“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” penned Shakespeare in the late 16th century. The famous love story Romeo and Juliet has been read time and time again, and many a composer has called upon the play’s tragic woes as inspiration for new music. From ballet to film to Broadway, musical interpretations of Romeo and Juliet are staples in our culture. Check out this article that discusses some of the musical settings of the play.
Today I’d like to focus on Sergei Prokofiev and his ballet version of Romeo and Juliet.
A little background for you: born in 1891 in Ukraine (when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire), Prokofiev lived during the tumultuous 20th century. He was a gifted pianist and composer from a young age, and even though he was well-known in America, he was happiest in his homeland. To learn more about Prokofiev and his life, read my post here. (Prokofiev is one of my most favorite composers; there will certainly be more posts about him in the future!)
Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 was written in 1935 specifically for Russian ballet. Sadly, it was rejected at first because it was thought to be impossible to dance to. But don’t worry! It was finally performed in 1938. If you have some time to kill, or even if you don’t, check out the full ballet here (also, here is a table that outlines the structure of the ballet if you want to follow along):
*The ballet was also reworked and changed due to its unconventional nature (Prokofiev originally had Romeo and Juliet live at the end of his ballet), which was another reason it took three years to get it on stage. Read more about the political turmoil behind the ballet here.
What I love about this music is that every theme is different, yet all of Prokofiev’s ideas are easily understood and interpreted in the storyline. The two lovebirds are given a lush theme filled with love, foreshadowing, longing, and grief; the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets is full of tension and dissonance (and it is surprisingly very rhythmic and dance like, almost like a face-off between the two families); young Juliet is characterized by the warm innocence childhood that grows and matures throughout the plot. And there is so much more to discover!
Let’s take a closer look at the end of the ballet. The epilogue music, Juliet’s funeral and death, is some of the saddest music in the ballet. A dark twist on the love theme, full of sensuous strings contrasting with sharp brass, the heartbreak is unparalleled. It makes me want to cry every time I listen to it:
Another cool thing about this ballet is that Prokofiev turned the music into three orchestral suites (Opuses 64bis, 64ter, and 101) and a piano suite (Op. 75). The suites are a compilation of several different themes in the ballet, and this next video is the second suite. The opening movement is the famed Montagues and Capulets (this one is super famous, so read more here). 4:57 is Juliet as a Young Girl (take note of the various mood changes). Friar Laurence starts at 8:42 (notice the stately, father-like character compared to the previous section). Romeo and Juliet Before Parting begins at 11:00 (and it is gorgeous), Dance of the Lilly Girls starts at 18:58, and the final movement is Romeo at Juliet’s Grave (20:45).
Let’s listen to the piano suite now. The movement in this video is Romeo and Juliet Before Parting, Op. 75 no. 10, which captures all of the emotions Romeo and Juliet experience. The colors here are quite alluring and expressive; the anguish of forbidden love is demonstrated in every note (The sense of foreboding around 5:12 gives me chills every time!) (And yes this is me playing, so no judgment.):
And for good measure, here’s Op. 75 no. 6, Montagues and Capulets:
So there you have it: a small look into the wonderful world of Prokofiev, and we barely dented the surface. Stay tuned for more!
P.S. The featured image of this post was taken in 1947 of ballet dancers performing Romeo and Juliet at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, Russia. Cool, huh?