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
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
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
February 13, 2005