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Prokofiev: Romeo & Juliet Suite No. 2

Prokofiev: Romeo & Juliet Suite No. 2


719 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2015 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano/celesta, strings

Composed 1935. First performance: December 30, 1938, Brno, Czechoslovakia.

I. Juliet—the Young Girl
II. Friar Lawrence
III. Dance
IV. Romeo and Juliet Before Parting
V. Dance of the Girls With Lilies
VI. Romeo at Juliet's Grave
VII. The Montagues and the Capulets

“Never was a story of more woe
Than Prokofiev’s music for ‘Romeo’.”
– Galina Ulanova, who first danced Juliet

We’re all familiar with the ending of Shakespeare’s most famous play: Romeo, discovering the seemingly lifeless body of his bride, drinks a lethal poison. Juliet, awakening from her faked death, finds him and, heartbroken, stabs herself with his dagger. This wasn’t how Sergei Prokofiev thought it should end, however. In a move which may (and did) raise eyebrows, he decided that Juliet should instead return to life in Romeo’s arms so that the happy couple could dance together into a bright and happy future.

Why did he make this choice? The more cynical among us might suspect an attempt at pandering to audiences. When asked at the time, Prokofiev simply said, “living people can dance. The dead cannot.” However, as one might suspect from an artist of Prokofiev’s caliber, the truth seems not to lie in commercial or logistical challenges, both of which he was more than capable of overcoming.

In reality, Prokofiev saw in his altered ending a metaphorical display of his devout Christian Science faith, in which death, illness, and pain do not exist, but are merely mental illusions which can be surmounted by faith and spiritual discipline. Naturally, this would not have been a popular explanation in Joseph Stalin’s atheist Soviet Union, so it’s unsurprising that Prokofiev chose to gloss over the question.

Initially, the Boshoi administration approved of this change, believing the various plot alterations to be consistent with Communist ideology. But Soviet ideology was a tricky thing to predict in the 1930s, and Romeo and Juliet didn’t escape the censor’s wrath. Prokofiev was already suspected of having been corrupted by his years in the West, and the composer’s willingness to alter the ending of a classic work of literature raised the ire of Soviet authorities. Around the same time, the famous denunciations of Shostakovich had begun to appear in the state news magazine Pravda, intimidating the Soviet musical world. Stalin’s decision to fire the entire administration of the Bolshoi and execute the general director, Vladimir Mutnykh, ended any discussion of the work’s premiere.

The work’s eventual premiere in pre-war Czechoslovakia led the Kirov Ballet to produce the work in 1940, but only once Prokofiev reverted to the traditional Shakespeare ending. It wasn’t just the ending that suffered, though. The dancers insisted that Prokofiev simplify the work’s complex rhythms, and his innovative orchestrations were viewed with suspicion by the orchestra and conductor, leading Prokofiev to reorchestrate the piece in a more traditional manner. Eventually, the Soviet Premier was convinced that the score held no remaining corrupting Western influences, and it finally appeared on the Bolshoi stage in 1946. This Stalin-approved version of the piece is the one the world knows today.

In the years between the work’s composition and theatrical premiere, Prokofiev arranged excerpts into two orchestral suites so that some of the music might be performed. The second suite features seven moments from the ballet.

In “The Young Juliet”, our heroine is portrayed in music that is blissfully simple and naïve. “Friar Lawrence” provides a contrast, with solemn music befitting a monk of such learning. A “Dance” from the ball scene follows, after which we find ourselves in Juliet’s bedroom on the young couple’s wedding night (“Romeo and Juliet Before Parting”). The “Dance of the Girls With Lilies” provides a momentary interlude before we grieve with “Romeo at Juliet’s Grave”. In this performance, conductor Co Nguyen has chosen to conclude with the energy of “The Montagues and the Capulets”, the movement which traditionally opens the suite and which portrays each of the two feuding families of Verona in broad dramatic musical strokes. A quieter episode provides accompaniment for Juliet’s first dance with her fiancé Paris before the conflict returns to bring the music to its conclusion.

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