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ClassicsOnline Home » PROKOFIEV, S.: Symphony No. 4 / The Prodigal Son (Ukraine National Symphony, Kuchar)
Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
The Prodigal Son, Op. 46
Symphony No.4, Op.112 (revised version)
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estate manager. An only child, his musical talents were fostered by his mother, a cultured amateur pianist, and he tried his hand at composition at the age of five, later being tutored at home by the composer Glière. In 1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parents allowed him to enter the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianist and composer until 1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented by Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer, arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, now director of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of The Scythian Suite, fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemption from military service by enrolling as an organ student and after the Revolution was given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originally commissioned by the impresario Dyagilev, the Classical Symphony and his first Violin Concerto.
Unlike Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia with official permission and with the idea of returning home sooner or later. By 1920, when life in America was proving less immediately rewarding, he moved to Paris, where he-re-established contact with Dyagilev, for whom he revised The Tale of the Buffoon, a ballet successfully staged in 1921. He spent much of the next sixteen years in France, returning from time to time to Russia, where his music was still acceptable.
In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country, taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first onslaught on music that did not suit the political and social aims of the government, falling, as Shostakovich is said to have remarked, 'like a chicken into the soup', Twelve years later, after the difficult war years, his name was joined with that of Shostakovich and others in explicit official condemnation, now with particular reference to Prokofiev's opera War and Peace, He died in 1953 on the same day as Stalin and thus never benefited from the subsequent partial relaxation of official policy on the arts.
The Prodigal Son was the fourth and last ballet-score that Prokofiev wrote for Dyagilev. The commission, offered in the autumn of 1928, was eventually accepted, after some hesitation, but once agreed was completed in a remarkably short time. Dyagilev's collaborator Boris Kochno provided a scenario based on the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son and the finished work, after rehearsal in Monte Carlo, opened on 21st May 1929 at the Théâitre Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris. Choreography, lacking the realism Prokofiev expected and earning his dislike, was by Balanchine and the décor was by Georges Rouault, after Matisse had refused the undertaking. The part of the Prodigal was danced by Serge Lifar and that of the seductress by Felia Dubrovska. The programme of this last season for Dyagilev's Ballets russes began with Stravinsky's Renard, conducted by the composer, followed by Prokofiev's ballet, which he conducted himself. These were succeeded by Auric's Les fâcheux and the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince 1gor. The Prodigal Son shared the success of the programme and the season continued in Berlin and London. In August, however, Dyagilev died in Venice, where he was accompanied by Lifar and Kochno. His death ended a remarkable era in Russian ballet and a career that had brought commissions to Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and other composers, with parallel collaboration from some of the most distinguished artists and dancers of the time.
Kochno's scenario is in three scenes and ten episodes. The Prodigal Son leaves home, meets friends and then the seductress, followed by a dance for the men. In the second scene the Prodigal Son is seen with the seductress, drinks and is robbed, waking up to remorse. In the final scene the spoils are divided and the Prodigal returns home, to be welcomed by his father. The moral point of the parable, the reaction of the elder brother, is omitted.
The first episode, The departure (The Prodigal Son leaves his father and his sisters), contrasts a vigorous and angular Allegro risoluto with a gentler clarinet melody, leading to a lyrical Andante espressivo. The first two elements return in contrast and the episode ends with the clarinet melody. The meeting with the boy's friends is at first dominated by the motor rhythms that are a common feature of Prokofiev's writing, but there is a place for equally characteristic lyrical melody. The seductress is given sinuous woodwind melodies and there is contrast in a steadier gait, a reminder of the idiom of the Classical Symphony. Trombones introduce the men's dance, leading to an Allegro brusco and typically angular writing. The scene of the Prodigal Son and the seductress has an introduction coloured by the bassoons, leading to music that recalls the themes associated with the two characters. Drunkenness brings again the music of the boy's friends and the robbery is introduced by a passage for two clarinets and bass clarinet, to be joined by the strings and other instruments. The scene ends with waking and remorse, introduced by a sober viola melody. Motor rhythms and syncopations mark the division of the spoils, with echoes of the robbery itself. In the return of the Prodigal, as he drags himself home to the presence of his father, there is much to express the latter's love for his son that was lost and is now found again.
Prokofiev's Symphony No.4, Opus 47, was largely derived from the ballet in the autumn of 1929 and spring of 1930. A response to a commission for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it was first performed in Boston on 14th November of the latter year, to a relatively luke-warm reception. The composer was able to make use of music that had not been used in the ballet and to provide symphonic development of the material, as he made clear to Koussevitzky, who had commissioned the work and had reservations about this re-use of earlier material. The work was revised in 1947 and re-issued as Opus 112 in its new form, lengthened and enriched in orchestration by the addition of a piccolo, clarinet, piano and harp.
The symphony, in both versions, starts with a newly composed and extended introduction, leading to music associated with the riotous friends of the second episode of the ballet. This is followed by a lyrical and gentler second subject, a melody introduced by the flute. Following the principles of tripartite first-movement form, the earlier material is developed, to return in a varied recapitulation. The second movement is based on the final episode of the ballet, the return of the Prodigal Son, with the father's love for his son given again at first to the flute, with increasing prominence for the piano and harp. The seductress provides the substance of the third movement, her music now further developed to suggest a scherzo and trio. The final Allegro risoluto has excited material from the first scene of the ballet, duly developed, and secondary material that suggests a march in its insistent rhythm. The motor rhythm of the coda leads to a reminiscence of the opening of the symphony, now transformed, as the work comes to an end.
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