Mission: To seek and share inspiration


Program Notes for Prokofiev + Cello Majesty

Dec 4 - 5


RAFAEL PAYARE   conductor




Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 126







Symphony Number 5 in B-flat Major, Opus 100
     Allegro moderato
    Allegro giocoso



Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 126, Op. 54

Timing: approx. 30 min.
Instrumentation: solo cello, flute, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), 2 horns, timpani, snare drum, slapstick, xylophone, wood block, bass drum, tom-tom, tambour de basque, 2 harps, strings


The CSO has performed this work only once before, in February of 1969, Max Rudolf conducting and Mstislav Rostropovich, cellist.

Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. He wrote his Second Cello Concerto in 1966; the work was premiered at a festive concert in Moscow celebrating his sixtieth birthday on September 25, 1966. The soloist was Mstislav Rostropovich, to whom both Shostakovich cello concertos are dedicated; the USSR State Symphony Orchestra was led by Yevgeny Svetlanov.

In his 1999 book Concerto Conversations, Joseph Kerman described concerto form as a symbol for the relationship between an individual (the soloist) and society at large (the orchestra). According to the musicologist, that relationship may take many forms, from rivalry and struggle to friendly interactions. (The Italian word concertare, from which the word concerto comes, can mean both competing and joining forces, as in “concerted effort.”) The soloist may be a hero surrounded and worshipped by the group, or an extension of that group; it can be equal to the group in weight and importance, or it may completely overshadow it.

Kerman’s approach to the concerto may be particularly fruitful when it comes to the works of Dmitri Shostakovich. After all, the relationship between the individual and society played a fundamental part in the ideology of the Communist regime, under which Shostakovich spent all but the first decade of his life. The slogan was “One for all, all for one,” but in reality, the first half of the equation was truer than the second. The needs of the individual were always subordinated to those of the community, a state of affairs that only music—the most abstract of the arts—could afford to question openly.

KEYNOTE: At the beginning of Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, the soloist sings a slow, sad melody without any accompaniment. The “community” enters only gradually: lower strings and harps first, the rest of the orchestra, very sparingly used, much later in the movement. Instead of a traditional orchestral exposition, where the “community” gets a chance to flex its collective muscle, we are treated to a solitary meditation, similar to the one that opens the First Violin Concerto of 1948. One almost sees the soloist (David Oistrakh or Mstislav Rostropovich) playing for himself in a dimly lit room in the middle of the night. The “community” barely exists at all, at least at first. The tragic soliloquy of the cello is eventually (but only temporarily) relieved by the entrance of the woodwinds and the xylophone. They play the same pitches as the cello did at the beginning, but the rhythm is much livelier. For the first time, the orchestra gives the soloist a real response, and for a while it seems that a meaningful interaction can develop between the two. But this proves to be an illusion, as the woodwinds and xylophone soon drop out, and the dark initial mood of the piece returns.

The second movement is one of those Shostakovich scherzos where the boundary between lighthearted humor and bitter sarcasm is completely blurred. Its principal melody, as Shostakovich himself acknowledged in a letter to his friend Isaak Glikman, is very similar to a street song from Odessa: “Kupíte búbliki” (“Buy doughnuts”). “I cannot explain the reason why”—he added.

Whatever the reason, the innocent little ditty is soon subjected to a series of most extraordinary transformations, its playfulness gradually giving way to a sense of utter despair. The soloist appears to take on the role of a simple “man in the street,” maybe a doughnut vendor. His clash with the outside world is not slow in coming: the scherzo is followed without a pause by the third movement, which begins with a rather menacing horn fanfare. Responding to the challenge of the “outside world,” the soloist takes over the theme of this fanfare for the ensuing cadenza for some highly virtuosic elaborations that eventually calm down to end with an idyllic-sounding closing figure from some distant Classical realm. The entire movement is in some way based on the fanfare material, whether it is a graceful song with a gentle, dance-like lilt (initially played as a duet between the solo cello and the flute) or a livelier variation accompanied by percussion instruments. Yet whatever harmony has been reached is mercilessly destroyed by a wild irruption of the búbliki theme —now sounding positively tragic—on the entire orchestra. What is left is the cello’s wistful recapitulation of the earlier themes of this movement (and the beginning of the opening Largo), and a coda with the mysterious ticking of the woodblock, the tom-tom and the tambourine. (This ending is very similar to that of the Fifteenth Symphony, written five year after the concerto.)

The Second Cello Concerto is a very different kind of piece than the First, also written for Rostropovich. The exuberance of the earlier work had yielded to deep sadness. During the seven years separating the two concertos, Shostakovich’s health had deteriorated seriously, and a sense of deep pessimism had begun to take hold of him—feelings he had not had during the much more critical days of World War II. After a period of “thaw” following Stalin’s death, the Brezhnev era was bringing a new “freeze” in the 1960s. Shostakovich, at 60, was a man broken by decades of changing political fortunes during which he received high praise from the Party one day and had to fear for his life the next.

Even now, his political troubles were far from being over. Yevgeny Mravinsky, the conductor who had premiered so many of his works since the 1930s, in 1962 refused to conduct the premiere of the Thirteenth Symphony, which was based on Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar, about the Nazi’s massacre of Jews in the village of Babi Yar during the war. In 1966, Mravinsky likewise cancelled plans to conduct the premiere of the Second Cello Concerto on Shostakovich’s sixtieth birthday. According to the official version, he hadn’t had time to learn the score. It is more likely, however, that he had grasped it only too well (after all, he had been the leading interpreter of Shostakovich’s music for years). And this music was always potentially “dangerous,” even without controversial poems making those dangers explicit. It was clear to anyone who had ears that the group and the individual in the Second Cello Concerto did not form one big happy family, as Communist teachings about the new classless society would have it. Instead, their relationship was deeply troubled, and remained unresolved at the end of the piece. The conclusion could not be avoided that during the last decade of his life—with the Second Cello Concerto, the Second Violin Concerto, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphony, and the late string quartets—Shostakovich was writing some of the darkest and most despairing music of his entire life.

— Peter Laki



Symphony Number 5 in B-flat Major, Opus 100

Timing: approx. 45 min
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, wood block, harp, piano, strings


The CSO has performed this work on 16 previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in January of 1955, Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting, and the most recent in January of 2012, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting. Notable: The CSO also performed this work on tour several times, including at Carnegie Hall in November of 1971, Thomas Schippers conducting.

Prokofiev was born on April 23, 1891, in Sontsovka, Ekaterinoslav, Russia; he died on March 5, 1953, in Moscow. He composed the Fifth Symphony in the summer of 1944 and conducted the premiere in Moscow on January 13, 1945.  

Soviet artists often had to cope with the fickleness of governmental approval. Virtually every Soviet composer of the 20th century enjoyed periods of praise and periods of condemnation. During the Second World War, however, government officials had more pressing problems to deal with than the awarding or withholding of artistic approval. Furthermore, composers were valued citizens, especially at a time when it was necessary to keep public morale high. They were evacuated from dangerous parts of the country and placed in a rest home at Ivanovo, where they were left to compose as they wished.

The composers at Ivanovo in 1944 included Shostakovich, Glière, Miaskovsky, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian and a number of lesser known musicians. The more patriotic in the group worked on pieces commemorating the war and celebrating the hoped-for victory. Some of the others took advantage of their isolation from the fighting and their freedom from meddling officials to do some creative loafing.

Prokofiev joined this group in the early summer. Suddenly life at the rest home changed. He was a man of boundless energy, and he took command of the group. He made sure no one took the name “rest home” literally. He instituted evening sessions in which each composer was to show what he had accomplished that day. Prokofiev demanded hard work and productivity, and he lived up to his own high standards. During that summer he completed two of his most ambitious works—the Eighth Piano Sonata and the Fifth Symphony.

Neither of these pieces is overtly a war composition. In contrast to what the other composers at Ivanovo were writing, and in contrast to his own earlier symphonies, the Fifth has no program other than the vague idea that it is a hymn to the freedom of the human spirit. The composer “did not choose this theme deliberately, it just came into my head and insisted on being expressed.”

Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, the Fifth Symphony became known as a celebration of victory. Its optimistic character is surely responsible for this association, but also an interesting coincidence surrounded its premiere. Just before the concert began, the victory of the Red Army was announced in Moscow. As Prokofiev raised his baton, distant cannons were heard saluting the victorious entry into Germany.

The premiere was a triumph for Prokofiev, but it also proved to be his last public appearance as a conductor. Three weeks later he suffered a slight heart attack at a party in his new apartment. He fell to the bottom of the stairs and suffered, in addition, a concussion. Although he lived another eight years, he never fully recovered. This previously always active, always youthful man was forbidden most of his favorite activities—he could not play chess, play the piano in public, stay up late, converse in an animated manner, walk fast or far, smoke, drink, drive, conduct or travel. He was a different person when he returned the following summer to the rest home in Ivanovo. No longer was he seen on the volleyball court, walking briskly over hillsides or making sure that other composers were working hard.

As Russia gradually returned to normal after the war, the government turned its attention toward Soviet art once again. At a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party called by Stalin’s henchman Zhdanov in 1948, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and most other prominent composers received official condemnations for “modernist and formalist” tendencies and for falling under Western influences. It is fascinating to compare Shostakovich’s reaction to that of Prokofiev. The former had lived his entire mature life under the Soviet system and, much as he may have disliked it, he knew nothing else. Prokofiev, on the other hand, had grown up under the Czars and had lived in the West for 15 years. Both composers had to accept Zhdanov’s decree and publicly “confess”—that much was not open to debate. But Shostakovich apologized with humility while Prokofiev retained a degree of cynicism, a degree of defiance. He attended Zhdanov’s “conference,” but he refused to take part or even to watch. It mattered little that he had composed an obligatory Hail to Stalin cantata or the Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, or that he was willing to simplify the harmony of his oratorio Guard for Peace. He was forced publicly to accept the criticism. There was no choice if he wanted to remain in Russia, and he was too deeply attached to his native land and too sick to consider leaving. Furthermore, he feared for the safety of his wife should he defy the Committee.

The Fifth Symphony was one of the few works not condemned. Thus it received the official, if tacit, approval of the Stalin government. That is no doubt why, when it was scheduled for a performance in Salt Lake City in 1951, an anonymous phone caller threatened the life of the conductor if the performance should take place. The work was played without incident. Prokofiev, upon hearing this bizarre story, wrote:

Why should a conductor be threatened with death for including this symphony in his programs? Could it be because the music is a hymn to the freedom of the human spirit? My Fifth Symphony was intended as a hymn to the free and happy man. In my view the composer—just as the poet, sculptor, or painter—is duty bound to serve man, the people. He must beautify human life and defend it.

The Russian public, which had recently applauded the very compositions of Prokofiev that were condemned in 1948, refused to accept the sudden reversal of official judgment. The composer did compromise, however, by making his last works lyrical and downplaying the sarcastic side of his musical personality. Eventually even Stalin capitulated, by awarding the Stalin Prize to the composer in 1951.

Both Stalin and Prokofiev died on the same day in 1953. Two years later, the Soviet government officially reversed its sanctions against Prokofiev’s music. The purge of 1948 was dismissed as “Stalinist excess.” With the composer safely dead and unable to defy any official decrees, the government allowed his music once again to be the national treasure it deserves to be. Prokofiev’s music was always true to the Russian spirit, whether such nationalism was officially recognized or not. Today, more than 50 years after the composer’s death, his music has achieved its proper recognition as great Soviet art.

KEYNOTE: The impulse behind the first movement is one of pervasive lyricism. All three main themes are long, singable melodies. The one non-lyric element, a brief scherzo-like idea, is deliberately underplayed. Even when the full orchestra plays loudly, one of the lyric melodies soars above the texture. When the music is rigorously contrapuntal, the simultaneous melodic lines are still lyrical.

The scherzo is a complete contrast. It features ever-increasing energy, provided by motor rhythms that continue through most of the piece. The liberal use of percussion contributes to the movement’s demonic character. The middle section is also rhythmic, with a catchy tune that swings with its syncopations.

The slow movement is, like the first, lyrical, but it builds tremendously in intensity.

The finale summarizes the other movements in many ways, the most obvious being the quotation of the first movement’s main melody in the introduction. The music has motor rhythms like those of the second movement, although the result is now march-like rather than dance-like. The ever-increasing intensity recalls the third movement.

—Jonathan D. Kramer