The urgent appeal of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet seems to have no limits. Acted, sung, conceived instrumentally, danced; in the flesh, on the screen, in print; played traditionally, interpreted broadly; in authentic costume, in contemporary dress; scholarly and archaic, relevantly mod – no amount of repetitions in seemingly endless guises threaten to dim its luster or weaken its impact.
Within the past quarter-century, the ballet stage has defined the tragic romance in its own purely dance terms vis-à-vis the several splendid choreographic versions made to the remarkable musical score by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Without a word spoken, Romeo and Juliet meet, love, and die through the translation of Shakespeare’s exquisite imagery into the vocabularies of human motion and musical tone.
Nothing is lost in the translation. Prokofiev has captured the essences of the tale in contemporary music that is not only not forbidding but eminently accessible; various choreographers have been quickened to extraordinary achievement by it. Prokofiev composed the score in 1935 for the Leningrad Theater of Opera and Ballet, but the music became known through concert performances well before the first staging in Russia by the Kirov Ballet which, with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky, occurred in 1940. In 1946, the Bolshoi Ballet introduced its dramatically enriched Lavrovsky production, and then there followed, among others, the Frederick Ashton version for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1955, John Cranko’s for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1962, and in 1965, Kenneth MacMillan’s for Britain’s Royal Ballet. Each of these full-evening balletic incarnations of Romeo has its own enchantment. The music lends itself as well to the silvery blue-whiteness of Ashton’s conception as to the muscularity of MacMillan’s.
Indeed, the score is little short of miraculous. With impressive economy of means, without ever resorting to inflated emotionalism, Prokofiev has conjured in sound every circumstance, character, and mood. The musical pictorialism is endlessly intriguing; the musical footprints are clearly recognizable. The simplest melody is quickened and colored by sudden, fresh twists of harmony; large melodic leaps invest the themes with unblushing piquance or virile strength (versatile leaps, indeed); driving rhythms and harmonic clashes provide satire and/or exhilarating vigor; the orchestration is lucid, always masterful, and as with the lyricism in the score, never given to overstatement. Prokofiev has served the spirit of Shakespeare not in the only way possible, but in an entirely honest, original way. Because of its superb quality, the music for Romeo and Juliet is as trenchant and valid in concert performance as it is in the theater.
The Montagues and the 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 has the colorful shadings of harp, triangle, tambourine, snare drums, and glissando violas accompanying the sinuous flutes. To this arrangement violins and celesta add their countermelody. The return of the striding melody is initiated by the saxophone, and the families are in full animosity again.
Juliet, the Young Girl:
A skittish, capricious theme, divided ingeniously between strings and winds, depicts the child-woman as more the former than the latter; two breathless, piquant melodies, the first in clarinet, the second in flute, suggest an awakening maturity.
The cleric is represented by a pair of themes, one in bassoons, tuba and harp, the other in divided cellos.
Harp, piano, side drum, and pizzicato strings provide the rhythmic energy for this dance that is part of the opening scene of act two. First an oboe, then a flute, pipe the jaunty main tune. Later the violins inject an insinuating, sensuous melody into the proceedings.
Romeo and Juliet Before Parting:
This impassioned, highly developed section is built on the theme of Romeo’s love. The soaring music is shot through with intimations of impending tragedy.
Dance of the Antillean Maidens:
This is a purely ornamental dance not intrinsic to the action. To the accompaniment of maracas and tambourine, violin and woodwind solos define the dance performed when Paris presents a gift of pearls to Juliet.
Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb:
The love theme points up the tragedy with overwhelming poignance. At the very end, a contrabassoon speaks as from the depths of the tomb, but is silenced by soft shimmering strings, above which a piccolo intones a single high note while cellos and bass clarinet throb in deep sorrow.
The 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 accompanied by fifteen throbbing timpani and woodwind punctuations. Then to a searing theme, the fallen Tybalt’s body is borne away.
— Orrin Howard, who served as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Director of Publications and Archives for 20 years, continues to contribute regularly to the program book.