Revisit: Prokofiev Symphony no. 4, op. 47

performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev, or in a version below with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra

Here we are again at another revisit, from the days when I (still) didn’t know how to talk about music, but more importantly couldn’t really listen (at least as) intelligently (as I do now).

Right off the bat, I should mention that there are two versions of this symphony, op. 47 and 112. Op. 47 was written in 1929 and premiered in 1930, while the op. 112 revision of the same work was undertaken in 1947.

In the original post (which I won’t bother linking to, I believe) we addressed the op. 112 version. The revision was so vast that Prokofiev saw them as essentially different works, but both were based heavily off of, or taken from Prokofiev’s ballet L’enfant Prodigue, or ‘The Prodigal Son.’ I had originally planned just to revisit the work I’d originally listened to (like, once), but thought, for organization’s sake, let’s get both of his fourths out of the way, so we’re doing this one first, then op. 112 tomorrow.

Also, so perfectly, Gergiev’s cycle of the symphonies in London include both versions of the work, so the individual interpretations and such shouldn’t figure in so much.

About the original original work itself. The ballet was a commission from Diaghilev, the same one who commissioned Stravinsky’s works, and during it’s composition, Prokofiev realized the material he was producing had potential for development in a symphonic context. It’s not that he recycled content from the ballet for this work; rather, they were composed “concurrently.” This is unlike his third symphony, which used material from an opera Prokofiev had written, the premiere of which had been cancelled multiple times. His second symphony was by no means a success, and I’m not so sure that the other Diaghilev commission was either, so L’enfant Prodigue was a safe choice.

Its symphonic cousin, the original version of the fourth, also had a chance at becoming a commission from Serge Koussevitzky to commemorate the Boston Symphony’s fiftieth anniversary, but their fee was apparently too low. Prokofiev had allowed them to buy the score for  a much smaller fee, but no dedication was included, and due to some disagreements, he did not stay in Boston for the premiere.

Premieres for this original fourth were a problem. The world premiere, conducted by Koussevitzky in Boston was not a success. The European premiere was overshadowed by a very successful performance of Prokofiev’s own second piano concerto; it was also not well received in the Soviet Union. Also worthy of mentioning, Wikipedia says that “this symphony would be his third and final symphony to be composed outside of the Soviet Union.”

Suffice it to say I’m entirely unfamiliar with the source work, the ballet discussed above, and am perfectly happy to look at this early version of the fourth symphony as an independent, entirely original work.

This symphony is in four movements, and clocks in at around 22 minutes, a light, brisk, energetic piece.

There is a warm, rich opening that is almost surprisingly pleasant and even nostalgic, but it’s just a nice introduction to what comes. It’s in large contrast with the driving, almost mechanical nature of the main theme, a characteristic that shows up throughout this piece. It does call to mind that Wikipedia states the composer worked on this piece “on the long train rides he had to take during a tour of the United States in early 1930.” That’s kind of what this movement sounds like. It’s energetic, but almost in a maniacal yet just barely playful way. It’s a bit dark, dramatic, and a little brash. The contrasting passage is nice and ballet-like, with flute and clarinet dancing into the second theme, but there are some terrifying brass passages as well. It’s kind of all over the place, really, but there’s this frantic energy that I can’t really interpret as either good or bad, exciting or terrified. The recapitulation is quite clear.

The second movement, marked andante tranquillo, starts with the flute, who introduced the lyrical subject of the first movement. There’s also solo clarinet, and after the pretty stuff, that isn’t as instantly charming as the first movement, there are some really breathtaking swell in the strings, and this is the real highlight of the movement, otherwise a little bit… plain for me, pretty-ish, but nothing spectacular.

Apparently this third movement is the only one that really is grafted in its entirety from the ballet, the scherzo and trio. Strings enter and clarinet slithers over them. There’s a similar kind of ticky-tocky mechanicalness in this movement, but much looser, and a kind of energy to it as well. The return at the end of the theme is lighter, or more lively, or developed. This kind of writing feels quintessentially Prokofiev to me, somehow. It’s not a sweeping, impressive, life-changing movement, but I feel if I’d never heard it before and had to guess, I’d definitely guess Prokofiev. It’s got something about it, something that is incredibly and charming and effective on this small scale.

In the fourth movement, we’re right back on that train, but this time it’s speeding and kind of almost wanting to careen off the tracks, at least at first. This cohesion to the work overall brings a tightness, a succinctness to the piece that I feel works well in a 22-minute symphony. Just maybe the material presented here hasn’t been done justice, maybe there’s more place it could go, more we could explore with what’s here, but the advantage is that not a ton of content has been presented.

The scale of the piece itself is rather small, so there’s not a whole Mahlerian or Rachmaninoff-esque scope of an entire new universe to explore. It is what it is, and that’s fine. It’s far more lighthearted than lots of what we’ve discussed for the past few weeks, has its moments of beauty, pleasure, and harrowing excitement, but it’s a much smaller scale, almost neoclassical-feeling piece. While there are some heavier, even mildly menacing moments, the work is overall light and playful. It is its own little microcosm of music, a compact little work that I feel is pretty okay the way it is, if just mildly unmemorable or lacking in real staying power.

But, with unsuccessful premiere after unsuccessful premiere, one can perhaps see why he did, almost two decades later, undertake serious revision of the work. That is the ‘piece’ or revision that we will discuss tomorrow, the symphony no. 4, op. 112. See you then.



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