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Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Neeme Järvi, conductor / Alice Sara Ott, piano, plays Liszt Nov. 14 - 16, 2013
© Peter Laki

It was no mean feat to express the plot and the complex feelings of Shakespeare's immortal tragedy of the "star-cross'd lovers" without a single word spoken or sung, only with dance and instrumental music.  In his great ballet written in 1935, Prokofiev rose to the challenge, depicting every situation and every character in a most gripping and personal manner.

The ballet was Prokofiev's first major project after returning to his native country for good after an absence of more than fifteen years.  The stakes were therefore very high:  Prokofiev, the former émigré, had to establish himself as a bona fide Soviet composer, and live up to his international reputation on home territory.  What he may not have realized when he let himself be persuaded by the Soviets to move back, was the intense government and Party control that all creative artists had to contend with, especially in the wake of the brutal denunciation of Shostakovich in 1936, which affected the entire artistic scene in the Soviet Union.

That the production of Romeo and Juliet was anything but smooth sailing was acknowledged by the ballerina Galina Ulanova who, after the ballet had finally been premiered in 1940, made the following toast at a reception after the premiere:

     For never was a story of more woe

     Than Prokofiev's music to Romeo.

     (Nyet povesti pechalneye na svete

     Chem muzyka Prokofieva v balete.)

This, of course, was a paraphrase of the final lines of Shakespeare's tragedy:

     For never was a story of more woe

     Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

 Prokofiev told the woeful story in his autobiography:

     In the latter part of 1934 there was talk of the Kirov Theatre of Leningrad staging a ballet of mine.  I was interested in a lyrical subject.  Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was suggested.  But the Kirov Theatre backed out and I signed a contract with the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre instead.  In the spring of 1935 [Kirov Theatre stage director Sergei] Radlov and I worked out a scenario, consulting with the choreographer on questions of ballet technique.  The music was written in the course of the summer, but the Bolshoi Theatre declared it impossible to dance to and the contract was broken.

     There was quite a fuss at the time about our attempts to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending-in the last act Romeo arrives a minute earlier, finds Juliet alive and everything ends well.  The reasons for this bit of barbarism were purely choreographic:  living people can dance, the dying cannot.  The justification was that Shakespeare himself was said to have been uncertain about the endings of his plays (King Lear) and parallel with Romeo and Juliet had written Two Gentlemen of Verona in which all ends well.  Curiously enough, whereas the report that Prokofiev was writing a ballet on the theme of Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending was received quite calmly in London, our own Shakespeare scholars proved more Catholic than the pope and rushed to the defense of Shakespeare.  But what really caused me to change my mind about the whole thing was a remark someone made to me about the ballet:  "Strictly speaking, your music does not express any joy at the end."  That was quite true.  After several conferences with the choreographers, it was found that the tragic ending could be expressed in the dance and in due time the music for that ending was written.

With his usual precision, Prokofiev had imagined in great detail what gestures and elements of dramatic action he intended his music to depict, and he could not hide his disappointment when the performance did not live up to his expectations:

     The Kirov Theatre produced the ballet in January 1940 with all the mastery for  which its dancers are famed-although with some slight divergences from the original version.  One might have appreciated their skill more had the choreography adhered more closely to the music.  Owing to the peculiar acoustics of the Kirov Theatre and the need to make the rhythms as clear-cut as possible for the dancers I was obliged to alter a good deal of the orchestration.  This explains why the same parts in the suites are more translucent than in the ballet score.

In Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev combined his exceptional melodic gifts with the somewhat acerbic harmonic idiom that is one of the hallmarks of his style.  This enabled him to express the timeless Romantic essence of this immortal love story while presenting it from a thoroughly contemporary perspective.

Romeo and Juliet is one of the longest ballets in the repertoire, taking about two and a half hours to perform.  The score contains no fewer than 52 musical numbers, some of which accompany dramatic action while others are conventional ballet numbers.  The present selection gives a representative cross-section of the entire ballet.  It will take us from the ball scene in Act I through some of the great love and fight scenes to the end of the tragedy.