Prokofiev (1891-1953) - Ballet Music: Romeo and Juliet
this note was tailored specifically to a choice of numbers made personally
by Adrian Smith for a concert given on 7 April 2001]
early ballet scores (such as Le Pas d'Acier, and the abortive Ala
and Lolli) were written under the influence of Diaghilev, in the heady
atmosphere of the post-war 1920s. Demand was for increasingly sensational
productions: lots of bright colour, little melody, and hence a predominance
of rhythm. Fashion also demanded variety, so these ballets were
to the USSR in 1933, Prokofiev entered a very different climate - the doctrine
of “socialist realism” was taking hold, and formalist excess (what we would
call “adventurousness”) was frowned on (i.e. likely to get you arrested).
Luckily Prokofiev, otherwise forced to abandon his sinful ways, found in
the burgeoning medium of film a degree of licence to continue developing
his highly-coloured, brittle, abrasive style. But, as far as ballet was
concerned, a radical rethink was necessary. In Romeo and Juliet
(1935), the “new” element of “extended melody”, embryonic in The Prodigal
Son and Sur le Borysthene, finally matured. Taking a tip from
Wagner, of all people, Prokofiev made extensive use of “leitmotif”: expressing
the dramatic developments of characters and relationships through symphonic
developments of associated musical ideas, Prokofiev bound the necessarily
short balletic numbers into a cohesive whole, mirrored Shakespeare's tale
with astonishing conviction, and avoided “formalism”.
this “acceptable” framework, Prokofiev secreted niches where he could continue
to “sin”: that aptitude for abrasion provided the spice to both release
and heighten dramatic tension, and could be freely applied to the light-hearted
revelry that counterbalances the looming tragedy of the plot. Even at two
and a half hours long, the full score feels very compact because each moment
(including passages accommodating scenery changes) contributes something
to the evolution of characters or plot. But we are not hearing the whole
ballet! Prokofiev admitted that his concert suites “do not follow each
other consecutively”, and that “some numbers were . . . compiled from diverse
. . . material.” But we are not hearing Prokofiev's suites! So, in our
conductor's choice of plums, can any of these dramatic delights still be
discerned? Indeed, they can. You'll get a particularly good impression
of the way it works in numbers 4, 8 and 9, music from all three scenes
of the lovers alone, and I've also referred each item to its dramatic context:
Introduction: These two volcanic crescendi, with their
suspenseful responses, properly accompany the outraged Prince in Act
I, forbidding further fooling with swords. Their reappearance as the
III Introduction, following the slaughter at the end of Act II,
sounds like the Nibelung Curse at work.
Montagues and Capulets: This grandiose, ponderous basse-danse
is a reduction of the Knights' Dance in the Act I Ball Scene.
Intended to establish the character of the Capulet family, thereafter its
themes become linked with the black-tempered Tybalt (the “bad guy”), and
later with Capulet himself (another fairly nasty piece of work). The quiet
central episode accompanies Juliet reluctantly dancing with her arranged
Masques: Before the Act I Ball Scene, the masked Romeo,
Mercutio and Benvolio tease the guests as they enter the ballroom. This
episode confirms Romeo & Co. as the “good guys”, the theme of the central
episode becoming associated with the merry Mercutio.
Romeo and Juliet: This is the Act I Balcony Scene,
replete with light breaking at yonder window, Romeo plighting his troth,
Juliet responding positively, and Romeo reacting in typically youthful
fashion by jumping all over the place, before they get to the business
of sealing their bond. The music gathers their key themes in appropriately
Minuet: Before Masques, this brilliantly coloured,
partly pompous, partly comic prelude to the Ball accompanies the guests
arriving at the Capulets' home and removing their cloaks.
Death of Tybalt: is a conflation of the disastrous ending
of Act II. Romeo's anxiety, as Mercutio crosses swords with Tybalt,
is expressed in the anguished overlaying of one of his themes. The swordfight
music, accompaniment to mere youthful posturing in Act I, intensifies
as tempers flare. Skipping past Mercutio's death, the pulsing beats that
end the fight announce Romeo's rash revenge. Enter the bereft senior Capulets,
self-indulgently weeping and wailing, as befits anyone who makes the Knights'
Dance the centrepiece of their Ball.
Dance: A reduction of the Dance of the Five Couples
from Act II Scene 1, this is one of those pieces of pure, unadulterated
revelry. Even in the most “trivial” passages, Prokofiev kept up his high
standard of inventiveness - just listen to the amazing “cross-faded” orchestration
of the counter-subject!
Romeo and Juliet before Parting: Dawn breaks at the start
of Act III, ending the clandestinely-married lovers' honeymoon.
In Act III's more intimate setting, evoked by luminous chamber-music
scoring, the lovers' themes mature into poignant reflection of the earlier
Scene, with apprehension muting passion.
Juliet's Grave: What is practically the ballet's entire
uses another “Curse” motive, related to the cataleptic drug and Friar Lawrence's
alarmingly high-risk strategy. This malignant motive racks the lovers'
themes, screwing stark sorrow out of their formerly joyful lines. At the
bitter end Juliet - unlike Romeo, but like the sun unto which Romeo likened
her - does “go gentle into that good night”.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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