About the Composer: Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was one of the most prominent Twentieth Century Russian composers. Probably best known for his didactic children’s work Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev also invested his energies into creating symphonies, piano concertos, ballets, and numerous shorter pieces.
About the Music: I’m not averse to discussing and analyzing Shakespeare, but I’ve never been very fond of Romeo and Juliet, one of the dramatist’s more celebrated tragedies. The play has suffered from overexposure, and romance just doesn’t garner my attention; I’d rather observe a Danish prince work to uncover the sinister machinations of his uncle than watch a couple of youngsters loiter at the side of a balcony and utter the phrases that would later find their way into the shoddy Valentine’s Day cards available at your local drugstore. But my disinterest in the play didn’t prevent me from acquiring Prokofiev’s 1938 ballet based on the famous tale. For some time I’ve wanted to become better acquainted with Prokofiev’s compositional style, so I figured that Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra could assist me with their 1973 recording of this lengthy classic. The risk was worth taking.
Since the ballet encompasses two discs, I’ll just provide a commentary on distinctive segments in each of the four acts:
After a serene introduction, the action begins in the streets of Verona, but it doesn’t take long for discord to emerge between the Montagues and the Capulets. Violins tend to grate my nerves when they are played in an extremely shrill manner but they are employed very nicely here to convey the brisk, energetic movements of the feuding family members as they scuffle. The Prince, whose authority is represented with strong brass and a steady marching beat, intervenes and ceases the conflict. The focus shifts to Juliet in the next scene, and Prokofiev provides a soft and playful exploration of her character as she prepares for the masquerade ball. It is then followed with a pronounced, eloquent tune befitting of the decorum of the assembly. The Dance of the Knights, an ominous piece for which Prokofiev is highly regarded, appears shortly afterward. Several variations of this piece can be found throughout the ballet. Romeo’s vivacious friend Mercutio is introduced with a short, appropriately fast-paced tune. When I first heard this ballet, I thought that Prokofiev would have something truly riveting in store for when the two title characters exchange their passions for each other at the balcony, but I was somewhat underwhelmed. Repeated listenings have allowed me to better appreciate the quality of this segment and its relation to the other portions.
A dazzling array of strings, chimes, woodwinds, and other nifty instruments I can’t identify open the second act, which begins in the marketplace where numerous festivities occur. This act features most of the ballet’s most upbeat pieces, including the Dance of the Mandolins. It’s not my favourite piece, but it is the first time I’ve heard the instrument in a classical work. Solemn music accompanies Romeo and Juliet’s covert wedding ceremony. Romeo’s second encounter with Tybalt, during which Mercutio is murdered, includes an intense variation of the frenzied violin playing heard earlier, along with some stirring pieces that capture Romeo’s fury quite well.
The pieces here are somber yet highly captivating. As Romeo has departed the city after slaying Tybalt and is unable to see his lover, the mood is downcast and contemplative; many of the earlier pieces are revisited, though they don’t seem repetitive. The mandolins reemerge in the Morning Serenade but are more low-key.
As one might expect, Prokofiev bestows the final act with the most gripping music in the entire ballet. The high-pitched strings give you the sense that you’ve taken a few too many steps past an unfurled roll of crime scene tape, and the performance from the brass seems as sharp as Romeo’s “happy” dagger! The finale borrows from earlier leitmotifs to provide a soft requiem for the young couple.
Ever since I first listened to Romeo and Juliet I’ve occasionally thought that it would have been interesting if Prokofiev had created ballets for other Shakespeare works. How would Falstaff’s jovial personality be represented in a Henry IV, Part 1 ballet? What about a score for King Lear? I know it sounds somewhat infeasible because it’s doubtful that you could get the title character to dance about convincingly considering his age, but can you imagine the music Prokofiev would conjure for the scene in which Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out by the merciless Cornwall? Yikes!