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Romeo and Juliet, Op.64

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet

The Quintessential Romance

If Prokofiev’s "Romeo and Juliet", with the rapt intimacy and romantic passion of its depiction of young love, did not exist, few of his admirers would have felt the need to invent it. For all his Protean powers of transformation, these are not qualities that we usually associate with the man. And yet, along with the wit and flash and pageantry appropriate to other aspects of the action, they are the qualities that have made Prokofiev’s ballet one of the more widely enjoyed and celebrated treatments of a story that has not lacked for musical interpretation.

"The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet" was not Shakespeare’s own invention. Like all of his plays, it takes the essentials of its plot from the common currency of European literature. The story of the "pair of star-cross’d lovers" driven to destruction by the strife between their parents’ families was told many times in many forms during the two centuries before Shakespeare brought it to the boards in the 1590’s. But within a couple of years Shakespeare’s version had been – to quote the first edition published in 1597 – "often (with great applause) plaid publiquely, by the right Honourable the L. Hunsdon his Servants," quickly becoming the version of "Romeo and Juliet." And if it had a sufficiency of literary antecedents, it has since acquired more than its quota of musical descendants.

No other play of Shakespeare’s has inspired so many composers, ranging in eminence from Bellini, Berlioz, Gounod and Tchaikovsky to Ivry and Mercadal, and in date from Benda and Schwanberg to Sutermeister, Malipiero, Blacher and Bernstein. The reasons for this spate of musical interpretation are not hard to find. Love is, truistically, among the most popular topics of musical inspiration, and without any rival the most popular operatic one. The climax of most opera plots, George Bernard Shaw drily observed, comes with a number in which the tenor and the soprano "repeatedly call attention to the fact that at last they meet again." On that basis "Rome and Juliet" stands as the ideal operatic vehicle, for it is Shakespeare’s purest love story.

By contrast with the intricate psychological motivations of "Othello," which demand a more complex treatment, or with the panoramic background of "Antony and Cleopatra," which requires broader strokes, the lyrical concentration of "Romeo and Juliet" lends itself effortlessly to musical treatment. It is quintessential romance, shorn of all external considerations. The hero and heroine are young and beautiful. They meet – they fall in love. One simple circumstance, the parental feud, suffices to determine "The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love." Within the terms of their depiction, Romeo and Juliet would surely live happily ever after, if it were not for the exaggerated Harfield-and-McCoy rivalry of which they are the hapless victims. No psychological quirks, no calls of higher duty, dictate their doom – only the stupidity of other people, and sheer bad luck. The whole depth and poignancy of the drama reside in the intensity with which young love is portrayed and in the magical poetry in which it is clothed, and such intensity and poetry are natural marks for composers to aim at.

When Prokofiev approached the subject, he was a thoroughly experienced composer with half a dozen ballets and several operas already to his credit. As Frank Granville Barker has justly observed, "It was clear from the start that Prokofiev had a special gift for ballet music which placed him in the big league along-side Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Stravinsky, but it was a gift directed towards satire and social comment rather than romance."

Mr. Granville Barker went on to suggest that the composer’s "change of heart and style was the result of his returnings to Russia after living abroad for 14 years."" It may be that this formulation puts cause and effect the wrong way round, or at least oversimplifies the relation between them. After all, Prokofiev’s desire to "go home again" was probably prompted in part by his need to get away from the brash and brittle aspects of the itinerant virtuoso’s life and back to more personal, rooted emotions. At any rate, go home he did, consummating the process gradually over the years from 1932 to 1936, and "Romeo and Juliet" was one of the first major projects he put in hand when he got there, though it was to be several years before the ballet actually reached the Russian stage.


The Kirov Theatre in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was anxious to present a new Prokofiev ballet. But when, in 1934, Prokofiev proposed "Romeo and Juliet" as his subject, the theatre authorities rejected it. As Prokofiev explained later, the problem lay with the ending of the actual story, because "living people can dance, the dying cannot." The composer then signed a contract instead with the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and completed his score during the summer of 1935, only to be frustrated again when the Bolshoi directors declared it undanceable. Extensively revised, the ballet was finally staged for the first time on 30 December 1938, at the Brno Opera House in Czechoslovakia, and it was only after its enthusiastic reception there that the Kirov and Bolshoi companies, in turn, presented it in 1940 and 1946.

Meanwhile, just as he had done in turning the opera "The Fiery Angel" into a concert work in the shape of the Third Symphony, Prokofiev made practical use of his "Romeo and Juliet" material, excerpting two orchestral suites and a set of ten piano pieces that were all performed in Russia in 1936 and 1937. The orchestral suites in particular, and various sets of excerpts form them, have helped over the years to establish "Romeo and Juliet" as one of Prokofiev’s most widely admired works. But whether on the ballet stage for which it was conceived, or in the film treatments it has complete ballet offered here possesses a theatrical sweep and an expressive power that cannot be matched by any group of selected movements.

Enhanced by the characteristic harmonic piquancy and crystal-clear orchestration of this magically varied score, the lyricism of the music expresses a conception of the subject closer to the airiness and grace of Berlioz’s version than to Tchaikovsky’s highly charged drama. On the one hand we encounter the aggressive force of the warring families ("Fight"), the pomp of guests assembling for the Capulet’s grand ball (Minuet: "Arrival of the Guests"), and the swagger of the interloping Montagues ("Masks"). The other , much more personal, side of the story is represented by the skittishness of the 13-year-old heroine, the moon-struck amorousness of her lover, the mounting passion of their meetings (first in the public setting of the ball, in "Madrigal," then in the gorgeous outpouring of wide-spanned melody that constitutes the "Romeo and Juliet" pas de deux, or "Balcony Scene"). Meanwhile the unfolding tale of youthful ardour has begun to be overshadowed by death, first Mercutio, then Tybalt, and finally the lovers themselves paying the price exacted by the disastrous family feud. Yet even here Prokofiev avoids self-conscious breast-beating, and the conclusion impresses most of all by its very delicacy and restraint.


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