Selections from Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev)

…one of the most widely loved of the classical ballet repertoire…

Phillip Sametz

Program note
SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891–1953)
SELECTIONS FROM ROMEO AND JULIET – BALLET SCORE, OP. 64

Montague and Capulets
The Duke’s Command
Dance of the Knights

Masks

Mercutio and Tybalt

Romeo and Juliet: ‘Balcony Scene’
Balcony Scene
Romeo’s Variation
Love Dance

The Duel
Meeting of Tybalt and Mercutio
The Duel
Romeo avenges Mercutio
The Death of Tybalt
Finale

Romeo and Juliet before Parting
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo bids Juliet Farewell

Romeo at Juliet’s Grave
Juliet’s Funeral
Juliet’s Death

Romeo and Juliet – the ultimate drama of young love – has probably attracted more composers than any other Shakespeare play (although Hamlet and The Tempest would be in the running too). There are at least 14 operatic versions but, until Prokofiev wrote his ballet score, nobody had written the music for a full-length classical ballet based on a Shakespeare play.

Prokofiev composed the work – one of the most widely loved of the classical ballet repertoire – in the mid-1930s, at a crucial time in his life and in the political fortunes of the Soviet Union. The composer had quit the West after nearly 20 years to return to his homeland and write what he described as “big music – that is, music whose conception and technical execution correspond to the breadth of our era.” Stalin was coming to the same conclusion about the music the Soviet people required, a coincidence that would cause Prokofiev much pain. For example, Prokofiev’s principal collaborator on Romeo and Juliet, Kirov theatre director Sergei Radlov, was thrown out of his job in one of the era’s many cultural purges, and the project was closed down because, it was claimed, choreographed Shakespeare was a sacrilege. It took another four years for the work to reach the stage, and then not in Russia; the ballet was premiered in the Czech city of Brno in December 1938. The process from page to stage was torturous and full of political and artistic interference. At one point Radlov, in the interests of creating an optimistic piece in line with the ethos of Socialist Realism, suggested a change to the ending: Friar Laurence intervenes at the last moment and the young couple are given, literally, a new lease of life. As you can hear, that idea was (thankfully) rejected.

The Montagues and the Capulets opens in an anguished atmosphere suggesting the deep rivalry between the warring families. The Dance of the Knights sounds formal and stately in part because the knights are dancing in armour. The rare orchestral use of the tenor saxophone is particularly notable here. Masks has a lot of swagger. The macho clarinet melody marks the arrival of Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, all masked up and ready to gate-crash the Capulet ball. In the final bars we get a sense of Romeo’s true feelings, as the music becomes more thoughtful. 

Mercutio is a wonderfully boisterous portrait of Romeo’s friend, a real trickster. Then Tybalt recognises Romeo, his rage depicted vividly by the tuba. It’s only thanks to the calming influence of Lord Capulet that Romeo escapes the encounter unharmed.

In one of the most famous passages from the score, the luminous opening bars of the Balcony Scene manage to simultaneously suggest a starry night and the blossoming of love. The section entitled The Duel includes The Death of Tybalt, a supremely dramatic moment, and a virtuosic one for the orchestra.

The Epilogue is a slowly breaking wave of poignant music, culminating in the last music heard in the ballet, Juliet’s Death. Juliet wakes in the tomb and finds Romeo’s body beside her. In despair she takes Romeo’s dagger; the moment she stabs herself is clearly depicted in the music. 

© Phillip Sametz, 2021

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