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Symphony No. 4, Opus 47 (original version)

Legendary BSO Music Director Serge Koussevitzky led the premiere of Prokofiev’s Fourth at Symphony Hall in November 1930. More than a decade later, Prokofiev returned to the symphony, creating virtually a new piece (designated Opus 112).

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, Ekaterinoslav district, Ukraine, on April 27, 1891, and died at Nikolina Gora, near Moscow, on March 5, 1953. The Symphony No. 4, Opus 47, was composed in 1929 and 1930, based on themes composed for the ballet Prodigal Son, which received its premiere in Paris on May 21, 1929, in a production staged by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Before Prokofiev finished the piece, Serge Koussevitzky suggested it be commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to mark its 50th anniversary season, 1931-32, but although Prokofiev accepted a fee granting the BSO the premiere, Prokofiev considered the offered sum too low to be considered a commission (on which more below). Koussevitzky conducted the premiere with the BSO on November 14-15, 1930—its only previous performances of the piece before April 25-27, 2024. In 1947, Prokofiev created virtually a new symphony—also designated No. 4, but published as his Opus 112—that expanded the material substantially and called for new orchestration. (Apart from the first movement, led by Bruce Hangen in Youth Concerts in November 2005, the BSO has never played the recomposed version of the Fourth Symphony.)

The score of the Fourth Symphony, Opus 47, calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, tambourine, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The Opus 47 version of the symphony is about 30 minutes long.

Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony is a tale of three Sergeis—Prokofiev, Diaghilev, and Koussevitzky. (True, all three usually preferred to use the French version of their first name, Serge.) Prokofiev wrote the score, using music originally written for the ballet Prodigal Son; Koussevitzky conducted the symphony’s premiere with the Boston Symphony in 1930. By then, Prokofiev had been collaborating with both of them for decades. Diaghilev called Prokofiev “my second son”; Igor Stravinsky, always one step ahead, was his “first son.”

Seventeen years Prokofiev’s senior, Koussevitzky acted as father figure and artistic advisor to the often willful and tactless composer. Koussevitzky (or Kusi, or Kuskin, or even Couscous, as he was called affectionately by friends) had helped to introduce Prokofiev’s raucous and startling music to the conservative Russian pubic, both as conductor and publisher. For many years, Koussevitzky and Prokofiev maintained an active correspondence (usually with the literary help of Koussevitzky’s wife Natalie), wherever in the world they might be. In early 1930, Koussevitzky invited Prokofiev from Paris to Boston, where he performed the solo part in his Second Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony as part of an extensive American tour.

All three Sergeis had left their native Russia around the time of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and continued their careers in Paris. Prokofiev struggled with mixed success to make his mark in the crowded, international, and very competitive Parisian musical scene. Diaghilev (1872-1929) had already made his name in Paris before World War I, as the creator of the Ballets Russes dance company and of such legendary productions as Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Koussevitzky (1874-1951), well-established by then as a conductor and publisher in Russia and abroad, expanded his activities as the presenter of the Concerts Koussevitzky in Paris in the early 1920s. He continued to appear often in Paris even after he accepted the position of music director and conductor of the Boston Symphony in 1924.

Prokofiev called his Fourth Symphony a “half-brother” to Prodigal Son, which had its glittering premiere in Paris on May 21, 1929. It was his third ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, after Chout (The Buffoon, 1921) and Pas d’acier (The Steel Step, 1927). The production team was stellar: choreographer George Balanchine, librettist Boris Kochno, and designer Georges Rouault. Based on the familiar story of the Prodigal Son from the biblical gospel of St. Luke, the scenario in three scenes and ten episodes stresses psychological development and human relationships, and the prodigal’s wanderings and involvement with the “Siren.” Clearly inspired by the story, which mirrored his own wanderings from his native mother Russia and his recent experience of fatherhood, Prokofiev wrote the score quickly in the fall of 1928 and early 1929. In a letter to Natalie Koussevitzky, he joked that the music was turning out “simple, clear, melodic—in a word, just right for Brooklyn.”

In style, the music for Prodigal Son (and of the Fourth Symphony) represents what Prokofiev later called his “New Simplicity”—less noisy and dissonant, more concise, and more lyrical and melodic than most of the works he had been composing in Paris in the 1920s, such as the Second and Third symphonies. Excitement ran high around the premiere. Another Serge—Serge Lifar—danced the role of the Prodigal, opposite Felia Dubrovska as the Siren. Audience and critics responded with affection and enthusiasm. “None of my works has been so unanimously well-received for a long time,” Prokofiev wrote to his friend Nikolai Miaskovsky. After the performance, the entire crew celebrated lavishly at the Restaurant des Capucines, with the usual socialites in attendance, including Coco Chanel.

But the most successful of Prokofiev’s collaborations with Diaghilev was also his last. Just a few months after Prodigal Son’s premiere, Diaghilev died in Venice. With Koussevitzky’s move to Boston, and Diaghilev’s death, Prokofiev had lost his two most important advocates in Paris. Increasingly, he set his sights on a return to Russia, believing his career would flourish there.

While composing Prodigal Son, Prokofiev began considering the idea of constructing a symphony drawing on its musical material. His preceding symphony, the Third, had been created in a similar way with material from the opera The Fiery Angel. On January 16, 1929, he wrote in his diary (as translated by Anthony Phillips): “I already have the sonata-allegro, and what a beautiful Andante I could make from the theme with which the whole ballet now ends! But is there a danger in pursuing this idea? All very well to try it once with Fiery Angel, but every time I come up with a piece for the stage…?”

Prokofiev completed the symphony on June 23, 1930. Some of the work was done while travelling by train throughout the United States during his three-month American tour in early 1930. Before the Symphony was finished, Koussevitzky expressed interest in commissioning it for the Boston Symphony’s 50th anniversary season. But Prokofiev objected to the terms of the agreement. He considered the offered fee of $1000, too small for a commission, as he wrote to Koussevitzky, speaking of himself grandly in the third person: “Prokofiev gets three to five thousand dollars for a commissioned symphony, or simply for the right to announce that ‘we commissioned this from him.’” Instead, he stipulated that the BSO would receive the right for the first performance, and for the purchase of the manuscript. As usual, Prokofiev confronted competition from Stravinsky, whose Symphony of Psalms Koussevitzky presented as a BSO commission just one month after the premiere of Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony, and which enjoyed considerably greater popular and critical success.

Prokofiev was not present for the Boston premiere, but sent Koussevitzky instructions for the program note, obviously anticipating criticism that he was recycling music. “In several places in the Symphony I used music that was included in the ballet Prodigal Son. But this does not mean that the Symphony was written from material from Prodigal Son, or that Prodigal Son was written from material from the Symphony. In the Symphony I had the opportunity to develop symphonically what the form of a ballet would not permit me to do. You can find precedents from such an approach in Beethoven, in his ballet Prometheus and in his Third Symphony. This should be indicated with as much precision as possible in the program, since a lack of caution in the writing of program notes can give rise to various unnecessary judgments in the press after the performance.” (Program annotators, beware.)

There is no question, however, that the Fourth Symphony owes a substantial debt to Prodigal Son. Prokofiev worked on the ballet and symphony concurrently, moving between the two scores as he had new ideas for each one. The instrumentation, for a relatively small ensemble, is the same in each work. Nearly all of the symphony’s thematic material comes from the ten numbers of the ballet or from music written for the ballet but not used in the final version. But Prokofiev radically reworks and combines the themes in new ways, rearranging them in a variety of juxtapositions and configurations, in some cases in sonata form (first and fourth movements). Prokofiev also wrote a small amount of new material, including the slow, pensive introduction to the first movement. “I had been trawling through material in the ballet for the purpose, but had not found anything suitable, so created something new, and gained much thereby.” The galloping fast theme in the first movement comes from the ballet’s Scene 1, No. 4, “The Dancers”; and the secondary lyrical theme, first heard in the flute, from Scene 2, No. 7, “The Despoiling.”

Fragments from the ballet’s emotional last scene, “The Return,” and from Scene 2, No. 8, “Awakening and Remorse,” combine in the second movement, Andante tranquillo. The closest to the ballet’s music is the third movement, taken virtually unchanged from the “Siren” episode in Scene 1. The driving, propulsive final movement is the farthest removed from the ballet, treating music from several episodes in Scene 1 but reinventing them in a symphonic context, and introducing some new ideas as well.

Prokofiev was disappointed when he heard that the Fourth Symphony had enjoyed only a “muted” success at its premiere in Boston. The Christian Science Monitor critic wrote, “The symphony, if not calculated to rouse the public to frenzies of delight, is individual, and musically interesting.” In his diary, Prokofiev, usually so confident in his creative abilities, even expressed doubt about the recent course of his career. “I had been counting on an immediate success but, surprising as it may be, none of my latest works has scored straight away. Why is this?” Such doubts contributed to his decision in 1936 to return with his family permanently to Russia, where he had been received with great enthusiasm during several tours—only to be confronted there by full-blown Stalinist terror.

Pierre Monteux, conductor of the Boston Symphony before Koussevitsky, conducted the European premiere of the Fourth Symphony in Brussels on December 18, 1930. This and subsequent performances in Moscow gained only a lukewarm reception. (The symphony’s association with the “decadent émigré” Diaghilev severely hindered appreciation in Soviet Russia.) In 1947, Prokofiev prepared a completely revised new version (in Russian called a pererabotka or reworking) of the Fourth Symphony, to which he assigned a new opus, No. 112. Sixteen minutes longer, and with expanded instrumentation including piano, harp, and a large battery of percussion, this new Fourth reflects the influence of Soviet musical style—more grand, bombastic, and heroic, resembling his recent epic wartime Symphony No. 5, which had enjoyed great favor in Soviet official circles. Today, this more flashy version of the Fourth Symphony is the one most popular with conductors and recording companies, although it strays much farther from the delicate, restrained and biblical spirit of Prodigal Son, and the refinement of the Ballets Russes era. As for Prokofiev, he continued to cherish the original Fourth for its “wealth of material and absence of noise.”

Harlow Robinon

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He has contributed essays and reviews to the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Symphony, Musical America, and Opera News, and program essays to the Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival, and Metropolitan Opera.