Sergei Prokofiev wrote his Symphony No. 6 in E-flat minor (Op. 111) in 1947.
The symphony, written as an elegy of the tragedies of World War II, has often been regarded as the darker twin to the victorious Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major. Prokofiev said of the symphony, "Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed. One has lost those dear to him, another has lost his health. These must not be forgotten."
The symphony was condemned in 1948 by the Soviet government under the second Zhdanov decree for not conforming to party lines, but it was favourably received among critics.
The symphony is in 3 movements (rather than the conventional 4), and lasts 40–45 minutes:
- Allegro moderato (E-flat minor - E-flat major)
- Largo (A-flat major)
- Vivace (E-flat major)
The first movement is characterized by an overall sombre mood, which Prokofiev described as "the painful results of war". It contains three themes: The first, on 1st violins and violas, is like the winds of a graveyard; the second, played by oboes, is slower and more melancholic; the third theme is played by the cor anglais accompanied by a lugubrious marching rhythm. The ensuing development section builds up tension using elements from the first theme before reaching an excruciating climax, the aftermath of which is the ghostly pulsating echoes on horns. The recapitulation only consists of the second and third themes, while the coda contains a final struggle until a C-flat major (enharmonically B major) climax, eventually to recede into silent despair, ending in E-flat major with a minor plagal cadence.
The second movement, a slow threnody in arch form, opens with clangorous sonorities, before revealing a main theme full of noble character. After the thunderous climax in the central section, reflective horns call out a nostalgic melody, later to be accompanied by the music-box sounds of the celesta and harp. The noble melody returns and the movement ends with the same clangorous sonorities as it had begun with.
The finale, although having switched to the key of E-flat major (a supposedly "happy" key), is actually ambiguous in character: the lively main theme, initially carried by the violins, is answered by pounding timpani and brass, as if to threaten it back. A subsidiary theme follows on woodwinds and is accompanied by a chugging rhythm on strings. The two themes are subsequently developed and eventually combined. However, a mournful bassoon then winds down the previous activity and there is a thought-provoking reappearance of the melancholic oboe theme from the first movement, as if to remind us again of the pains of war. After the meditation, there is a resumption of the threatening poundings of timpani and brass, this time accentuated with "wrong notes", and the symphony ends with a sardonic cry from high brass, juxtaposing F major with D major before the ultimate E-flat major chord.
The work scores for the following:
Cymbals (crash and suspended)
Violins (1st and 2nd)
The Sixth Symphony was premiered on 11 October 1947. It was performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic and was conducted by Yevgeniy Alexandrovich Mravinsky.