PROKOFIEV Romeo & Juliet
Shakespeare’s plays have inspired countless musical settings over the centuries and Romeo and Juliet, the story of the ‘star-cross’d lovers’, has produced some of the memorable and successful adaptions. Here are just a few of them:
- Berlioz (France, 1839) dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette
- Gounod (France, 1867) opera Roméo et Juliette
- Tchaikovsky (Russia, 1869) fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet
- Leonard Bernstein (USA, 1957) West Side Story (movie version 1961)
- Nino Rota (Italy, 1968) film score Romeo and Juliet
Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is now considered one of the greatest ballet scores of all time, but the work had a very troubled start. The idea for the piece came from Prokofiev’s friend, the director Sergei Radlov. Early in 1935 they worked on a scenario* for the ballet and that summer Prokofiev started to write the music.
*A scenario is a plan of how a story is going to be adapted for the stage – what the key aspects of the plot are going to be and which characters might feature.
Initially, the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) had agreed to stage the ballet. However, after they had heard some of the score they complained about the ‘overwhelming complexity’ of Prokofiev’s music and unexpectedly backed out of the project. The following year, Prokofiev began negotiations with the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow who agreed to take over – but not for long! The staff at the theatre declared the score ‘unsuitable to dance to’ and they too pulled out.
At this stage, worried that his ballet would not be staged, Prokofiev decided to create two orchestral suites (and ten piano pieces) from the music he’d written. They proved to be a great success and the music from Romeo and Juliet was performed in many countries throughout the world.
The world premiere of the ballet eventually took place in Brno (Czechoslovakia) in 1938 and Romeo and Juliet was subsequently performed in Russia by the two companies who had originally rejected it – firstly in Leningrad (in 1940, by the Kirov) and then in Moscow (in December 1946). Since then it has never left the repertoire and is rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece.
These articles explain the synopsis, or story, of Prokofiev’s ballet:
Teachers Pack Exercises and Ideas for Active Approaches to the Play
RSC Past Productions
A Happy Love Story?
When adapting a work for another art form, changes are often made to the original story. Prokofiev and Radlov initially came up with the radical plan that in their version Romeo and Juliet would live happily ever after! Prokofiev’s reasoning for this was that ‘living people can dance but the dead cannot dance lying down’.
However, this re-working of Shakespeare’s tragic love story did not go down well with the Soviet authorities, and Prokofiev was persuaded to re-write his score.
In recent years, Prokofiev’s original version has been rediscovered and this newspaper article explains something of the history of the ballet. It also explains a little about the politics that surrounded the arts in the Soviet Union.
During Stalin’s years as leader of the Soviet Union there were very strict rules as to what kinds of art, theatre and music were considered acceptable to the authorities. The trouble for composers, writers and artists was that these rules often changed –what was fine one year might be banned the next. The consequences for falling out of favour could be deadly: many famous people were executed on Stalin’s orders for failing to adhere to his rules.
Prokofiev was one of the few musicians who left Russia at the time of the 1918 revolution but then decided to return to his homeland. Although he enjoyed artistic freedom in the West, he missed the land of his birth and so started to split his time between Paris and the Soviet Union. This was very unusual – most people were not allowed to travel freely in the Soviet years – but Prokofiev was one of Russia’s most famous composers and Stalin was keen to tempt him back.
The commission to write Romeo and Juliet was a way to encourage Prokofiev to return to the Soviet Union for good – and it worked: the composer moved back to Moscow permanently. But almost immediately, there were new restrictions imposed on artistic expression and Prokofiev quickly fell from favour. This is probably one of the reasons that Romeo and Juliet was dropped by the ballet companies ¬– they were worried about being associated with Prokofiev.
Dancers and Choreography
Despite those earlier claims that Prokofiev’s music was ‘unsuitable to dance to’, it’s clear that in fact Prokofiev was a genius ballet composer – and his music has inspired the world’s best dancers and choreographers.
There are several versions of Romeo and Juliet by very famous choreographers and these articles explain some more details:
As Romeo and Juliet is a ballet, it’s interesting to read what a ballet dancer thought of the great composer. Galina Ulanova was the ballerina who first danced the role of Juliet in the 1940 Kirov production. Here are her recollections of working with Prokofiev, published in an essay entitled ‘The Author of My Favourite Ballets’ dated April 16, 1954:
“I do not remember exactly when I first saw Prokofiev; I only know that at some point during the rehearsals of Romeo and Juliet I became aware of the presence in the hall of a tall, somewhat stern-looking man who seemed to disapprove heartily of everything he saw and especially of our artists. It was Prokofiev…
“Time was flying, the rehearsals were in full swing, but we were still badly hampered by the unusual orchestration and the chamber quality of the music. The frequent change of rhythm, too, gave us a great deal of trouble. To tell the truth, we were not accustomed to such music; in fact we were a little afraid of it…
“We did not tell Prokofiev anything of this; we were afraid of him…Prokofiev seemed unapproachable and haughty, and we felt he had no faith in ballet or in ballet artists. This last hurt our feelings deeply. Youth and professional pride prevented us from realizing that Prokofiev had grounds for distrusting the ballet theatre, for he had had bad luck with his ballets — not one of those he had written prior to Romeo and Juliet had survived…
“Gradually that air of chill aloofness we had so much resented at first disappeared. He began to listen to our remarks with increasing interest and attention, and before long a sympathy which soon turned to warm and genuine affection sprang up between the ballet dancers and the composer. That feeling was all the more precious for having weathered the stormiest periods in the relations between the representatives of two inter-related arts who had begun by fearing they would never be able to understand each other.”
We hope you and your students find these resources useful.