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Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, maracas, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), harp, celesta, piano, and strings
Prokofiev composed the score for Romeo and Juliet in 1935 for the Leningrad Theatre of Opera and Ballet, but the music became known through concert performances of suites the composer arranged well before the first staging in Russia by the Kirov Ballet, which, with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky, occurred in 1940. (The premiere of the ballet actually took place in Czechoslovakia in 1938.)
The score is little short of miraculous. With impressive economy of means, without ever resorting to inflated emotionalism, Prokofiev conjures in sound every circumstance, character, and mood. The musical pictorialism is endlessly intriguing, the musical footprints clearly recognizable.
Montagues and Capulets. An angry dissonance suggests the eventual tragedy. The arrogance of the feuding families is pictured in the long striding steps of the string theme and the horns’ haughty counter-theme. A contrasting middle section, which is Juliet’s first dance with Paris, her parents’ choice of a suitor for her, has the colorful shadings of harp, triangle, tambourine, snare drums, and glissando violas accompanying the sinuous flutes.
The Young Juliet. One of Prokofiev’s most miraculous musical portraits, this episode skitters and cajoles warmly, exudes exuberant naiveté, and intimates the recognition in the teen-aged heroine of the blossoming of mature emotions.
Minuet. The guests who arrive at the Capulets’ ball in Act II do so dancing a slightly pompous Minuet (they will leave to the gavotte that Prokofiev initially used as the third movement of his “Classical” Symphony).
Masks. Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio, disguised, appear outside the Capulets’ (Juliet’s) house as guests arrive for a ball. The exuberant music reflects the spirited antics of the three friends.
Romeo and Juliet. This perhaps is the most sensitive musical treatment the celebrated balcony scene has yet received. The harp and muted violins suggest the expectant stillness; Romeo enters gently in the strings, answered by Juliet’s graceful flute. Following two ecstatic outbursts, the music gives itself back to the silence of the evening.
Death of Tybalt. Romeo avenges his friend Mercutio, who has just met death at the hand of Tybalt. 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 swirls, careens, and lunges dizzily; Tybalt’s death agonies are intensified by fifteen throbbing timpani and woodwind punctuations. The fallen Tybalt’s body is borne away as a searing theme intones the present tragedy and the larger one to come.
— compiled from previous Philharmonic programs