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ClassicsOnline Home » PROKOFIEV, S.: Symphony No. 4 (revised 1947 version) / The Prodigal Son (São Paulo Symphony, Alsop)
Prokofiev’s imposing Fourth Symphony and his final ballet for Sergey Dyagilev, The Prodigal Son, share common roots but are entirely distinctive in character. The vivid depictions in the ballet’s moral tale include sensual temptations, drunken debauchery, robbery and remorse. The 1947 revision of the Fourth Symphony, lengthened and enriched in orchestration by the addition of a piccolo clarinet, piano and harp, makes extended use of themes from The Prodigal Son as well as unused material. Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony with Marin Alsop and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (8.573029) was described as “an outstanding achievement” by BBC Music Magazine.
Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Symphony No 4 (revised version), Op 112 • The Prodigal Son, Op 46
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in the 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 as a 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 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. His stay in the United States of America was at first successful. He appeared as a solo pianist and wrote the opera The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Opera. By 1920, however, he had begun to find life more difficult and moved to Paris, where he re-established contact with Dyagilev, for whom he revised Chout (The Tale of the Buffoon), a ballet successfully mounted 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 official onslaught on music that did not sort well with the political and social aims of the government, aimed in particular at the hitherto successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Shostakovich. Twelve years later the name of Prokofiev was to be openly joined with that of Shostakovich in an even more explicit condemnation of formalism, with particular reference now to Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace. He died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin, and thus never benefited from the subsequent relaxation in official policy to the arts.
As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable The Fiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris the year after his death, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The last of his seven symphonies was completed in 1952, the year of his unfinished sixth piano concerto. His piano sonatas form an important addition to the repertoire, in addition to his songs and chamber music, film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes of the state. In style his music is often astringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn of melody and, whatever Shostakovich may have thought of it, a certain idiosyncratic gift for orchestration that gives his instrumental music a particular piquancy.
Prokofiev’s Symphony No 4, Op 47, was largely derived from the ballet L’enfant prodigue and written 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 14 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 later 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 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.
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, it 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 21 May 1929 at the Théâtre 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 Igor. 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 from 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.
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