Prokofiev’s soundtrack for a well-known story

Sergey Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet  was written for the Kirov Ballet. The work was finished shortly after the composer’s final repatriation to Soviet Russia in 1935. The strong opposition and difficult circumstances that early productions met, as we will discuss soon, lead the composer to adapt his music to the concert hall instead. The 3 independent Suites, or collection of numbers, avoid a narrative sequence. Instead, although suggesting crucial moments of the story, they form a balanced combination for the concert setting.

ENBProkofiev conceived the ballet in collaboration with innovative Soviet dramatist Sergei Radlov, who reimagined the familiar tragedy as a struggle for the right to love by young, strong, and progressive people battling against feudal traditions and feudal outlooks on marriage and family. Prokofiev then set down to work, creating a score that involved transcendence, not tragedy. His idea diverged from perhaps the most recognized rendering of the drama: Shakespeare’s compelling play on the ill-fated lovers.

The so-called “original” story of Romeo and Juliet has an interesting genesis of its own. It seems to have been originated in the early 1300s and only recollected in written form by Masuccio Salernitano, a poet from the city of Verona, Italy. The following table gathers a brief recollection of the different adaptations that have been directly influenced by the tale.

Different versions through history

AuthorTitleCharactersCity, CountryMediaLanguageYear
Masuccio SalernitanoIl Novellino #33Mariotto and GiannozzaVerona, Italyshort storyItalian1400s
Luigi da PortoNewly Found Story of Two Noble Lovers Romeus and GiuliettaVicenza, ItalyShort storyItalian1531
Matteo BandelloRomeo and JulietRomeo and Juliet-, ItalyShort Story (novella)Italian1500s
Arthur BrookeThe Tragic History of Romeus and JulietRomeus and JulietLondon, EnglandPoemEnglish1562
Lope de VegaCastilvenes y MontesesRomeo y JulietaMadrid, SpainPoemSpanish1590
William ShakespeareRomeo and JulietRomeo and JulietLondon, EnglandPlayEnglish1596
Thomas OtwayThe History and Fall of Caius MariusLavinia and RomeoLondon, EnglandPlayEnglish1679
Theophilus CibberRomeo and JulietRomeo, JulietLondon, EnglandPlayEnglish1744
Hector BerliozRoméo et JulietteRoméo, JulietteParis, FranceChoral SymphonyFrench1839
Piotr I. TchaikovskyRomeo and JulietMoscow, RussiaOverture-FantasyOrchestral1869
Frederick DeliusA Village Romeo and JulietRomeo, JulietBerlin, GermanyOperaEnglish1907
Sergei ProkofievРомео и Джульетта
(Romeo & Juliet)
St. Petersburg, RussiaBalletBallet1935
33 Different renderings - IMDB listvarious directorsRomeo and JulietUSAMovieEnglishTwentieth Century
Leonard BernsteinWest Side StoryTony and MariaUSAMusicalEnglish1957 (movie 1961)
Frank ZeffirelliRomeo and JulietRomeo and JulietUSAMovieEnglish1968
Baz LuhrmannRomeo + JulietRomeo and JulietUSAMovieEnglish1996
Robin MaxwellO, JulietRomeo and JulietUSANovelEnglish2010

Evidently, each of these adaptations have chosen as many ways of telling the story as mediums and creators have actually chosen to tell it. In fact, even Shakespeare’s, perhaps again the most recognizable of them, has received “retouches” through time, altering the ending to accommodate a continuously increasing drama-oriented audience. If you have the chance to read Shakespeare’s text, you will be surprised to find out that Juliet does not wake herself up before Romeo’s last breath (even though it was a brilliant addition by an overzealous director), as it may seem suggested by any other rendering “based” on Shakespeare’s telling.

Sergei_Prokofiev-1935It is in this line of adapting a known narrative, that we say Prokofiev attempted to create a score that involved transcendence, not tragedy, actively changing the ending and transforming soul of the piece. What followed has no parallel in ballet history, in the words of Simon Morrison

The artistic climate in Stalin’s Russia darkened: in dance, music, and drama, timidly conservative neoclassicism supplanted exciting, accessible innovation. Not only was Prokofiev forced to rewrite the ending of the ballet – replacing the entire fourth act with an epilogue, he was forced to insert large-scale solo dances breaking up the dramatic flow. A divertissement involving three exotic dances in act III was scrapped for logistical reasons. The Kirov Theater dancers complained about the difficulty of the rhythms; the original choreographer, Leonid Lavrovsky, insisted on a thickening of the orchestration. As the demands piled up, Prokofiev became increasingly frustrated, but each time, he complied with them. The ballet received its Russian premiere in 1940. When Prokofiev saw it, he had a hard time recognizing his own music. He pleaded for the changes to be undone, to no avail.


…a struggle for the right to love by young, strong, and progressive people battling against feudal traditions and feudal outlooks on marriage and family.

Even though the piece we cherish today is radically different from the one the composer set to create, it is possible to affirm that the score is a masterpiece. With impressive economy of means, Prokofiev conjures in sound every circumstance, character, psychological theme and even mood in the story. The musical painting is endlessly intriguing, but always aurally recognizable. At the risk of repeating ourselves, you will soon realize the organization of the pieces in the Suite follows an aural intention of contrast and balance, not the narrative of the drama. Here are some of the moments described in sound from the tale, described in Radlov’s scenario for the ballet.

 

 Montagues and Capulets. An angry dissonance suggests the eventual tragedy. The arrogance of the feuding families is pictured in the strings (Montagues) and the Horn section (Capulets). A contrasting middle section, representing Juliet’s first dance with Paris (the elected suitor), has the more color and perhaps childishness in it.

 The Young Juliet. One of Prokofiev’s most vivid musical portraits, this warm episode exudes naiveté. The teen-aged (15) heroine is presented before the decreed blossoming of her mature emotions.
 Minuet. Early in the ballroom scene, this music, alternately regal and animated, presents the hosts and their arriving guests.

 Masks. Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio (all with the Montague’s gang) appear disguised outside the Capulets’ (Juliet’s) house as guests arrive for a ball. The exuberant music might reflect the spirited antics of the three friends.

 

 Romeo and Juliet [The Balcony Scene]. For what is probably the best-known scene in all of Shakespeare, Prokofiev conjures a magical mood of midnight. The music rises to a level of impassioned ardor, but always remains luminous, exalted. Our imagination is presented with an idealized vision of the two young lovers.

 Death of Tybalt. Romeo avenges his friend Mercutio, who has just met death at the hand of Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin). This is the wedding day of Romeo and Juliet, and Romeo, at first reluctant to engage in battle, now slays the murderer of Mercutio. The dueling music describes the battle. Tybalt’s death agonies are intensified by fifteen throbbing timpani and woodwind punctuations.

 

 Aubade. This is the waking dance for the morning of Juliet’s intended wedding. Over a continuously bustling string accompaniment, woodwinds suggest the joyful anticipation, contrasted with a more ominous thematic interjection from the brass. The tragedy looms in the horizon.

 Romeo at Juliet’s Grave. The love theme points up Romeo’s grief with great intensity.
 Death of Juliet. This is the Adagio that ends the ballet, when Juliet awakens to find Romeo dead beside her and decides to follow him. Prokofiev depicts the full measure of the tragedy here with a swelling summation of vast poignancy, including an emotionally intense reference to the music of The Young Juliet. It ends quietly, disappearing just like Juliet’s life.


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