A new symphonism : linearity, modulation, and virtual agency in Prokofiev's War Symphonies




Mott, Joel Davis

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One of the most exciting aspects of Prokofiev’s music emerges in his distantly-related yet smoothly articulated modulations. One reason these quick key changes still sound coherent pertains to stepwise melodic gestures that operate in the foreground or middleground. In addition to spanning two harmonic realms, these lines may also bridge different degrees of tonal stability and instability. In the first two chapters, I trace the function of these lines in Prokofiev’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, often grouped together as the War Symphonies, since they were composed either during or in reaction to World War II.
In the subsequent chapters, I draw on Robert Hatten’s framework regarding virtual agency and Steve Larson’s research on musical forces to explain the experiential aspects of these lines. In chapter 3, I discuss how musical forces use metaphors for the actual, physical forces we encounter as humans in order to explain how we may interpret a melody moving in a virtual, musical environment. We may also attribute human-like characteristics to this musical motion, such as a sense of striving associated with an ascending melodic line, or relenting for a descending one. In chapter 4, simultaneous lines, appearing as contrapuntal wedges, often push outward towards a generalized musical goal, such as a cadence, and allow for the inference of fictionalized overcoming or a failure to achieve. Chapter 5 points inward towards a given work’s dialogue between thematic variations and the emerging virtual subjectivity we may infer from the fictionalized narratives of linear structures. In the final chapter, I contextualize linear virtual agency within Boris Asafiev’s concept of symphonism, a processual approach to form that foregrounds this dialogue based on thematic variation. I argue that his more energeticist, discursive, and dramatic formal emphases highlight ways in which Prokofiev adapted his music to the political demands of the Stalin-era Soviet Union. I conclude with a new approach to formal analysis in the third movement from the Fifth Symphony, showing how Prokofiev invoked common-practice sonata form while formulating his own approach to the emerging genre of the Soviet Symphony.



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