In 1940, Prokofiev started writing his ballet Cinderella, Op. 87. Five years later, the work premiered after the composer took time to create his epic opera War and Peace as a response to the German invasion of Russia in 1941.
The music in Cinderella is witty, beautiful, and sometimes strange. While I am not going to discuss the full ballet today, I want to share with you the exquisite waltz that takes place at the end of Act 2:
In this scene, Cinderella dances with the prince before realizing – to her dismay – that it is midnight, and she must leave before the magic wears off. As the clock strikes 12, Cinderella flees.
The waltz theme begins with the low strings. The melody itself is a little disjointed; Prokofiev uses unexpected harmonies and chromaticism to symbolize Cinderella’s precarious situation. The sound here is full and colorful, creating the imagery of a royal ball.
*Music theory: the waltz is set up in G minor, but the theme alternates between a raised and a lowered (perfect) 4th and a lowered and a raised 7th. Because these alterations make it hard to feel centered in the key signature, we have the impression of unsurety and a lack of stability. This perfectly describes Cinderella and her relationship with the prince.
The music expands as the two lovers dance, becoming almost wild and out of control (especially starting around 2:14 in the video above). It is easy to imagine a grand room full of couples dancing together – the women in beautiful gowns gliding among the twinkling lights at the guidance of their smartly dressed companions.
Then at 2:45, Cinderella realizes she must leave. The music shifts from a glamorous waltz to a foreboding close-up of the clock; the percussion ticks the seconds, and the clock strikes midnight (listen for the crash starting at 3:29). The low brass growl between the chimes, representing Cinderella’s distress and warning the listener about the consequences of her adventure.
After the magic has worn off (4:03), Cinderella and the prince reminisce on their wonderful night. The music here is full of longing and heartbreak; beautiful lines in the strings and woodwinds combined with some crunchy harmonies in the brass show the bitter-sweet nature of the story. He wants to believe he will find her soon. She believes she will never see him again, and you can feel Cinderella resign to that fact.