Much has been written about the circumstances surrounding the creation of Romeo and Juliet, Sergei Prokofiev's most widely performed work for the stage. While writing this beloved ballet, the composer of The Prodigal Son and other renowned works was in the process of returning to his homeland after nearly 20 years abroad. He ultimately found himself ensnared in the politicization of the arts that was a hallmark of the Soviet Union, and the initial reception of Romeo and Juliet was tarnished by the turmoil of the era.
When approached by the Maryinsky (soon to be Kirov) Theater in 1934 with the proposal of a new project, Prokofiev expressed the desire to compose an opera. Instead, he was asked to create a full-length narrative ballet on the subject of either Tristan and Isolde, Pelleas and Melisande, or Romeo and Juliet. It is not clear why the first two suggestions were rejected. (Perhaps the respective operatic masterpieces of Wagner and Debussy gave pause.) What is certain is that Prokofiev chose to base his ballet on the most famous and widely produced of Shakespeare's plays, The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
One may surmise from the speed with which the first musical draft was produced — purportedly only a few months — that Prokofiev felt a deep connection with his subject. But trouble lay ahead; it was at this moment in the ballet's history, if one may be forgiven for paraphrasing Shakespeare, "That never was a story of more woe, than this of Sergei and his Romeo." In 1935, irreconcilable differences arose with the management of the Kirov leading to the cancellation of the contract. Various explanations were offered, but finally (as still happens with commissioned music today) the pronouncement was made that the music was "undanceable."
The whole truth was perhaps a bit more complex. In spite of his desire to reintegrate himself artistically into the milieu he had previously abandoned and his stated intention to promote simplicity and melody, much of what Prokofiev had experienced in the West had become an inextricable part of his compositional process. For the culturally conservative climate of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, his ideas were not only advanced, but also dangerous.
One of the most radical of these ideas was the concept of a full-length ballet inspired more by the techniques of contemporary cinema than by those of traditional ballet. Rather than supporting a flowing narrative typical of the stage, Prokofiev's score actually appears to suggest montage. For example, in Act I, Scene I, he gives the following titles for his musical episodes: Introduction, Romeo, The Street Awakens, Morning Dance, The Quarrel, The Fight, The Prince Gives His Order, and Interlude. Only one of these numbers even implies ballet, and yet the progression of the plot and its visualization are easily recognized. This is the outline for a script, not traditional ballet as understood and practiced by the Kirov.
What may have bewildered the dancers and choreographers most, however, were the composer's unusually vivid characterizations. Although others, most notably Wagner and Tchaikovsky, had made use of the leitmotif to identify characters with musical themes, it was Prokofiev in Romeo and Juliet who made these musical passages so personal and revealing that thoughts and feelings seemed indicated. Where previously broad gestures and traditional steps may have served, a fresh naturalistic quality of expression matching the intense sincerity of the music was now required.
One need only compare Juliet's entrance music with that of Aurora's in The Sleeping Beauty to understand how far Prokofiev had come. Although both begin in C major and make use of an ascending scale, it is Prokofiev who paints a nuanced psychological portrait. Tchaikovsky's Aurora is an idealized young woman, but Juliet as envisioned by Prokofiev is a girl as uneasy with her nascent sexuality as she is giddy with youthful energy. This heroine is someone modern audiences readily recognize.
After the score's initial rejection, it took another five years, several more librettists, a couple of choreographers, an out-of-town try-out, a trip to Moscow and back, and many musical revisions before the ballet was finally produced by the Kirov in 1940, to great acclaim. Since then the ballet has grown steadily in importance, taking its place as the finest full-length ballet score composed in the 20th century and a rightful successor to The Sleeping Beauty. For it is the great Tchaikovsky score of 1890, also produced at the Maryinsky, with which Romeo and Juliet must be compared, not only for its lyricism and symphonic conception, but also its lasting influence. Maybe this after all was Prokofiev's personal triumph: to be enshrined as a great Russian composer, not merely a modernist of renown.
Richard Moredock is Music Coordinator of New York City Ballet.