Program Notes

Music from the Ballet Romeo and Juliet, Opus 64


BORN: April 27, 1891. Sontzovka, near Ekaterinoslav in the Ukraine

DIED: March 5, 1953. Moscow, Russia

COMPOSITION: 1935–36  

WORLD PREMIERE: 1938 in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic). The Kirov performed the work for the first time on January 11, 1940. In the meantime Prokofiev had already compiled two orchestral suites in 1936 (he added a third in 1946)

US PREMIERE: March 1938. Prokofiev conducted the Second Suite with the Boston Symphony  

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, cornet, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, xylophone, bells, harp, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 45 mins

THE MUSIC Romeo and Juliet is probably Prokofiev’s most loved score today, but its early history was not easy. He wrote the music in a critical period of his life. After nine years of voluntary exile from Russia, mainly in the United States and Paris, he was approaching the end of a decade of uneasy shuttling back and forth between the two worlds. It was a difficult and sometimes bewildering retransition. Russian audiences did not accept such works as The Buffoon and the Scythian Suite, which had been successful in Paris, but they loved the Violin Concerto No. 1, which Paris had rejected as too conservatively lyrical. Through all this, Prokofiev was coming closer to the step he finally committed to in 1936, renting an apartment in Moscow for himself, his wife, and their two children. Later, as he was subjected to government harassment, he must sometimes have questioned the wisdom of his judgment.

Toward the end of 1934, there was talk that the Kirov Theater in Leningrad (as it then was) might stage a ballet by Prokofiev. In his 1946 biographical sketch, Prokofiev wrote with characteristic dry detachment:

I was interested in a lyrical subject. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was suggested, but the Kirov backed out and I signed a contract with the Moscow Bolshoi Theater instead. In the spring of 1935, Radlov [Sergei Radlov, a theater director renowned for his Shakespeare productions] and I worked out a scenario, consulting with the choreographer [Leonid Lavrovsky] on questions of ballet technique. The music was written during the summer, but the Bolshoi declared it impossible to dance to, and the contract was broken.

. . . The ballet itself was rather unlucky. In 1937 the Leningrad Ballet School signed an agreement undertaking to produce it on the occasion of its 200th anniversary, and in 1938 the Brno Opera agreed to stage it, too. The Ballet School violated its agreement, and so the premiere took place in Brno in December 1938. The Kirov produced the ballet in January 1940 with all the mastery for which its dancers are famed. . . .

The excerpts we hear (a combination of music from Prokofiev’s first two orchestral suites) reveal how a great composer shaped character, communicated emotion, and captured the dramatic sweep of one of the world’s great love stories.

The Montagues and Capulets sets the scene on a street in Verona, where the feuding families are engaged in a brawl.

In The Young Juliet, we see the playful side of the heroine as she banters with her Nurse.

Masks is the music to which Romeo and his friends make their entrance (masked) at the Capulets’ ball. There follows a beautiful Madrigal. From here we move to the Capulets’ garden. At the ball that evening Romeo has fallen for Juliet, as she has for him.

The Balcony Scene finds Juliet standing in the Veronese moonlight. Romeo appears, and they swear their devotion to each other. In the strings we hear the call of the cuckoo. Over this, Prokofiev sends the violins into a long melody. Love music blooms in divided strings and rises into the night. A climax, and the music relaxes as an oboe introduces a section in which the second violins scurry beneath the long melody sung by the firsts. The ending is gentle.

A dramatic encounter and fight precipitates the tragedy. Romeo’s friend Mercutio and Juliet's cousin Tybalt encounter each other on the street. Tempers reach boiling point. Tybalt challenges Romeo, who refuses to accept. Mercutio is more rash. He and Tybalt duel, and Mercutio dies. Now Romeo, enraged, avenges his friend. We witness The Death of Tybalt as Romeo deals his opponent a mortal wound.

Romeo goes into exile for having committed the murder. Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb finds the hero in his beloved’s crypt. Friar Laurence, who had married them, has given Juliet a potion that has put her into a death-like trance; his plan is that Romeo will join her at graveside and that, when she awakens, both will escape together. But Romeo has never received the Friar’s message detailing the plan. Despairing over Juliet, he plunges his dagger into his heart. And Juliet, awakening from her sleep, finds Romeo dead and kills herself.—Michael Steinberg

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