The Prodigal Son, based on the familiar New Testament parable, was the last and perhaps the finest of the four ballets Prokofieff composed for Dyaghilev’s Ballets Russes and it is still in the dance repertory today. But, as with The Fiery Angel, Prokofieff soon decided this theatre music could be given another life and symphonic treatment in the concert-hall, and so parts of The Prodigal Son were recomposed into this Fourth Symphony.
Despite their common theatrical origins, the Fourth Symphony is quite different to the Third. Instead of being passionate, involved and dangerous, this central work in Prokofieff’s seven-fold cycle of symphonies is cool, clean-cut, lyrically simple and filled with evocative, almost chamber-music textures (often involving ravishingly beautiful woodwind writing). Together with the First and Seventh, in its original 1930 version the Fourth represents the classical and elegant side of Prokofieff’s character. Like the Second, it was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky (to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra).
The first movement is built out of a lively episode from the ballet where the prodigal son is corrupted and lured by his low-life friends into the wicked ways of the world. The sweet and gentle second movement is based on the father’s loving forgiveness of his son in the ballet’s final scene. Then follows a delightful and captivatingly balletic scherzo taken from the music of ‘the Beautiful Maiden’ (a character who does not appear in the original New Testament story!). And the motoric last movement transforms the ballet’s very opening, vividly suggesting the excitement of an eager young man, naively desperate to get out into the world and have adventures.
Note by Gerard McBurney