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Prokofiev's Private Joke

At our next concert, titled "Czechs and Balances", UMWO will be performing a wind work that does not get much time in the sun, so to speak, perhaps because of its unorthodox instrumentation, or perhaps because it can be difficult to place the meaning, or double meaning, of the work. Dr. Michael Votta will be conducting this work, and he has created a very interesting insight in his program note below.


According to the Shostakovich of Testimony, Prokofiev had “the soul of a goose” and was “frightened out of his wits” by what happened to him after his return to the USSR. Since the alleged author of those remarks confessed to having been himself suicidal with fear during 1936, this hardly seems fair.

There is, however, somewhat less evidence of panic in Shostakovich's output after 1938 than in that of Prokofiev, whose penchant for working on several pieces at once degenerated into an undignified scramble to come up with something—anything—to please the authorities. This turmoil prevented continuous work on a number of substantial works, and the overall coherence of some of these (the so-called “War Sonatas,” in particular) may have suffered as a result.

In spite of his fear, Prokofiev took revenge on his tormentors in small ways, and the Ode To The End Of The War is an excellent example of this sycophantic animus. For no apparent musical reason, Prokofiev scored the work for giant wind orchestra, four pianos, and eight harps, thus ensuring that this Paean to Stalin required extraordinary effort to produce. The work rather ingeniously manages to be bombastic and trivial at the same time—the whole thing being presumably a private joke at the expense of the apparat.

Vladimir Jurowski, a Russian conductor noted for his interpretations of Prokofiev, says that “you cannot understand the art of the time without analyzing its political and social background.” He says of the “ambiguities” built in to Prokofiev's Ode to the End of the War: “Yes, it's about jubilation. But there's irony in its use of eight harps, three saxophones and four pianos.” Jurowski maintains that the aural extravaganza's meaning would not have been lost on an audience subsisting on starvation rations just months after Hitler's defeat: “and here is Prokofiev employing the elements of jazz, of American bourgeois music, in a piece intended to celebrate the Soviet people's great victory.”

All of these criticisms aside, the work does have elements of Prokofiev’s great dramatic works, his musical humor and ability to write captivating melodies. Although perhaps not one of his best works, it is a captivating glimpse of an enigmatic society and provides a “balance” to the delicacy of our “Czechs.”

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