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About this Piece

Composed: 1935
Length: c. 45 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, 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 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, 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.

Dance of the Maids from the Antilles. 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.

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 at Juliet’s Grave. The love theme points up Romeo’s grief with great intensity. 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 as in deep sorrow.

Juliet – The Young Girl. 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.

The Death of Juliet. This is the Adagio that ends the ballet, when Juliet awakens to find Romeo dead beside her and decides to follow him. Prokofiev depicts the full measure of the tragedy here with a swelling summation of vast poignancy, including an emotionally intense reference to the music of Juliet – The Young Girl. It ends quietly, ebbing away like Juliet’s life.

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 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.

— Notes compiled from previous LA Phil programs