Patti Johnson Wilson Classics Series

Invigorating: Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5

Gerard Schwarz, guest conductor

Ottorino Respighi – Gli Ucceli (The Birds)
Ottorino Respighi – Church Windows
Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100

 Saturday, January 14, 2023 | 7:30 PM
Tulsa Performing Arts Center

Program Notes

Two composers active in the first half of the 20th century are represented on this program of brilliantly colorful music. Though there is not much overlap in terms of their personal history, two interesting and possibly related points of intersection are worth noting. Ottorino Respighi was an Italian composer with a strong sense of both history and national pride. For a brief time, Respighi lived and worked in Russia where he had the opportunity to study under the Russian master of orchestration, Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov. Serge Prokofiev was born in a Ukranian village where he received his earliest musical training. He later attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he too worked with Rimsky Korsakov. Both Respighi and Prokofiev are known for their innovative and imaginative use of the orchestra, a skill almost certainly encouraged through the influence of Rimsky.

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is one of the most well-known Italian composers of his generation. His reputation rests primarily on his series of three large-scale orchestral works celebrating his adopted home city of Rome: The Fountains of Rome (1916), The Pines of Rome (1924), Roman Festivals (1928). He composed a large number of orchestral works of various types as well as 11 operas, though most of the operas are rarely performed today. A lifelong interest of Respighi’s was his study of music of the past, which led to the creation of some of his most successful works, particularly the three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, pieces based on 16th century lute music. Another popular work in this category is his work titled Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) (1926). Three of the four movements of this work were originally conceived as pieces for solo piano, Three Preludes on Gregorian Melodies (1921), based on melodies taken from Gregorian Chant. Originally the piano works and their subsequent orchestration had no descriptive titles, but a friend of Respighi’s suggested the possibility of retrospectively naming the set Church Windows and together they provided brief descriptions for each movement, including a fourth composed specifically for the orchestral set. The music is varied and powerfully evocative, vividly suggesting the mood expressed in the appended descriptions.

  1. The Flight into Egypt

“The little caravan proceeds through the desert in a starry night, bearing the Treasure of the World.”

  1. St. Michael the Archangel

“And a great battle was made in the heavens; Michael and his angels fought with the dragon and his angels. But these did not prevail, and there was no more place for them in Heaven.”

III. The Matins of St. Clare

 “But Jesus Christ her bridegroom, not wishing to leave her thus disconsolate, had her miraculously transported by angels to the church of St. Francis, to be at the service of Matins.”

  1. St. Gregory the Great

“Behold the Pontiff!…Bless the Lord…Sing the hymn to God. Alleluia!”

The connection to the past also informs Respighi’s suite for small orchestra, Gli uccelli (The Birds) (1928). Like most of his more familiar works, Gli uccelli demonstrates Respighi’s love of his national heritage and respect for musical tradition. Four of the five movements of the work are named for a type of bird, and each is adapted from works by four different Baroque composers: Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710) (movements I and V), Jacques de Gallot (d. 1690), Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), and Anonymous. Like Church Windows, The Birds uses keyboard works as the basis for his orchestrations. The opening Prelude is introduced by a stately theme which then gives way to a free section whose themes allude to the music of the movements that follow. The second movement, “The Dove,” is a slow, graceful song led primarily by the solo oboe. The clucking, scratchingHen” is the subject of the third movement. Dark murmurs open “The Nightingale” movement, here sung in the clear mellow tones of the flute. The suite comes to a shimmering close with the call of “The Cuckoo” before the opening bars of the suite are recalled for the colorful finish.

Of all the composers active during the existence of the Soviet Union probably none is as familiar to Westerners as Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).  His scores to Peter and the Wolf, the ballet Romeo and Juliet and his “Classical” symphony are staples of the symphonic repertoire.  His personal story, like so many who worked under the harsh Stalinist regime, is colored by personal and professional tragedy, yet his music is filled with humor and humanity. Prokofiev shares with Respighi an intense devotion to his homeland despite long periods of self-imposed exile yet unlike most Russian composers of his time, who either left their homeland never to return or simply never left, Prokofiev established himself in the West, living in New York and Paris between 1918 and 1935, and then returned to live in the Soviet Union. His timing could not have been worse though, returning on the eve of the first ideological assaults on Soviet composers such as Shostakovich and just a few years before the devastation of WW II.

Prokofiev was an extremely versatile composer. He was equally adept at creating large scale dramatic vocal scores, as he was with intimate solo piano works and virtually everything in between. Although his reputation does not rest primarily on his seven symphonies, his Symphony No. 5 in B-flat is considered one of the finest of the twentieth century and remains one of his most popular works. It was composed in the summer of 1944 during a period of great productivity and personal contentment and fourteen years after his preceding effort in symphonic composition. Although it was written during the closing years of the war it is not really a “war symphony” in the ilk of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony whose program is specifically tied to the Nazi siege of Leningrad. It is rather a grand, expansive work with an overriding mood of optimism and humanity; it is “a symphony on the greatness of the human soul” as Prokofiev himself described it. Like his enormously successful “Classical” Symphony, the Fifth uses traditional symphonic forms for the structure of each movement. An uncharacteristically slow tempo coupled with sweeping thematic ideas help establish the expansive atmosphere of the thematically developed and powerfully expressive first movement. This is followed by a lighter, highly inventive and irony-tinged scherzo. The slow third movement plumbs greater emotional depths through its soaring and dissonance shaded melodies over darker, often brooding accompaniments whose character turns menacing before receding back into strangely ethereal world of the opening. The Finale begins with a recollection of the first theme of the opening movement serving as a contrasting introduction to the rather jovial character of the movement proper. A lighthearted theme heard in the clarinet returns several times throughout the movement linking its various sections. © 2023 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.