The BSO rehearses a premier of Prokofiev's Symphony Number 6.

Charles Munch And The Boston Symphony Rehearse A Premier By Prokofiev – 1951 – Past Daily Weekend Gallimaufry

The BSO rehearses a premier of Prokofiev's Symphony Number 6.
The BSO rehearses a premier of Prokofiev‘s Symphony Number 6.

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Another historic rehearsal from The Boston Symphony. This week it’s Charles Munch and the BSO rehearsing the first Boston performance of the Symphony Number 6 by Prokofiev. The rehearsal took place on June 16, 1951.

The Sixth Symphony dates from a more conflicted time, 1947: postwar Stalinism, the Cold War. It plays its emotions close to the vest. The Symphony was, surprisingly, well-received by the press and the cultural commissars when Evgeny Mravinsky conducted its first performance in Leningrad in November of ’47. By the time of the Moscow premiere, a month later, official attitude toward the arts and artists – Stalin unwittingly paid artists the great tribute of fearing their influence – had changed drastically. The notorious Congress of Composers, presided over by Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s artistic hatchet-man, was taking shape and would damn to hell the music and musicians who/which did not adhere to certain guidelines as to what was “morally acceptable.” As a foretaste of the Congress, the Sixth Symphony was cold-shouldered in Moscow. Later it – and its composer – would be scathingly denounced for having committed the cardinal sin of creating “anti-Soviet,” i.e., downbeat, or at best insufficiently upbeat, art.

The Sixth opens darkly, sternly (unlike its celebrated predecessor, the Fifth Symphony of 1944, or its successor, the Seventh of 1952 – the composer’s last), in the low strings with an idea more suggestive of some gigantic, lurking subterranean beast than the sun-dappled cornfields of Soviet official dreams. When it is followed by a gentle, innocently lyric theme, one might suspect that a sly parody is being played out. But that 6/8 tune in fact becomes the movement’s principal theme, developed in a manner than brings to mind Mahler (a composer more commonly associated with Shostakovich), transformed into something faintly menacing. The movement, like much of the Symphony, is unsettled, unsettling in the wide range of emotion – and tonality – presented.

Movement two opens with a cry from the heart, approaching hysteria when the woodwinds set up their shrieking. But, again, a contrasting melody, announced by the low strings, a “love theme” of the Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev’s) sort, breaks the tension.

The finale begins in the composer’s purest fun-in-the-fields vein, with a Peter and the Wolf-like role for the clarinet, until, with a master’s subtlety, the first movement’s second theme – but at its least frivolous – begins to bubble to the surface. The vivace material is then reintroduced and the Symphony ends on a cheerful, E-flat, note.

As always, the rehearsal is narrated by Ben Grauer and, it’s not the complete performance, but rather a half-hour snapshot of the rehearsal of this historic work.

Enjoy – and get your batons out.

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7 thoughts on “Charles Munch And The Boston Symphony Rehearse A Premier By Prokofiev – 1951 – Past Daily Weekend Gallimaufry

  1. Another great post. Please tell me there are many more.of these BSO rehearsals… And I can’t help adding: where are the radio moguls of today who would fund such a program…? These rehearsal broadcasts are a true testament to the unrealized wonderful opportunities radio COULD be used for. If only…

    1. Yes, there’s a few more months worth. It would certainly seem like something the various orchestras websites could do as either a podcast, streaming audio or a proper program. But times have changed and everyone is concerned with the bottom line, as opposed to the long-run. I also suspect there are union issues with broadcasting rehearsals being considered an additional point for negotiation. Yes, radio could be used for a lot of things. People who care about it need to get involved, rather than people who are only looking at the investment. I also don’t think the Internet is being used for nearly the potential it can be.

  2. Indeed, there are union issues as well as copyright / royalty issues (music publishers & licensing for broadcasting etc.). Of course it could all be worked out; e.g., only broadcasting rehearsal portions of public domain material (works whose composers have been dead 50+ (or, if broadcasting in the EU, 70+) years. And orchestra managers & musicians would be willing, if convinced it was good for them and their organizations. But first you need a carrier (whether radio or, as you point out, a streaming possibility) willing to play along. – “A few more months worth” – hooray!

  3. Münch/BSO do complete justice to this great symphony. Temperament, vitality and inspired musicality flowing in abundance from this wonderful conductor. A joy to hear.

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