Cantata for the 20th Anniv of the October Revolution

Sergey Prokofiev

Cantata for the 20th Anniv of the October Revolution

Op. 74

About this work

At first glance, this masterful work -- based on texts by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin that extol the Bolshevik revolution -- would seem to be a hymn to the Soviet Socialist state. However, it is in fact quite satirical. This element of satire was overlooked for many years because of the 30-year delay in the work's premiere (an abridged premiere, at that), by which time the social commentary was no longer current. The huge forces listed in the headnote (including two full choirs and an enlarged orchestra) do not quite convey the size of the ensemble Prokofiev called for. He also included a brass band, an orchestra of accordions, and a speaker, bringing the total number of performers to about five hundred.

The work is divided into ten movements, beginning with a dissonant and grim orchestral "Prelude." There follows "The Philosophers," whose combination of rhythm and lush melody make this one of Prokofiev's most memorable choral creations. "A Tight Little Band," is framed by two interludes, the last of which is raucous and augurs the coming number, "Revolution."

Here, with the sixth movement, is the heart of the work: Prokofiev begins with gentle but tense choral music that gradually builds to an eruption of savagery, where orchestra and chorus join in what sounds like a musical free-for-all. This section corresponds to the Battle on The Ice in Prokofiev's music for Alexander Nevsky (1938) -- but here the music is so wanton in its crushing power, pounding rhythms, and brassy outbursts, that it can hardly be seen as depicting heroic revolutionaries engaged in just conflict. Rather, it portrays hooligans haphazardly seizing power. The siren that sounds off amid the chaos near the end of the movement signals a merciful end to the violence, but warns of dire consequences ahead.

"Victory" follows, and here Lenin, via the impassioned choral music, talks of "hunger, typhus...devastation" and in the next sentence of celebrating victory. The next section, "The Oath," has Stalin standing at Lenin's tomb, promising loyalty to the party's ideals and pledging all will follow his commandment. The music here has a sacred air about it. "Symphony" follows -- a lively and joyous orchestral piece, much in the vein of a scherzo. The concluding section, "Constitution," is fraught with dissonance and bombast; accompanying trumpet figures that resemble those from "Revolution" seem to blend artificially into the thick choral and instrumental fabric.

Once Stalin's reign of terror began in 1937 -- the year this work was completed -- Prokofiev withdrew it and abandoned ideas of a performance during his lifetime. He certainly feared the dire consequences that befell so many other Soviet artists of the period, like theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, arrested in 1939 and executed in 1940.