• Tue. Mar 21st, 2023

Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’: From Ballet Score to Concert Suite


Nov 16, 2022

Character lies at the heart of Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet score, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64.

In the opening bars, the alternating forces of darkness and light become metaphysical “characters.” Demonic dissonances in the brass roar and subside, revealing an angelic string “choir” which seems to have been present all along. It is this battle between the baseness of the world and transcendent higher powers which underlies Shakespeare’s story.

A heavy, groaning march depicts the feud between two families, the Montagues and Capulets, which grinds on, senselessly. In contrast, the sun drenched music of the adolescent Juliet is filled with endearing naivety and sudden mood shifts between youthful exhilaration and introspection. The shimmering “balcony scene” is accompanied by a soaring melody which suggests both passionate longing and the subtle foreshadowing of tragedy. A plodding hymn, intoned by the bassoon, tuba, and low strings, depicts Friar Laurence.

Prokofiev’s score includes quirky, exotic melodies and the dizzying energy of a sword fight (Death of Tybalt). Romeo’s anguish at the grave of Juliet brings a searing remembrance of the “balcony scene.” Amid a horrifying harmonic disintegration, the previously vibrant theme is heard in the clarinet, where its lifeblood seems to drain away. The curtain falls with a glistening C major chord. Amid tragedy, the highest instruments of the orchestra leave us with a transcendent beam of light.

The commission for Romeo and Juliet from Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet) came at a time of transition for Prokofiev. In 1935, the composer was lured back to the Soviet Union after nine years of self-imposed exile in Paris and the United States. With Shostakovich at odds with Stalin’s government, Prokofiev believed, falsely, that he could appease the Soviet censors and assume the role of the country’s preeminent composer. During his first summer back in his homeland, Prokofiev composed the Romeo and Juliet score in a small cottage outside of Moscow at the artists’ retreat of Polenovo.

Originally, Prokofiev planned an altered ending in which Romeo arrived in time to find Juliet alive. Later, the composer justified the change, observing that “living people can dance, the dying cannot.” The change became controversial with Soviet officials, who normally favored uplifting art. Meanwhile, political turmoil caused the Kirov contract to fall through. A new agreement was signed with Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. Yet, Prokofiev’s score was deemed “undanceable,” and the production was postponed indefinitely. A quiet 1938 premiere took place in Brno, Czechoslovakia. In January, 1940, Romeo and Juliet was finally performed on the Kirov stage.

With the ballet’s staging unassured, Prokofiev transformed the score into a series of orchestral suites. In an effort to capture the dramatic arc of the story, frequently conductors have drawn selections from both suites. This is what we hear in the recordings below. The complete ballet score includes additional obscure treasures, such as the unforgettable Dance with Mandolins. 

This celebrated 1969 studio recording features Karel Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra:

  1. Montagues and Capulets
  2. Juliet, the Young Girl
  3. Masks
  4. Romeo and Juliet (the Balcony Scene)
  5. Friar Laurence
  6. Dance of the Girls With Lilies
  7. Dance
  8. Death of Tybalt
  9. Romeo and Juliet Before Parting
  10. Romeo at Juliet’s Grave

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *