from what was new in music. That’s the kind of symphony I wanted to write: a symphony in the Classical style.” Further, this was the first instance where, disregarding his usual compositional process, he actively avoided using the piano in the process of musical-matter transference, this process causing a greater number of thematic and colour differences, as stated by the composer, “A composition written this way would probably have more transparent orchestral colors.” However, I would be wary about the relationship this works has with Haydn as, when considering Asafiev’s views on Haydn [considering him a ‘mover’ of ideas, despite the presence of ‘the aroma of commonness,’ meaning mundane reality. I question this], Prokofiev was certainly of the people and developed alongside their influence, whereas Haydn adopted their tropes and simply ‘used’ them for profit. While Asafiev was the leader of the “spiritual rediscovery of Russian national music as an autonomous cultural discourse,” Prokofiev was among the pioneers of Neo-Golden Age [and Silver] Russian music culture, meaning he was dedicated to the conservation of pre-Soviet musical tradition while remaining fully planted in the modern twists of fate. He saw the present, the past, and the future, and said, 'I want it all.'

[This is Pt.2 of a two-part post, be sure to check the previous posts for Pt.1]

PC: [All Detroit Symphony Orchestra]