Program Notes

These pages contain program notes written for Redwood Symphony. You are free to use the information in your own program notes. If you quote me directly, please attribute it. Thanks!

These notes were edited, amended, and otherwise improved by Eric Kujawsky, Peter Stahl, and Doug Wyatt.

Barbara Heninger

Sergey Prokofiev
Suite from Romeo and Juliet

In the early 1930s, after nine years spent in the United States and then France, Sergey Prokofiev began contemplating a move back to Russia. As a brash young composer in Russia he had found himself praised or reviled as a modernist; in America and France he was more often seen as a representative of the old Russia he had left behind. He'd had a number of successes working with fellow expatriate Sergey Diaghilev, for whose Ballets Russes in Paris he'd written short ballets such as Chout (1915-20), Le pas d'Acier (1925), and, perhaps prophetically, The Prodigal Son (1929). Now it was time for Prokofiev to play the prodigal himself.

Starting in 1932, he began returning to Russia for longer and longer visits, finally moving his family there in 1936. In the end, he may have regretted the move -- Prokofiev ended his days forced to write patriotic commissions for canal openings. Yet during the first years of his return, he composed some of his best-known works, including Romeo and Juliet (1935-1936) and Peter and the Wolf (1936).

In 1934, he began discussions with the Kirov Theater in Leningrad about writing a lyrical ballet. They suggested Romeo and Juliet, but later backed out. So in 1935, Prokofiev signed a contract with the Moscow Bolshoi Theater to produce a ballet based on Shakespeare's work. He began sketching out scenarios with theater director Sergey Radlov, playwright Adrian Pyotrovsky and choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky. He completed the music that summer -- but the ballet seemed to be born under the same unlucky stars that its protagonists suffered under. The first problem was the ballet's ending, as Prokofiev writes:

"There was quite a fuss about our attempt to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending. ... The reason for this bit of barbarism was purely choreographic: the living can dance, the dying cannot. ... What caused me to change my mind about the whole thing was a remark someone made to me: 'Your music does not express real joy at the end.' That was quite true. After several conferences with the choreographer, it was found that the tragic ending could be expressed in dance after all, and in due course the music for the ending was written."

This wasn't the end of the ballet's troubles, however. The Bolshoi rejected it, calling it "impossible to dance to." So the composer signed contracts with the Leningrad Ballet School in 1937 and the Brno Opera in Czechoslovakia in 1938 to stage the work. Because the Ballet School violated their contract, the ballet was finally premiered in December 30, 1938 in Brno. It was successful enough that the Kirov decided it might stage the work after all, doing so in 1940. The Kirov dancers still had some difficulty with the many meter changes, and Prokofiev reportedly got into several shouting matches with the choreographer. However, the performance went well, and the ballet was met favorably by its audiences.

Dr. Kujawsky has selected music from the complete ballet score's first two acts to create a suite about 45 minutes in length.

The Introduction sets the scene on the Verona streets, where we first hear the lyrical, rising motif that is reiterated throughout the ballet. Undulating strings depict the water at a fountain where we first see Romeo. The Street Awakens with a humorous dialogue that begins between solo bassoon and violin, as the various characters of the town emerge. This segues into the Morning Dance, which turns the hesitant motive of the previous number into an assertive, athletic romp for the entire orchestra.

The scene turns to the Capulets. The Young Juliet opens with playful, skitterish scales depicting the young girl, then a pensive tune for flute develops into a broad, lyrical melody for strings, representing her growing womanhood. The ending is a tiny miracle of condensed drama, juxtaposing these two motifs with a slightly ominous voicing in the low strings.

Masks takes place at the Capulets' ball, when Romeo and his friends Benvolio and Mercutio enter in disguise. The music is joyous and rhythmic; these fellows are courting danger, but are too young and brash to realize it. The danger is evident to the audience, however, with the angular, marching tones of the Dance of the Knights: the macho Capulets strut to entertain their guests. A contrasting woodwind minuet for Juliet and her suitor, Paris, is courtly, yet unsettling in its minor mode.

The Balcony Scene depicts Juliet's musings after having met Romeo, with dreamy strings and tender melodies. Romeo's Variation, as the hero enters to declare his love, begins with sweeping lower brass and develops into Prokofiev's most passionate, romantic music with the Love Dance (Pas de Deux). The scene closes quietly, gradually slowing in tempo as the lovers reluctantly part.

The Folk Dance opens the action of Act II proper, with a pulsing dance full of rolling triplets, slapping tambourines and jaunty brass solos. In the full ballet, this is followed by "public merrymaking," which may account for the disastrous behavior at the Meeting of Tybalt and Mercutio. The strings play an anxious ostinato as woodwinds taunt, then a reprise of the knights' theme converts the earlier martial show into real fighting. Tybalt challenges Romeo, then we hear Juliet's girlish motif as Romeo, thinking of his love, refuses to fight. But Mercutio takes up the challenge. Though the music at the opening of The Duel is sometimes humorous as the young men posture and brag, the inescapable motion of the strings carries the combatants to their tragic end. With a burst of brass, Tybalt slays Mercutio. The whirling strings that follow depict the whirl of emotion as Romeo Decides to Avenge Mercutio. He takes up his friend's sword and kills Tybalt, his blows represented by repeated strikes of bass drum and tambourine and blasts of low brass. With the Finale, a forceful, funereal march, Romeo realizes the consequences of his action. The suite ends with rising, anguished brass chords, sounding the inevitability of Romeo's tragic fate.

February 13, 2005