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By the spring of 1936, Prokofiev had reestablished permanent residency in Moscow. He had made Paris his residence and center of his activities since 1922, and it was from there that he launched several tours throughout the West, the U.S., and occasionally Russia. Beginning in 1933 with his first Soviet assignment, to score the film Lieutenant Kijé, the number of commissions from Russia began to increase. So it was during this period, toward the end of 1934, that the Kirov Theater in Leningrad planned a new ballet on the subject of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; Prokofiev was offered the job of scoring the ballet.
The choice of Romeo and Juliet as a subject for a ballet inspired so much criticism that the Kirov soon abandoned the project; it was then picked up by the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. The Kirov’s refusal to stage the ballet revolved around the presumed inability of dance to express the psychological nuances of the tragedy without the poet’s text. Prokofiev’s approach to the musical realization of drama, however, consisted of creating full-blooded musical images evoking multiple emotional states developed symphonically. As Prokofiev explained, “Whenever I am asked to write music for a dramatic spectacle or a film…I take five or ten days to watch the play – that is, to see the characterization of the roles, illustration of their emotions, and their action. Thus observing it, I get my best ideas.”
Prokofiev completed the score during the summer of 1935, but the directors of the Bolshoi soon canceled the contract. Their excuse revolved around the accusation that, due to the advanced harmonic and rhythmic language of the score, it was not suited to the dance. In addition, they found the ‘happy ending’ untenable. Prokofiev defended his taking liberty with Shakespeare’s ending as being logical from a choreographic perspective: “Live people can dance, but the dying can hardly be expected to dance in bed.” Even after the tragic ending had been restored, the project remained rejected. The composer then fashioned two orchestral suites from his moribund child and arranged the Ten Pieces for Piano from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75 in 1937. The sequence of events closely follows the dramatic curve of Shakespeare’s play.
The rapid, nearly frenetic music of “Juliet” depicts the exuberance of the young heroine dressing for the ball; the contrasting lyrical section catches her gazing at herself in the mirror. The mercurial verbosity and enthusiasm of “Mercutio” is admirably portrayed by music of a galloping, near madcap nature. The march-like music of “The Montagues and the Capulets” presents the turning point in the drama; the middle section accompanies Juliet’s first dance with Paris.
Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.