Length: c. 35 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
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 19, 1959, Yuri Faier, conducting the complete ballet
About this Piece
After moving back to the Soviet Union in 1933 following a self-imposed exile of fifteen years, Sergei Prokofiev suddenly found a new sense of purpose as a composer. Composed in a burst of frenzied activity during the summer of 1935, Romeo and Juliet nevertheless proved to be controversial even before a note of the music was heard in public. After the directors of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow read through the score and pronounced it “impossible to dance to,” Prokofiev, in a cold rage, extracted two suites from the ballet in 1936. Guessing—correctly—that the suites would create a demand to hear the work in its entirety, Prokofiev soon had the pleasure of seeing the Bolshoi and its bitter rival, the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad, vie for the right of the first production. The honor of the first Soviet performance fell to the Kirov on January 11, 1940, some two years after Romeo and Juliet had been given its world premiere in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in December of 1938.
In spite of its considerable length–at nearly two and a half hours, it is the most ambitious of Prokofiev’s non-operatic scores—Romeo and Juliet is a carefully molded musical and emotional structure in which the music is not only intimately related to the stage action but is also a self-referential dramatic construct which can readily stand on its own.
“Montagues and Capulets” is made up of two widely spaced moments from the ballet: the slow, threatening music which accompanies the Duke’s order that the warring families must cease fighting on pain of death, and, from the ballroom scene, the menacing and slightly oafish Dance of the Knights, which hints that the gentleman may have forgotten to take off their armor.
“The Young Juliet” brilliantly captures the rapidly changing moods of the character’s adolescent personality.
“Madrigal” is the deceptively simple title for the music accompanying Romeo’s first awakenings of passion for the lovely young maiden he spies at the Capulets’ ball.
The guests who arrive at the ball do so dancing a slightly pompous “Minuet” (they will leave to the Gavotte that Prokofiev initially used as the third movement of his “Classical” Symphony).
“Masks,” which immediately follows the Minuet in the ballet, describes—with the aid of tense percussion and nose-thumbing winds—the stealthy arrival of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio in the enemy stronghold.
“Romeo and Juliet” is the most sensitive musical treatment the celebrated “balcony scene” has yet received. The harp and muted violins suggest the expectant stillness; Romeo enters gently in the strings, answered by Juliet’s graceful flute. Following two ecstatic outbursts, the music gives itself back to the silence of the evening.
The cleric “Friar Laurence” is represented by a pair of themes, one in bassoons, tuba and harp, the other in divided cellos.
The “Death of Tybalt” forms the shattering conclusion of Act II. The music first describes the savage yet strangely high-spirited fight in which Mercutio is slain by Tybalt—neither fully aware of the seriousness of the situation until it is too late—and then the furious duel, underscored by sharp, percussive jabs and brutal dissonances, in which Romeo avenges Mercutio’s death. Heavy, measured thuds of the timpani herald Tybalt’s funeral procession, bringing the scene to a close.
“Romeo and Juliet Before Parting” is an impassioned, highly developed section built on the theme of Romeo’s love. The soaring music is shot through with intimations of impending misfortune.
In “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb,” the love theme points up his grief with overwhelming poignance. 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” 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 notes by Orrin Howard and Jim Svejda