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ClassicsOnline Home » PROKOFIEV: Romeo and Juliet (Children's Classics)
Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64
narrated by June Whitfield
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estate manager. An only child, he was encouraged by his mother, a cultured amateur pianist, to develop his musical abilities and at the age of five tried his hand at composition, later being tutored at home by the composer Glière. In 1904 he entered the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianist and as a composer until 1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented by Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was able to avoid enlistment in the army as the only son of a widow and continued at the Conservatory, now as an organ student.
Prokofiev began to make his mark as a composer very early in his career, arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure and inducing Glazunov, now director of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of The Scythian Suite, apparently in fear for his sense of hearing. After the Revolution of 1917 he was given permission by the new authorities to travel abroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originally commissioned by Diaghilev, the Classical Symphony and his first Violin Concerto.
Unlike Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia with official permission and with the idea of returning home sooner or later. His stay in America was at first successful. He appeared as a solo pianist, as he had done in Russia, and wrote the opera The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Opera. By 1920, however, he had begun to find life more difficult and moved to Paris, where he re-established contact with Diaghilev, for whom he revised The Tale of the Buffoon, a ballet successfully staged in 1921, and wrote Le pas d' acier. He spent much of the next sixteen years in France, returning from time to time to Russia, where his music was still acceptable.
In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country, taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first official onslaught on music that displeased the Soviet authorities, notably the attack on the hitherto successful opera by Shostakovich, A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Twelve years later the name of Prokofiev was openly joined with that of Shostakovich in an even more explicit condemnation of formalism, with particular reference now to his own opera War and Peace. He died in 1953 on the same day as Stalin and thus never enjoyed the subsequent relaxation in official policy to the arts.
As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable The Fiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris the year after his death, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, after his earlier ballets for Diaghilev. The idea of a ballet on the subject of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was suggested to him during a visit to Russia in 1934 by Sergey Radlov, who had staged the first Russian performance of The Love for Three Oranges in Leningrad in 1926. Radlov was artistic director of the Leningrad State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, which in late 1934 became the Kirov Theatre, after the assassination of Sergey Kirov, party secretary in the Leningrad area and later a member of the Politburo. The murder of Kirov in 1934 brought the beginning of the Great Purge and there were swift changes in the Leningrad Theatre that led to the rejection of Prokofiev's proposed ballet, which was then taken up by the Bolshoi in Moscow.
Prokofiev completed the piano score in a relatively short time, occupying himself with the work during the summer months of 1935 spent at Tarussa, where other members of the Bolshoi Theatre had holiday accommodation. By October he had started work on the orchestration, but when he played the music through in Moscow to the dancers they pronounced it undanceable. More sensibly they insisted that the happy ending that Prokofiev and Radlov had proposed should be replaced by the original Shakespearian ending, the death of the lovers, an episode that Prokofiev had at first considered impossible in a ballet.
In the event music from Romeo and Juliet was given concert performance in Russia before the ballet could be staged there. The first production was in December 1938 in Brno, the capital of Moravia. Thirteen months later it was danced at the Kirov, with Ulanova as Juliet and Sergeyev as Romeo. The choreography was by Lavrovsky, who annoyed Prokofiev by making changes in the score without previous consultation, a procedure very different from that of the reputedly dictatorial Diaghilev, who had always discussed matters with his composers and choreographers. The Kirov took the production to Moscow, where, in 1946, it became part of the Bolshoi repertoire. The music provides themes associated with the principal characters and with their actions, with love and with conflict. There is room for neo-classical elements in the formal dances at the Capulet ball and elsewhere in the score. The connection of music and narrative is easily apparent from the titles of the episodes of a ballet that is very much in the Russian tradition of full-length dramatic works, in which the story is important.
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PROKOFIEV: Romeo and Juliet (Children's Classics)