The Tortured History Behind Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’

The Tortured History Behind Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’

“This ballet was conceived in paradise,” Simon Morrison, a music professor at Princeton University and the author of “The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years,” said in an interview. “Prokofiev was about to create this astonishing diversity of music from his own imagination.”

Still, the ballet was idiosyncratic to a fault. In its original form, it included a Victory Day parade plopped in the middle of the plot. And the divertissements, a parade of showcase dances that are a staple of classical ballet, were inserted right after Juliet takes the potion: “the worst possible moment,” Mr. Morrison said.

But the most unconventional decision Prokofiev made was in the ending: It was happy.

According to the ballet’s original scenario, by Adrian Piotrovsky, Romeo wants to stab himself but is stopped by Friar Laurence. While they are entangled in a struggle, Juliet begins to breathe. Then the stage fills with people, who watch as Romeo and Juliet begin to dance. The music is bright as the young lovers leave the stage in an Orphic apotheosis.


Galina Ulanova, second from right, as Juliet and Konstantin Sergeyev as Romeo at the Kirov Theater.

Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

In 1936, Prokofiev played the first three acts on piano for a small group that included the Shakespeare scholar Sergei Dinamov, who supported the unusual ending. The Boshoi, under the leadership of Vladimir Mutnikh, acquired “Romeo” from the Kirov and planned to stage it during the 1936-37 season.

Then the dominoes began to fall. Platon Kerzhentsev, chairman of the newly formed Committee on Arts Affairs, took charge of the Bolshoi and called for a state assessment of the repertory. “Romeo” was postponed, and Mutnikh was arrested as part of Stalin’s Great Purge, in which more than a million people were detained and at least 600,000 were executed. Among the victims were Piotrovsky and Dinamov.

“With this increasingly paranoid cultural edifice, anything associated with Mutnikh was inevitably tainted,” Mr. Morrison said. “So this ballet project was essentially doomed.”

When “Romeo” finally made its way to the Russian stage, it was back at the Kirov, as part of its 1939-40 season. But the orchestration had been heavily altered — new instruments, and divisi lines added to the violin parts — and the ending was rewritten to be tragic, a tradition that continues with most stagings today.

Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet — final scene (Macmillan) Video by Y1MT

Whole numbers were excised, though Prokofiev was able to salvage some of the divertissements elsewhere in the score. And he repurposed a scherzo passage in his Fifth Symphony, written during World War II.

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 – ‘Scherzo’ – Stokowski conducts Video by adam28xx

Some of the changes were made without Prokofiev’s permission. When he was involved, it was with reluctance.

“The creative tumult of that period was absolutely staggering,” Mr. Morrison said. “People in his apartment building were disappearing, he couldn’t leave and his ballet was effectively censored. I think at this moment something really did break in him.”

It was clear to Prokofiev that his return to Russia had been a colossal mistake. But he would remain there for the rest of his life, with ups and downs of creativity and fame and near-constant health problems.

If he had any consolation, it was in the “Romeo” orchestral suites, the first two of which had their premiere before the ballet itself. These are the score as Prokofiev intended it: light and buoyant. Their earliest performances apparently inspired Shostakovich, whose Sixth Symphony (1939) uses a motif taken from “Romeo.”

Listen to the first four notes of Prokofiev’s score:

Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet – Gergiev – Kirov Orchestra Video by lambda music

They appear in various forms throughout the first movement of Shostakovich’s symphony:

Symphony N. 6 – Dmitri Shostakovich Video by Anthologies Classical

The suites, which are structured more like symphonies than tone poems, can be unsatisfying for conductors, including Mr. Denève, who like many others has made his own suite by rearranging Prokofiev’s music to tell the ballet’s story.

“I wish I could call Prokofiev and ask him what is the exact purpose of his three suites,” Mr. Denève said in an interview. “With all my respect, of course, for Prokofiev, I can’t understand his logic.”

But Mr. Morrison argues that Prokofiev’s suites, while unusual, do capture a happier time: that halcyon summer in Polenovo, “a gorgeous moment when he was going to get his ballet staged, he was going to be number one, and he could serve his muse as he wanted.”

“It’s still in the notes,” he added. “Stuff has been piled on, and you have to scrape some of it away. But the magic is there.”

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