This is the earlier of the two versions of Prokofiev's Fourth Symphony; the revised Fourth, which is listed as Op. 112 (or Op. 47/112), came in 1947, immediately after the controversial and profound Sixth. Musicologists have tended to favor the first version of the Fourth Symphony, viewing the later reworking as inflated and out of spirit with the somewhat gallic character of the original conception.
While the earlier Fourth is more compact, it contains a wealth of ideas in each of its four movements, much like the equally short Fifth Piano Concerto, from 1932. The many themes in the Fourth are only briefly developed -- or not developed at all -- and transitional material often sounds abrupt or missing altogether.
The somewhat patchwork character of the work might be explained by the circumstances of its composition. Prokofiev wrote it on commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to commemorate its 50th anniversary in the 1930-31 season. Two years earlier he had missed the deadline to complete his opera The Fiery Angel, for which he had a contract with the Städtische Oper in Berlin. That crucial failing cost him ever seeing that opera staged in his lifetime. With another important commission to meet, he decided to draw on music from his then-recent and successful ballet, The Prodigal Son, and apparently put it together rather quickly. (The Third Symphony was also derivative, drawing its material from The Fiery Angel.)
The Fourth Symphony's first movement, marked Andante assai -- Allegro eroico, contains a fair amount of newly composed material, which comes in the introductory music and in the lovely alternate theme, played by reeds. The energetic main theme is taken from the ballet and therein relates to the prodigal son's deceitful friends who eventually swindle him.
The second movement (Andante tranquillo) is largely built on the lovely theme that appears at the end of the ballet, which represents the return of the prodigal son. It is one of those serene, long-breathed melodies that made Prokofiev famous -- particularly in his later ballets, Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The third movement Scherzo, marked Moderato, quasi allegretto, contains music that relates to the Beautiful Maiden in the ballet. The mood is light and playful, but for all its grace and sunshine there are more than a few hints of sarcasm and irony.
The opening of the finale (Allegro risoluto) is dominated by two themes of agitated character; they correspond to the prodigal son's impatience to leave home, and his meeting of new friends. The middle section features a lyrical theme, the emotional thrust of which veers from a quiet restlessness to an incandescent yearning.
The Fourth Symphony was premiered on November 14, 1930, with Serge Koussevitsky leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was not a success. The early version of the Fourth Symphony has been the least-recorded and -played of Prokofiev's symphonies; the revised version has fared somewhat better in the concert halls and on recordings. A typical performance of the work lasts from 23 to 28 minutes.