About this Recording
8.571210 - PROKOFIEV, S.: Romeo and Juliet Suites Nos. 1 and 2 / Pushkin Waltz No. 2 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Romeo and Juliet: Suites Nos 1 and 2 • Pushkin Waltz No 2


Sergey Prokofiev’s career as one of the most dynamic composers of the first half of the Twentieth century century unfolded in three stages. It began in Russia during the final years of Czarist rule. A precociously accomplished pianist and composer, Prokofiev became known as something of an enfant terrible among younger Russian musicians, many of his works displaying a brash sense of irony. Shortly after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the composer embarked on the second phase of his career, leaving his homeland to live and work in the United States and Western Europe, chiefly in Paris. Over the course of the next decade, he established an international reputation with such compositions as his Third Piano Concerto, the Scythian Suite and the opera Love for Three Oranges.

In 1927 Prokofiev visited Soviet Russia for the first time since his departure, nine years previously. His concert tour, during which he performed and conducted his own music, was highly successful, the composer finding a degree of enthusiasm for his work beyond anything he had experienced abroad. Several other visits to his homeland followed during the ensuing years, and in 1936 Prokofiev took the decisive step of repatriating, becoming a citizen of the Soviet Union. With this began the final stage of his career, that of a leading Soviet composer. It is to this period that perhaps the most popular of Prokofiev’s compositions belongs, the ballet Romeo and Juliet.

The genesis of this work actually predated Prokofiev’s full repatriation. In the summer of 1934, during a trip to Russia, the composer was approached by Sergey Radlov, a director at the Kirov Ballet, successor to the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg, about collaborating on a choreographic treatment of Shakespeare’s play. The two men agreed on a lengthy and detailed rendition, “an opera without words,” as one commentator would describe it, and began devising a scenario comprised of a series of short numbers. Prokofiev began active composition in the spring of 1935. He completed the entire ballet score, some two and a half hours of music, in September of that year.

But the arduous process of bringing Romeo and Juliet to the stage was only beginning. First the Kirov and then Moscow’s Bolshoy Ballet cancelled productions. When the Kirov again took up the work, the rehearsals were unusually trying and contentious. Even so, the company’s production, presented in Leningrad in January 1940, proved a triumph, and Romeo and Juliet went on to become one of the most popular ballets of the Twentieth century.

Prokofiev, meanwhile, had adapted his music to the concert hall. In 1936, shortly after the Bolshoy’s decision to abandon Romeo and Juliet, he extracted a pair of concert suites from his full score. (Ten years later he would adapt a third suite, though this proved less popular.) Even more than the ballet itself, these suites have achieved exceptional favor with audiences around the world and now stand with the Classical Symphony and the Lieutenant Kijé Suite among Prokofiev’s most familiar compositions. Both suites from 1936 are presented on this recording.

These two suites do not present numbers from the ballet in chronological order, so they imply no linear narrative sequence. This First Suite commences with a Folk Dance that occurs at the start of the ballet’s second act. This scene expands Shakespeare’s plot to include a street fair, where the town’s residents dance and make merry. We then turn to the opening moments of the ballet. A Scene evokes a street in Verona as a new day begins. The music starts quietly with a pizzicato line for harp and low strings but soon moves to a broad melody introduced by the clarinet and taken up by the violins. Madrigal gives us the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet. Here Prokofiev conveys the tender feelings stirring in the pair through an outpouring of lyrical music. The ensuing Minuet is one of the dances performed at the Capulet ball. Romeo and Mercutio have come to that event in disguise, and Masks depicts them in a brief intermezzo that again features the clarinet.

Romeo and Juliet gives us music for the most famous portion of Shakespeare’s drama, the Balcony Scene. Prokofiev depicts the meeting of the young lovers in passages that are by turns tender and picturesque: there is ardent love music, but we also hear the nurse gruffly interrupting the lovers’ discourse and Juliet’s reply to appease her. This first suite closes with perhaps the ballet’s most dramatic episode, The Death of Tybalt. Prokofiev’s music suggests Juliet’s cousin confronting Romeo’s friend, the impudent Mercutio, then furiously pursuing him through the streets of Verona. Tybalt’s fatal clash with Romeo follows, and the movement concludes with the funeral procession that bears the scion of the Capulet family to his tomb.

The Second Suite opens with a musical portrait of Verona’s two feuding clans. Montagues and Capulets begins with an introduction heavy with foreboding. Swaggering rhythms then suggest the proud bearing of the Veronese nobles, while a more restrained central episode offers an initial glimpse of Juliet. Shakespeare’s heroine is sketched more fully during the ensuing movement, The Young Girl Juliet. Prokofiev portrays her as still very much a child, indulging in play (the lively music at the start) and falling easily into reverie. Next comes a portrait of Friar Laurence, author of the well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous scheme to spirit Romeo away from Verona and feign Juliet’s death. The following movement, titled simply Danse, is another of the numbers performed at the Capulet ball in the ballet’s first act. Prokofiev’s delicate scoring suggests a nocturnal revel.

The lovers meet for the last time in Romeo with Juliet before Parting. Already the song of a lark, heard in the flute, warns of the coming of dawn. The expressive viola solo in the middle of the movement is based on Romeo’s love theme, and the section concludes with a musical reference to the sleeping potion Juliet will use to feign death. The music that follows, Dance of the Antillian Girls, provides an interlude with no substantial connection to the drama. Prokofiev and his collaborators imagined that the Veronese nobles had West Indian slave girls, a conceit unsupported by Shakespeare’s text or by history, but which allowed them to insert some exoticism into their scenario. This second suite concludes with music from the ballet’s final scene. Romeo at the Tomb of Juliet, features the memorable love theme that Prokofiev had already established earlier in the ballet. Here, however, it is overwhelmed by music of a more funereal character. A soft C major chord in the closing measures intimates the reconciliation of the feuding families.

Besides being an outstanding musician, Prokofiev was intelligent, cultured and well read. He cherished the great works of Russian literature, several of which informed his work. Dostoyevsky provided the story for his early opera The Gambler. Tolstoy furnished the subject of his greatest such work, War and Peace. Above all, however, Prokofiev admired Alexander Pushkin, the “Russian Shakespeare.” Following his return to the Soviet Union, Prokofiev attempted to write music for three renditions of works by Pushkin: a film version of the story The Queen of Spades, and stage adaptations of the novel Eugene Onegin and the historical tragedy Boris Godunov. Unfortunately, none of these projects came to fruition, and Prokofiev’s only setting of Pushkin was a set of three songs to the great writer’s verses.

In 1949, Prokofiev received a commission from the Moscow Radio Orchestra for a piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of Pushkin’s birth. He responded with a pair of symphonic waltzes. Perhaps because he had been singled out in a Communist Party denunciation of modern music the year before, Prokofiev wrote these dances in a melodious, accessible vein. The second waltz, recorded here, partakes of a dark wistfulness that, in certain passages, reminds one of Tchaikovsky.

Paul Schiavo

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