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Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Yundi Li, piano, performs Liszt Apr. 5 - 7, 2007
© Richard Freed
Prokofiev composed most of his music for the ballet Romeo and Juliet during the summer of 1935: the premiere was given in Brno, Czechoslovakia, on December 30, 1938; the Russian premiere took place on January 11, 1940, at the Kirov Theater in Leningrad (as the Maryinsky Theater and St. Petersburg were known at that time). Two of the concert suites Prokofiev extracted from the score were actually introduced to the public before the ballet's premiere—Suite No. 1 on November 24, 1936, in Moscow; Suite No. 2 on April 15, 1937, in Leningrad—and a third suite, labeled Op. 101, was introduced in Moscow on March 8, 1946. Over the years the National Symphony Orchestra has given numerous performances of the individual suites, and of various conductors' chosen excerpts from them. The NSO first performed music from Romeo and Juliet in a Young People's Concert conducted by Howard Mitchell on December 7, 1954, and did so most recently in subscription concerts under Emil de Cou on March 20, 21 and 22, 2003. Mstislav Rostropovich recorded the Suites Nos. 1 and 2 with the orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon, and during his tenure the final number of the Suite No. 1, "The Death of Tybalt," became a frequent encore in tour concerts: it was recorded as such at the end of the orchestra's first concert in Moscow, on February 13, 1990. Also under Mr. Rostropovich, in the course of an extended "Russian Festival," the NSO gave two staged performances of the complete ballet with the Lithuanian National Ballet, on May 8 and 9, 1998. For the present concerts, Leonard Slatkin has made his own selection of music from the original ballet score.

The selections performed in the present concerts require a piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, cornet, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, military drum, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, glockenspiel, xylophone, piano, celesta, harp, and strings. Duration, 1 hour.
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None of Shakeapeare's other plays has inspired nearly as many works of music as Romeo and Juliet. Over the centuries since Shakespeare's own time, there have been operas, ballets, tone poems, sets of incidental music for the play itself, and music in still other forms, from composers whose personal styles reflect as broad a range of contrasts as their respective nationalities. From Russia alone we have had Tchaikovsky's splendid "overture fantasy," a set of "symphonic pictures" by Dmitri Kabalevsky, and a ballet whose music is regarded widely as the supreme masterwork of its distinguished composer, Sergei Prokofiev.

However one might rank Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet among his own works, it is without question the most admired "full evening" ballet since those of Delibes and Tchaikovsky. In common with numerous other similarly successful works in various forms, though, it had a hard time getting off the ground. Following his long sojourn in the West, which began in May 1918, Prokofiev repatriated himself gradually in long visits home between 1932 and 1936, and it was during that period, in 1934, that the Kirov Theater initiated the project—and then dropped it before Prokofiev had written a note. By then, however, the composer had become so fascinated with the idea that he was determined to pursue it, and he signed a contract for presentation of the ballet at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. In the spring of 1935 he chose his friend and chess partner Sergei Radlov, a theater director who had staged his opera The Love for Three Oranges and had produced several Shakespeare plays, to write the scenario, in consultation with himself, the choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky, and the theater critic and playwright Adrian Pyotrovsky. For a time Prokofiev and his three associates considered giving the work a happy ending (as the composer remarked, "Living people can dance—the dead cannot"), but in the end they remained faithful to Shakespeare.

The Bolshoi arrangement didn't work out, either: when Prokofiev submitted his score the following summer it was rejected as being "undanceable" and the contract was voided. It was at that point that Prokofiev arranged the first two concert suites from the score; he introduced them both during the 1936-37 season, and also arranged ten numbers from the ballet for piano solo. While the response to the music thus performed was highly favorable, the ballet still found no takers; even the Kirov's school company turned it down. When it was finally staged, in Brno at the end of 1938, with the Czech dancer Zora Sembgerová as Juliet, Prokofiev was not present. (He and the Brno choreographer and ballet director Ivo Vána Psota, however, had worked out various details in correspondence.) A year later, the Kirov had another change of heart and produced it after all, with the legendary Galina Ulanova dancing the role of Juliet.

(The Kirov company brought its famous production of the ballet to the Kennedy Center three months ago. In her review of it for The Washington Post, Sarah Kaufman reported that Prokofiev's music for the "happy-ending" version had been found in Moscow and is to be the used in a new version of the ballet by the American choreographer Mark Morris, to be introduced next year at Bard College.)

Even after the Leningrad premiere, Prokofiev was not finished with Romeo and Juliet. Having made several additions to the score and enlarged the orchestra for the Russian premiere at the request of Lavrovsky and the dancers, he made further additions in 1941, and then still more for the Bolshoi premiere in 1946—in which year he also introduced a third concert suite from the score. Overall, Prokofiev spent about as much time revising and polishing this work as Beethoven did on his opera Fidelio; as in that case, this was a work especially close to its composer's heart. Prokofiev declared that he had "taken special pains to achieve a simplicity which will, I hope, reach the hearts of all listeners. If people find no melody and no emotion in this work, I shall be very sorry—but I feel sure that sooner or later they will."

And of course they did. The ballet became immensely popular through various choreographic treatments in the West as well as in Russia, and Kenneth MacMillan's version for Britain's Royal Ballet was made into a film by Paul Czinner, with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in the title roles. But note that Prokofiev spoke of reaching "the hearts of all listeners": although he committed himself fully to the ballet project as it evolved over the years, he intended that his music should be effective enough to "reach the heart" on its own strength, without the stage action, and this objective, too, was richly achieved. The music, in the form of the composer's own concert suites, in various sequences of excerpts, and even occasional performances of the entire score, has taken a permanent place in the concert repertory. For the present concerts, Leonard Slatkin has chosen material representing the entire span of the dramatic action, and taken it from the original ballet score.

From Act I we hear the INTRODUCTION, and then, in a square in Verona, THE STREET AWAKENS, and the busy but peaceable atmosphere is broken by a QUARREL and FIGHT depicting the blood-feud of the Montagues and Capulets. Next, from Scene 2, we have a portrait of JULIET THE YOUNG GIRL, as her nurse helps her prepare for the ball given by her parents. From the ball scene itself, we hear first the ARRIVAL OF THE GUESTS, and then the arrival of the uninvited ones: a section headed MASKS, representing the entrance of the three Montagues—Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, all masked. (This number alone in the present sequence is performed in the revised version Prokofiev used in one of his concert suites: specifically in this instance in the Suite No. 1, in which it is given a somewhat different ending.) This is followed by the DANCE OF THE KNIGHTS, in which Juliet dances with her cousin Paris, to whom she is betrothed. This music, one of the best-known passages in the entire score, is familiar to most listeners under a awakening and Romeo's death.)

April 2007