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Composed: 1935

Length: c. 45 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, maracas, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), harp, celesta, piano, and strings

About this Piece

Prokofiev composed the score for Romeo and Juliet in 1935 for the Leningrad Theatre of Opera and Ballet, but the music became known through concert performances of suites the composer arranged well before the first staging in Russia by the Kirov Ballet, which, with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky, occurred in 1940. (The premiere of the ballet actually took place in Czechoslovakia in 1938.) 

The score is little short of miraculous. With an impressive economy of means, without ever resorting to inflated emotionalism, Prokofiev conjures in sound every circumstance, character, and mood. The musical pictorialism is endlessly intriguing, the musical footprints clearly recognizable. 

Montagues and Capulets. An angry dissonance suggests the eventual tragedy. The arrogance of the feuding families is pictured in the long striding steps of the string theme and the horns’ haughty countertheme. A contrasting middle section, which is Juliet’s first dance with Paris, her parents’ choice of a suitor for her, has the colorful shadings of harp, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, and glissando violas accompanying the sinuous flutes. 

Morning Dance. In a scene very near the beginning of the ballet, a loud chord is a bridge from quietness to the extreme vigors of the street come alive. This is Prokofiev at his most vital and rousing, and then, vibrant with the clever whirling together of themes. 

The Young Juliet. One of Prokofiev’s most miraculous musical portraits, this episode skitters and cajoles warmly, exudes exuberant naivete, and intimates the recognition in the teenage heroine of the blossoming of mature emotions. 

Masks. Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio, disguised, appear outside the Capulets’ (Juliet’s) house as guests arrive for a ball. The exuberant music reflects the spirited antics of the three friends. 

Romeo and Juliet (The Balcony Scene). For what is probably the best-known scene in all of Shakespeare, Prokofiev conjures a magical mood of silvery midnight. The music rises to a level of impassioned ardor but always remains luminous, exalted. The mind’s eye is led to an idealized vision of the two young lovers. 

Death of Tybalt. Romeo avenges his friend Mercutio, who has just met death at the hand of Tybalt. This is the wedding day of Romeo and Juliet, and Romeo, at first reluctant to engage in battle, now slays the murderer of Mercutio. The dueling music swirls, careens, and lunges dizzily; Tybalt’s death agonies are intensified by 15 throbbing timpani and woodwind punctuations. The fallen Tybalt’s body is borne away as a searing theme intones the present tragedy and the larger one to come. 

Romeo at Juliet’s Grave. The love theme points up Romeo’s grief with great intensity. At the very end, a contrabassoon speaks as from the depths of the tomb but is silenced by soft shimmering strings above which a piccolo intones a single high note while cellos and bass clarinet throb as in deep sorrow. 

Death of Juliet. This is the Adagio that ends the ballet, when Juliet awakens to find Romeo dead beside her and decides to follow him. Prokofiev depicts the full measure of the tragedy here with a swelling summation of vast poignancy, including an emotionally intense reference to the music of The Young Juliet. It ends quietly, ebbing away like Juliet’s life. Compiled from program notes in the Philharmonic’s archive