Suite from Romeo and Juliet

Sergei Prokofiev

“Never was a story of more woe
Than this of Prokofieff’s music for Romeo”…
—A toast to the composer from the ballerina, Galina Ulanova after the first premiere of Prokofieff’s Romeo and Juliet on January 11, 1940

The seventh of Prokofiev’s nine ballets is his setting of Romeo and Juliet, which has become a treasured classic.  Early traumas stalking the ballet could have derailed its ultimate popularity, not only in the dance format but in the three orchestral suites as well. “In the latter part of 1934, there was talk of the Kirov Theatre of Leningrad staging a ballet of mine,” the composer recounted. “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, 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.” The dance company complained that the ballet was too short, that they could not hear the music which was “too soft” and that the rhythms were unpredictable.  A later version, completed in 1938 and produced by the Kirov ballet in 1940, also resulted in complaints. At that time, Prokofiev declared,  “Take it or leave it….You want drums not music!” Persuaded then to sit on the stage and listen, Prokofiev did acknowledge that the soft parts were hard to hear, and he relented a bit.  “Very well, I shall rewrite the music here and there and add something,” he promised. By 1946, the music was rewritten, and the ballet  performed with the Bolshoi on December 22, 1946, to great acclaim and considered “one of the finest productions ever presented at the Bolshoi.”

Besides early complaints about the music, Prokofiev’s first version of the story also came in for trouble because the composer toyed with the bard’s plot and supplied a happy ending. “The reason for taking such barbarous liberty with Shakespeare’s play was purely choreographic—live people can dance, but the dying can hardly be expected to dance in bed…” the composer explained. The ensuing uproar was furious, and ultimately Prokofiev rewrote the story to conform to the Shakespeare play.

What is interesting is the way that Prokofiev describes the circumstances, the characters and the emotions with his own musical style. In the Chicago Tribune in 1937, the composer explained “[My] Romeo and Juliet features a “new melodic line. “Which would have immediate appeal yet sound like nothing written before.” In his own way, Prokofiev succeeded in telling one of the greatest love stories of all time. And he succeeded in communicating the tragedy therein.

The Shakespeare play begins:

Two households, both alike in dignity. In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.From ancient grudge break to new mutiny. Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes. A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life; Whose misadventured piteous overthrows. Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

Selections on this concert derive from three  Romeo and Juliet orchestral suites: Opus 64bis, Opus 64ter, and opus 101.  In order of presentation these are:

Montagues and Capulets, Opus 64b/1 (Suite 1):

The opening comes from the ballet’s beginning scene and takes place at a ball, hosted by the Capulets. Juliet is presented to Paris, whom her parents have selected to be her husband.  The ball is a masquerade attended by Verona’s high society.

“These happy masks that kiss fair ladies’ brows

Being black put us in mind they hide the fair…”

In spite of the happy masks, there is seething hatred boiling between the two families which has spread into the citizenry.  There is evil afoot, despite the revelry. In spite of that, the host announces,  “Welcome gentlemen. Ladies that have their toes unplagued with corns will have a bout with you!”

Four brisk chords open the music, followed by lilting dance music in 6/8 meter marked allegro giocoso. The mood remains consistently light, energetic, and carefree. A snappy ending concludes this section.

Morning Dance, Opus 101/2 (Suite 3)

Marked allegro, peppy, fast music opens this section.  There are entertaining contrasts in dynamics, but the joyous mood prevails. Note the effective horn coloration.

The Young girl Juliet, Opus 64b/2 (suite 2)

Herein, we continue for a moment the speed of the previous two selections. Skipping violins dance quickly in the forefront.  A middle section waxes lyrical before the zippy teenage enthusiasm resumes. Alternating sections move quickly before the reflection in the mirror transforms the mood into wistful and rather solemn, describing an intimate discovery of herself.

The fourteen year old Juliet is having fun, teasing her nursemaid as they prepare for the Capulet ball. At the close she glances into a mirror and sees her reflection as a young woman.

Masks, Opus 641/5 (Suite 1)

At this point, we return to the Capulet’s ball in which the Montagues crash the event. Romeo, his cousin Benvolio, and his best friend, Mercutio lead the intrusion. A typical Prokofiev “wrong note” melody opens with a strutting march.  Note the tambourine coloration. The music is suspenseful as the group slinks into the party. Romeo is wearing a clown mask which Tybalt (Lady Capulet’s nephew) considers a mockery of the occasion. He states:

“What dares the slave

Come hither, cover’d with an antic face

To fleer and scorn at our  solemnity?

Death of Tybalt, Opus 64a/7 (Suite 1)

Act III opens with fighting between Capulet and Montague servants and the hot-headed Tybalt enters into the mix.  This ferocious setting generates  perpetual motion music in depicting  the opening turmoil and then focuses in on a terrible duel between Tybalt and Romeo. In his fury, Tybalt has already killed Mercutio, whose famous final words were “A plague on both your houses.” After Romeo kills Tybalt, to even the score, he exclaims, “O I am fortune’s fool.”

Morning Serenade, Opus 101/5 (Suite 3)

A delicate, crisp opening tiptoes quickly onto the scene.  Note the very difficult violin solo, followed by the brass as the sun appears. These two segments alternate within consistently quiet dynamics ending on a high plucked note.

Juliet’s Funeral, Opus 64b/7 (Suite 2)

Romeo is at Juliet’s tomb as the mourners carry in her body. She is, however, only drugged, not dead. To join her in heaven, he takes a poison which kills him before she awakens.

Death of Juliet, Opus 101/6 (suite 3)

Slowly moving, darkly shaded, this death of Juliet is one of the most wrenching depictions of the occasion. From time to time, the orchestra roars in its angst and sadness as Prokofiev unleashes the intensity of the tragedy.  Consistent with the event, the coloration is heavy, dense, flooded with anger and despair—dynamics soar and subside as the horror of what has happened is realized—emotions sway back and forth in hapless meandering. The final chord is resigned, tender, and in its smallness communicates the futility of the silly dispute which grew to such sickening dimensions.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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Program Notes