Although Prokofieff’s Fifth has always been more popular in the concert hall, the Sixth has long been regarded as his deepest and most thoughtful symphony. It is his only tragic symphony and one of his very greatest works.
It was written between 1945 and 1947, an extremely difficult and dangerous time in Soviet history. In the wake of the Second World War, Stalin was once again taking an icy grip on people’s lives, and hopes raised by victory were now being cruelly crushed. Prokofieff himself saw friends and family arrested or silenced. At the same time, his own health had collapsed and he realised he was unlikely to live for many more years.
Musically, the Sixth draws together threads from his earlier symphonies. It combines the formal originality of the Second, the dark harmony of the Third, the clear melodies of the First and Fourth, and the grandeur of the Fifth, to make an epic summing-up of everything Prokofieff valued most in his own art.
It is in three parts. The daring first movement sets a whole variety of different images in confrontation, including a wistful folk-like theme which suddenly erupts in a passionate outburst of despair. The middle movement traces a wave of elegiac intensity, while the last begins with circus-like gaiety. But high spirits soon warp into something more threatening, and the work ends with a dramatic recollection of the first movement.
Note by Gerard McBurney