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Fortunately, the final tale on our program is graced with a happy ending. We all know the story of Cinderella. Girl sweeps floors; girl is magically given the chance to visit the royal ball, where she sweeps the prince off his feet; prince looks for girl, carrying her lost dancing slipper from house to house until he finds a perfect fit; prince and girl marry and live happily ever after. Here, we view the story in excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet version – a different sort of exoticism than the Spanish strains found earlier in the program, but something just as passionate and flavorful.
There seems to be something naturally eccentric and balletic about Prokofiev’s works. Ethereal yet extreme, Prokofiev’s pen seems well-suited to the sort of drama that goes on on the ballet stage. Cinderella is two hours of sparkling intensity, pausing only to change direction and simmering even in its peaceful moments. Prokofiev himself acknowledges the ballet’s swirl of events, recognizing some of the challenges such a complex story presented to the composer:
“What I wished to express above all in the music of Cinderella was the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and flowering of that love, the obstacles in its path, and finally the dream fulfilled. The fairytale offered a number of fascinating problems for me as a composer – the atmosphere of magic surrounding the Fairy Godmother, the twelve fantastic dwarves that pop out of the clock as it strikes twelve and dance chechotka reminding Cinderella that she must return home; the swift change of scene as the Prince journeys far and wide in search of Cinderella; the poetry of nature personified by the four fairies symbolizing the four seasons…”
The ballet premiered at the Bolshoi in November of 1945, to critical acclaim and an almost immediate second production in April 1946. The piece opens with the Introduction, a sort of overture to the ballet that is at once an irresistible and unusual showcase for Prokofiev’s expanded sense of tonality. Eerie, moody figures in the strings and winds open the piece, soon to be replaced by a quietly romantic theme and finally shimmering into the distance.
The composer’s typically gleeful woodwind writing starts the action with the Shawl Dance, in which Cinderella ’s two stepsisters argue over their embroidery, fighting over a shawl and finally ripping it in two. This playfully unhappy domestic scene centers around breakneck clarinet figures and humming brass. We watch the scene from Cinderella’s deliciously detached vantage point, taking it all in with a sense of humor.
From here, it’s a rather large jump in the plot to a lively rendition of the Interrupted Departure and Clock Scene. The hustle-bustle of Cinderella finally at her best, ready to leave for the ball, is painted in frantic, gleeful strings and mallet percussion – but after this short mouthful arrives the fairy godmother in a few clocklike bursts. Her dramatic warning to Cinderella – that she must be home before the stroke of midnight – takes the form of one of Prokofiev’s typically bombastic brass fanfares.
The first act ends with Cinderella’s Departure for the Ball, a surreal, distorted caricature of a waltz. The music seems almost a dream sequence: Cinderella ’s fantasy of the ball’s first waltz, two minutes awhirl with glee and apprehension. Meanwhile, the ball has already begun. We peek in on the Cavaliers’ Dance, a mercifully brief and almost ironically civilized bourrée, before an earthy and mysterious mazurka. The prince enters with a gleaming fanfare, then an almost childish, lilting theme (including a shimmering solo for flute); the music finally speeds to a stop with a dramatic string glissando as Cinderella arrives at the ball and immediately steals the show.
Opening with almost impossibly high figures in the strings, Cinderella's Arrival at the Ball is a complete showstopper, a vision of simplicity and elegance. We move directly to the Pas de deux. One of the longest uninterrupted sections of the ballet, the dance opens with subtle accents for horns and strummed strings over a woodwind obbligato, then develops into a charming little waltz that slows, but never stops, as the two realize their destiny.
Midnight finally arrives, and with it, the end of the second act. This music counts out time in wood block and dramatic string tremolo, interrupted by low brass and percussion in a grotesque and explicit race against the clock. Cinderella finally rushes away, leaving her slipper behind; and as the prince finds it, the love theme returns.
We join the third act after the bulk of the prince’s travels. After speaking with all the cobblers in the kingdom – none of whom can identify Cinderella ’s shoe – he decides that his princess must be from some distant land, and so he sets off to find her. (The prince’s travels take him through lands south and to the Far East, all of which are represented musically.) As he finally searches a bit closer to home, we join Cinderella for the morning after the ball. Bombastic and flighty, the musical storytelling continues until word arrives that the prince is coming through for a visit with his mismatched slipper.
He arrives on the wings of a trumpet fanfare and Cinderella’s stepsisters rush to his aid, insisting that they try on the too-small slipper. Cinderella must, of course, help them in their misguided efforts, and as she does so, the slipper’s mate falls from her apron pocket. As Cinderella and the Prince embrace, the fairy godmother appears once more and whisks them off to a quiet place where, alone at last, they waltz once more – this time to a gentler theme that develops into ecstatic happiness – and fade away into the happy ending of the Amoroso.
-- Note by Jessica Schilling, a music writer, now based in Georgia, who recently served as assistant editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic program book and Hollywood Bowl Magazine.
Length: 43 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone, clock chime, pendulum), harp, piano (= celesta), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances of this selection of excerpts from the ballet