Sergei Prokofiev has a large reputation, although many of his works are seldom heard. The reason for this is that his music has a certain image, one created to some extent by the composer himself and one from which he found it difficult in later years to distance himself, no matter how hard he tried. One might summarise this image as that of a poker-faced comedian. Compositions that confirm this impression, such as the Classical Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto and some of his early piano works are amongst his best-known works.
Like the Third Symphony, the Fourth also has close links to an explicitly narrative composition, this time to the ballet L’enfant prodigue, on which the composer was also working in 1930. At that point, Serge Koussevitzky was the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which was commissioning works to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary from composers such as Prokofiev (Fourth Symphony), Stravinsky (Symphony of Psalms), Roussel (Fourth Symphony) and Hindemith (Concert Music for brass and strings). He was disappointed when Prokofiev told him of the relationship between the two works, as he feared that the symphony might only be partially original. The conductor need not have been too concerned, however. As with the Third Symphony, the material of the Fourth may well be derivative in part, but it is developed in a novel way.