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The Ballet Of Prokofiev: Romeo And Juliet - A Historical Context Paper

December 5, 2013

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been the inspiration for works by a number of composers throughout the years. Hector Berlioz produced a choral symphony (1839), while Charles Gounod composed an opera (1867) and Pyotr Tchaikovsky created a fifteen-minute symphonic poem (1870). However, one of the most famous compositions drawing from the Romeo and Juliet theme is Sergei Prokofiev’s music written for the ballet of the same name; it is a two and a half hour long masterpiece that dates back to 1935. The Russian composer’s career was shaped by a life that took him to a number of countries where he sought to find a welcoming home for his music. In his search he found that in America his work was viewed as being “too Russian,” while in Russia he was criticized for being “too Western” in his orientation. This study not only provides an analysis of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet as a sonic phenomenon, but also discusses the steps contributing to the creation of the work in order to offer a solid contextual framework for the analysis.

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev was born on April 23rd, 1891, in Sontsovka, which was a part of the Russian Empire (now a part of eastern Ukraine). He became interested in music at a young age through his mother’s proficiency on the piano with her renditions of Chopin and Beethoven. At age five he composed his first piano piece in the Lydian mode in order to avoid the black keys, and by age nine he created his first opera called The Giant after attending Faust, an opera by Charles Gounod, at the turn of the century.

In 1904 Prokofiev moved to St. Petersburg with his mother with the hopes of studying at the Conservatory of Music there. He passed his entrance exams and was enrolled in September of the same year. By the age of 13 he had completed four operas, two sonatas, a symphony, and over a dozen piano pieces . Prokofiev disliked his harmony class, and made an effort to never incorporate what he had learned there into his own pieces. At the age of seventeen, he showcased his work as a composer and a pianist to the Contemporary Music Society, who in turn had mixed feelings about his work. In 1909 the composer graduated from the Conservatory with unexceptional marks, and in 1910 his father passed away, resulting in financial problems. As he gained recognition, he saw that he could support himself as a composer, and in 1913, he met Sergei Diaghilev and was commissioned to write ballet music for the Ballet Russes in Paris.

Prokofiev’s first theatrical success came in ballet, as his music for Diaghilev were the works for which he was best known for in Western Europe before his return to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. These three pieces for the Ballet Russes are Chout (version 1 1915, version 2 1921), Le Pas d’acier (1927), and L’Enfant Prodigue (1929). Although they are no longer widely discussed or performed, they play an important role in understanding Prokofiev’s ever-changing musical development as a composer. These works not only demonstrate the range of Prokofiev’s style during the period, but also most clearly reveal his shift from aggressive modernism towards simpler lyricism, and become exemplars of fully formed balletic styles that are able to measure up to what would become Prokofiev’s greatest achievement in the genre: Romeo and Juliet.

During World War I, Prokofiev returned to the St. Petersburg Conservatory to study the organ and to avoid conscription. Shortly after he was compelled to leave Russia, as a civil war involving “Maximalists” and their rise to power was abound. At that point Prokofiev was offered a place to stay in Japan by a wealthy art collector named Motu Otaguro. Otaguro also owned a journal called Music and Literature, and wrote a piece on Prokofiev’s search for a new world for his music. Although Prokofiev could have gone to South America in a month’s time, he was persuaded to wait for an American visa to attempt success in New York. After a detainment from American Immigration, he arrived in San Francisco in August of 1918. In America he was compared to other Russian composers like Sergei Rachmaninoff, and eventually became a musical rival of Igor Stravinsky. His first success was in New York with his solo piano concert, which included his Etudes and his Second Piano Sonata. Prokofiev also performed at Carnegie Hall. It is at this concert where he met Carolina Codina (known as Lina among friends), who becomes his future wife and musical inspiration. Prokofiev received a contract for a production of his opera, The Love for Three Oranges, in January of 1919, which was delayed because of Prokofiev’s health and the death of the director. This delay greatly hindered the success he had built in his solo career, as the opera had taken a lot of time and effort to prepare. Soon after his arrival, new troubles arose including financial ones, as he realized the new music that he was producing wasn’t fit for America. Feeling that the time was not right for his arrival, Prokofiev wrote that “the child (America) was not old enough to appreciate new music. Should I go home? But how was I to get there? Russia was blocked on all sides by White Guard fronts, and besides who wants to return home a failure!”

There were two main factors that contributed to his move to Paris in 1920: the first was the news of his mother travelling south of Russia towards Italy and France to escape the civil war, and the other that Diaghilev was busy in Paris with the Ballet Russes. To his delight, Prokofiev found that Paris – and later London – were swarming with Russian artists, writers, and musicians due to the civil war in the homeland. Because of his connections with Diaghilev, Prokofiev was able to quickly acquire work opportunities, which proved to be a very hard task for the other Russian artists in Paris. Through his work he also travelled to London where he was able to see what other artists were creating. At the same time he learned that Russia had become a place of famine, and with that, his hopes of returning home any time soon were diminished.

The Ballet Russes had undergone major changes in terms of style since 1916. Russian nationalist-style music had been replaced by clean-cut, post-impressionist style. Given the contrasting differences it is interesting that Diaghilev even kept Prokofiev and his music in mind for the refashioning of the Ballet Russes. As a result Prokofiev’s first task was to revamp his Chout ballet in order to compensate for the new styles of the time. Diaghilev proclaimed that the music followed the action too closely with too many details, and the illustrative parts needed to be replaced by a development of themes, similar to that of Tchaikovsky’s style of symphonic ballet music, as opposed to the style Stravinsky pioneered with his Petrouchka. Prokofiev recorded in his diary the changes he made:

I reworked the first four scenes, inserting two new dances in a major key (Diaghilev complained that the whole ballet was in the minor) …then I did the first entr’acte and worked on the full score [orchestration]… …In rewriting the ballet I endeavored to replace the unsuccessful parts with development of the music in other parts. Here and there some new music had to be composed, and the final dance entirely rewritten.

The difference between the two versions is immense, as over 40 percent for the first version was deleted or rewritten. The first version was a 29-minute ballet, whereas the second version had expanded to almost an hour’s duration.

Prokofiev’s next major work was his opera The Fiery Angel (1922), which was based on the novel of the same name by Valery Bryusov. His reputation in Russia began to grow, bringing with it opportunities to return home. However, Prokofiev decided to stay in Europe and marry Lina.

In 1926, Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges opera finally reached the Soviet Union stage, which prompted a Soviet Union tour in 1927. Upon his return to Russia, Prokofiev found that his homeland was now a foreign country, and that he himself was technically considered a foreigner in his official papers. He gave eight sold out concerts in Moscow. Although his homecoming was a success, Prokofiev could tell that the new politics were taking their toll on the people.

By 1929 Stalin was issuing the idea of socialist realism – music for the people by the people. Imported art was drastically reduced and neither avant-garde nor bourgeois intellect was tolerated. Instead, the government offered to pay musicians for their every note in order to promote this idea of common music. Composers were promised success through access to concert halls and promotions, if they followed the new policies. Prokofiev liked this opportunity, and ultimately became the catalyst to the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians’ final act of routing the decadent modernists. Prokofiev found the job to be tedious, with the RAPM inquiring about certain factory scenes, asking if they were a capitalist factory or a Soviet factory. This angered Prokofiev, as he felt that the main focus had shifted towards politics instead of his music. He then made his way back to America in hopes of creating a festival in his name, but was instantly shot down due to his lack of popularity when compared to composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

In 1932 changes were being made to the RAPM. By an important Central Committee Resolution in April, all existing creative associations were formally dissolved, their leaders arrested and removed from the positions they had usurped in the conservatories, universities, and other artistic centres. Unions, previously banned by Lenin as hotbeds of independent thought, were resurrected, the much hated RAPM being replaced by the Union of Soviet Composers. Soon after, Prokofiev thought about acquiring a permanent residence in Moscow and taking a teaching position at the Moscow Conservatory. Former RAPM members began to show a more positive interest in Prokofiev’s music. Prokofiev agreed to create music for the RAPM, under the condition that they allow external influences and slightly change their policies. That winter, a short but successful tour of the Soviet Union commenced. By April Prokofiev boasted that he had found Russia again, as the RAPM was more accepting of his new concerto. With the creative juices finally flowing in his home land, the path was cleared for Prokofiev to prepare and create one of his most famous ballets: Romeo and Juliet.

The project was initially suggested by Adrian Piotrovsky, the scenarist, while the other scenarist and director positions were given to Sergey Radlov. The ballet was composed in lightning speed, taking up the summer and fall of 1935, yet it’s easily one of the longest ballet pieces, taking up two and a half hours of performance time. Needless to say, it was rarely performed in its entirety. The ballet was originally presented to the Bolshoi Theatre, but they deemed the work to be “wonderful” yet “undanceable” with a “ridiculous ending involving Juliet’s revival.” It was the Kirov Ballet that was willing to commission the piece. The ballet was inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and originally contained five acts with twenty four scenes that were divided up into fifty eight numbers with descriptive titles like “The Street is Awakening” and “The Nurse Delivers Juliet’s Note To Romeo.” The original version of the ballet contained a different ending to that of the Shakespearian version, yet it was never performed publically. Prokofiev originally wrote a “happy ending” where both Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after. Prokofiev explains his initial intensions:

In the last act Romeo was to arrive a minute earlier and find Juliet alive, so all ended well. The reason for this barbarism being perpetrated was purely choreographic: living people can dance, the dying can’t do it so easily prone... It is interesting that, while in London the fact that Prokofiev was writing a ballet on Romeo and Juliet with a “happy ending” [he uses the English phrase] was received with simple verification, our own Shakespeare scholars proved more holy than the Pope and rushed to the defence of Shakespeare. I was, however, influenced in a different way. It was when someone said: ‘essentially, in your music there’s no real happiness at the end’ – and this was true.

Although the original was composed in the fall of 1935, the rewritten ending didn’t surface until nearly a year later in the summer of 1936. Prokofiev did not entirely rewrite the ending. In fact, there is a striking overlap: the music associated with the reunion of the two lovers in the happy version (No. 55), became the music of Juliet’s death in the tragic version (No. 52). This theme in general derived from an earlier scene entitled “Juliet the Young Girl” (No. 10 at rehearsal, number 55). The theme in both versions represented mature passion. Prokofiev enhances the emotion by having it played in a higher register in the violins for the tragic ending. This theme is coupled with another theme in the happy version to express emotional longing, which was played when the two lovers avoid death and reunite. In short, this theme in the happy version establishes a musical association with the hero and the heroine’s first declarations of love. The metric shifts in the music represent Shakespeare’s shifts in blank verse, rhymed couplets, and sonnet forms, while the interweaving of themes captures the couple’s mixture of emotional and psychological states. The force of fate is represented in movements like Dance of the Knights, which initially derives from music that was conceived to depict a diabolical swordfight from the 1930s version of The Fiery Angel. This is an example of Prokofiev’s usage of musical recycling. Although it has also been noticed that Prokofiev borrowed certain motifs from previous works, he also borrowed from other composers to create his various emotional themes in Romeo and Juliet.

The lyric model of Tchaikovsky’s fantasy subtly suggested. The love sigh which goes straight to the heart in Prokofiev’s introduction, lands on an interval familiar from Tchaikovsky. Later, when love blossoms, Prokofiev evokes another inescapable example, the hyper-poetical love scene from Berlioz’s dramatic symphony and the poetic turn of its central phrase, with a more clearly defined triplet figure the equivalent of Berlioz’s romantic appoggiatura.

The instrumentation for Romeo and Juliet is different from other ballets because it uses a tenor saxophone for solos as well as mandolins, a cornet, and a viola d’amour (a Baroque instrument) in order to add colour to the ensemble, as these instruments were not typically used for ballet. The score was written for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, a contrabassoon, tenor saxophone, six horns, three trumpets, a cornet, three trombones, a tuba, a piano, a celesta, an organ, two mandolins, a viola, two harps, violins, cellos, double basses, and percussion including a timpani, snare drum, xylophone, triangle, woodblock, maracas, glockenspiel, tambourine, chime, cymbals, and a bass drum.

Prokofiev’s musical style varies greatly. Minturn, author of The Music Of Sergei Prokofiev, claims that Prokofiev had five musical “lines” including “grotesque” (the distortion or caricature of a basic model, as seen in “March” from Love For Three Oranges), “modern” (containing experimental qualities, as seen in his Quintet Op. 39/IV), “toccata” (a musical surface which consists of even, rapid, running figuration, as seen in The Toccata Op. 11), “lyrical” (containing a slow tempo, dense and widely spaced sonorities, and soft intervals of perfect fourths and fifths, as seen in Op. 9/I), and of course, “classical” (containing proximity to common practice as a measure of traditional and conservative musical rhetoric, as seen in “The Arrival of the Guests” in Romeo and Juliet). The classical quality of Prokofiev’s music is perhaps most strongly felt in his choice of form, as he tends to preserve the basic attributes of classical forms, but also frequently violates one or another essential element. Minturn describes the form of “the Arrival of the Guests” as being:

A stately minuet in eighteenth-century style, one of the traditional types of which Prokofiev was so fond. Prokofiev’s minuet is more complex than the binary form of the eighteenth-century minuet, but the general atmosphere and the voice leading in the piece are marked conventional, along with associated key areas. Overall, the piece is a large binary form, divided at m. 56 into a Bb-major section and a B-major section, with a primary theme beginning each section.

Writing the music for the ballet came to be a difficult task not just for the composer, but also for the choreographer L. M. Lavrovsky and the dancers as well. Complications often arose as Prokofiev refused to alter a single note of his compositions and would reply “You must make do with what you’ve got” to anyone who asked for change. The dancers found Prokofiev’s music to have an unusual orchestration and frequent rhythm changes that caused problems when trying to follow the music. Galina Ulanov, Juliet’s character, claimed that the dancers were afraid of the music, and had troubles detecting the love in Prokofiev’s music. As a result the dancers followed their own melodic patterns, which caused Prokofiev to become very angry due to the dancers dancing against the music. During the beginning of the third act matters worsened due to the dancers being unable to hear the orchestration due to its thin nature. Prokofiev shouted “You people want drums, not music!” But after personally inspecting the situation onstage, Prokofiev finally agreed to change his orchestration. In the end Prokofiev never lost all of his resentment at the necessity for altering the score, and refused to admit that his music was at fault. Instead he blamed the Kirov Theatre’s acoustics and the dancer’s need for clear-cut rhythms for the changes he had to make.

Although the subject matter for the ballet is derived from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the original version of the ballet was contradictory to that of the play. In Shakespeare’s version, the death of Romeo and Juliet cannot be undone; however, in Prokofiev’s original version, he wanted to believe that perhaps the two lovers had fallen asleep, and that the strong love of their relationship remained unaffected by potions and daggers. Interestingly enough, this possible outcome alludes to several views that are imposed by Christian Science, a topic that Prokofiev took much interest in. It represents the notion of faith healing all wounds and that evil will crumble amongst true love. It also alludes to the possibility that death is not real, but merely an illusion. Mary Baker Eddy is noted to be the founder of Christian Science from 1879. She states that: “In reality, man never dies. The belief that he dies will not establish his scientific harmony. Death is not the result of Truth but of error and one error will not correct another. Death is an illusion... ...the great spiritual fact must be brought out that man is, not shall be, perfect and immoral. Since death is nothingness, mortals waken from the dream of death with bodies unseen by those who think that they bury the body.” Despite this controversial view on life and death, Prokofiev ultimately changed the ending in order to comply with the original events of the Shakespearian play.

Due to the shifting of musical numbers, the 1935 version (original) ends up making more dramatic sense than the 1940 revision, which sounds in places like an exploratory draft due to the new order of the pieces and the changes brought about for the choreography. The only real criticism the piece received was aimed at the original happy ending. Aside from Myaskovsky from the Bolshoi Theatre calling the piece “undanceable,” no real criticism could be found. On the contrary, a reputable critic in New York claimed: “Prokofiev has written music for the masses and at the same time has attained extraordinary nobility.” This review has a more positive connotation to it, as it emphasizes the suggestion that the Romeo and Juliet suites made the first serious dent in public conservatism, as the music was “more obvious than the concertos, symphonies, or piano pieces.”

Although this piece isn’t widely performed, it is still widely discussed and analyzed in the music world, and continues to stand on its own as an individual piece of music, even though the topic itself has been covered numerous times by numerous artists. It is this piece that gave Prokofiev the compositional acknowledgement that he craved. Whilst feeling alone and isolated when hopping from country to country, in search of finding an appropriate place for his music, it is this piece that finally allowed him to find that acceptable place to call a home for his musical creations.

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