Wherefore Art Thou, Prokofiev? Highlights from Romeo and Juliet

Wherefore Art Thou, Prokofiev? Highlights from Romeo and Juliet

The Houston Symphony performs highlights from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet as part of the Opening Night Concert of the orchestra’s 105th Season on Saturday, September 8, 2018. Learn more about this beloved ballet score in the post below.

In addition to being a genius composer, Prokofiev was also an excellent chess player and enjoyed the game in his free time.

The commission for the ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1934 was part of the Soviet Union’s charm campaign to lure Prokofiev back to Russia; indeed, the threat of the commission being revoked was one of the reasons he ultimately decided to return. Homesick and disappointed with his career in the West, Prokofiev hoped that his music would be better served in Russia, even if he had to make occasional artistic compromises to satisfy the demands of cultural apparatchiks. Needless to say, he vastly underestimated the level of harassment and terror he would have to endure once he and his family permanently relocated.

Romeo and Juliet would have a particularly troubled genesis. Hoping to please the powers that be by making Shakespeare’s classic more “Soviet,” Prokofiev and his collaborators initially gave the ballet a happy ending. They seem to have overshot the mark, however, as the initial draft Prokofiev presented in 1935 was heavily criticized for its deviation from the original. Despite Prokofiev’s substantial experience as a ballet composer, the music also came under fire for being overly complex and supposedly undanceable. Prokofiev rewrote the ending (ironically recycling the music of the lovers’ happy reunion as the accompaniment to Juliet’s death), but these disputes were ultimately overshadowed by the execution of the administrative director of the Bolshoi in 1937 during Stalin’s purges. The ballet’s premiere thus took place in Brno in Czechoslovakia in 1938. Further revisions were demanded prior to the Leningrad premiere in 1940, which nevertheless proved to be one of the greatest triumphs of Prokofiev’s career.

Despite the revisions and tribulations, Prokofiev had written one of the greatest ballet scores in history, and one of the most evocative musical interpretations of Shakespeare’s story. No other version captures so well the characters’ adolescent irreverence or the tragic absurdity of their fate. The score contains some of Prokofiev’s most memorable and beautiful melodies, and continues to be performed in concert halls and ballet theaters across the world.

The four selections on this program were taken from suites Prokofiev prepared from the ballet in 1936 when the prospects for a performance of the full work seemed dim. The first excerpt, titled Montagues and Capulets, begins with an imposing dissonance representing the hatred between the two families:

This segues into the famous music from the ball scene; structurally, the oppressive opening melody is reprised after a more delicate, contrasting section.

The second selection, Masks, is the music that accompanies the dance of Romeo and his Montague friends as they sneak into the Capulet’s masked ball; it perfectly captures the attitude of these devil-may-care teenagers. The next number, Romeo and Juliet, adapts music from the balcony scene. The last number, The Death of Tybalt, telescopes the action of Tybalt’s murder of Mercutio, and Romeo’s vengeful murder of Tybalt, a rash act that seals his fate. The music begins as a dangerous game, but becomes more intense as the violins’ virtuoso runs illustrate the fury of Romeo and Tybalt’s duel. The implacable, pounding rhythms of the final section accompany Tybalt’s fateful demise.

Don’t miss these selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at the Houston Symphony’s Opening Night Concert on Saturday, September 8 at Jones Hall! Get tickets and more information at houstonsymphony.org.

Header image: Nadja Sellrup and Pascal Jansson in a 2010 production of Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Swedish Opera. Credit: Carl Thorborg Kungliga Operan.

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