Prokofiev – Suites 1 & 2 of the Ballet: Romeo and Juliet (Excerpts)

by Max Derrickson

Sergei Prokofiev     (b Sontskova, Ukraine, April 27, 1891; Moscow,Russia, March 5, 1953)

Excerpts from Suites 1 & 2 of the Ballet: Romeo and Juliet
1.  Tableau (Scene) –Suite1, #2
2.  Romeo and Juliet (Balcony Scene) –Suite1, #6
3.  Juliet, the Young Girl –Suite2, #2
4.  Death of Tybalt –Suite1, #7
5.  Montagues and Capulets –Suite2, #1
6.  Friar Laurence –Suite2, #3
7.  Dance –Suite2, #4
8.  Dance of the Maids FromAntilles(Girls with Lilies Dance) –Suite2, #6
9.  Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb –Suite2, #7
Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet is considered, by many, his finest masterpiece, and it rightly stands as one of the greatest pieces of the 20th Century.  Its genesis began in 1936 just after Prokofiev moved back to his native Russia following three decades as an expatriate in other countries.  Romeo and Juliet was completed in about three months – Prokofiev was noted for his speed, but in this, one of his first large works created back at home, he was truly inspired.  The ballet was a perfect venue for Prokofiev’s talents, especially his exploration of the psychological aspects of the famous Shakespeare tale of two star-crossed lovers, their family’s hate, and their tragic deaths.  This is Prokofiev at the height of his craft in orchestration, melody, mastery of visual allusion and psychological potency.

Though Romeo and Juliet eventually garnered great success, getting the ballet to the stage proved challenging.  It was commissioned in 1936 by the Marinsky Theatre (renamed theKirov), but new management there thwarted it.  Next, Prokofiev tried the Bolshoi but there, too, directors worried about public interest in a Shakespearean tragedy under the Soviet Regime.  So, in order to stoke some interest in his work, Prokofiev translated, and performed, his full ballet score into a short piano suite, and two orchestral suites.

Although the ballet was finally premiered in Brno, Czechoslovakiain 1938, this performance endured all manner of obstacles:
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But just as Shakespeare’s tale proved itself to be timeless, so has Prokofiev’s music proven to be in the decades since its creation.

The Ballet was written as a series of many short scenes which Prokofiev used to exploit the possibilities for musical portraits and large troupe dances.  The two Suites were conceived from a more musical balance than the ballet’s extended story line.  The following nine excerpts being played tonight were selected to sketch out the story and to balance musically.

Beginning with the (1) Scene of Mercutio, the quick-witted friend of Romeo, Prokofiev uses the bassoon to create this jester-sage musical portrait:  Spoke Mercutio:
“True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air…”


Next is the famous (2) Romeo and Juliet, the Balcony Scene,
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An astounding musical moment is created next, when (4) Tybalt’s Death (Juliet’s brother) comes at the hands of Romeo in retaliation for the death of Mercutio.  The duel ensues with a breathless madness and fervency, followed by the fatal sword stroke.  With a tip of the hat to Stravinsky’s ballet the Rite of Spring (with the excessively repeated chords), Prokofiev ushers in the funeral cortège of Tybalt’s body, crafted in a snaking, musical polyphony of incredible power and rage.

Then follows the musical description of the grand party with the two feuding families, the (5) Montagues and the Capulets, beginning in extreme hatred, with screamingly eerie chords followed by intensely anguished and somber strings of near sublime beauty.
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After another delightful portrait of (6) Friar Laurence, we hear two dances, the first (7 – Dance) from the ongoing Carnival outside in fair Verona, and the second the (8) Dance of the Maids from Antilles, which are Prokofiev at his most clever lyricism – almost outlandishly chromatic, but harmonized masterfully.
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