I was happy to see Alex Ross shout-out Prokofiev’s sixth symphony yesterday. I was obsessed with that piece when I was in high school, and like Alex, I’ve never heard it played live.
I kind of stopped listening to Prokofiev as much when I started college; this was a conscious decision on my part, because his music had been such a recognizable influence on me, and I wanted to diversify. How I wrote music in my early teens was like this: choose a piece by Prokofiev, steal the form, then just fill in my own music! Easy. I have an old piece that is the same as the first movement of his sixth piano sonata, pretty much down to the bar.
Back to op. 111. This piece totally undermines the simplistic idea of Prokofiev as the “happy Soviet”, the self-portrait he so obligingly paints in the fifth symphony. It out-Shostakoviches Dmitri. The first movement is a kind of slowed-down tarantella in e‑flat minor, one of the darkest (and most difficult) keys. The middle movement is a sprawling militaristic mess that I can’t make head of tail of. And the last movement starts out as a sunny, jaunty rondo with more marching soldiers, but in the end, which Alex writes about— I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s wonderfully tragic and creepy. The last chord is a trademark Prokofiev cackle, but in this case it just makes you shudder.
I’ll write about the seventh symphony some other time. That piece is like the Russian great-grandmother I never knew.