Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – #7 Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64
At #7 in my Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical is Sergei Prokofiev with his most astounding work, and that is for the Romeo and Juliet ballet. I’ll get into what makes this ballet so profoundly amazing but the one overarching aspect is that every single song piece is is laced with the foreshadowing of the tragedy unfolding in Shakespeare’s love story. Even the happiest piece makes you feel like death is right around the corner. Maybe that’s just me in knowing the conclusion of the tale, or the dissonant, deadly parts are so great and stick with you in the happy times. In either case, the whole entire ballet is one seamless flow of fantastical musical creation.
The irony is that, the version of the ballet we know today is not what he intended to start, and others had a hand in shaping the end result of Prokofiev’s composition. Prokofiev moved away from Russia in 1917 and stayed away until 1936. The Great Depression had reduced the amount of possibilities so he returned to Russia. Prokofiev had in mind to possibly do a tale of Tristan und Isolde, and even Pelleas et Mellisande, but chose not to compete with the creations by Wagner and Debussy. He chose, instead, to do a ballet of Romeo and Juliet.
As I mentioned discussing Alexander Nevsky, the 1930s in the Soviet Union, was a knife’s edge time for composers because it wasn’t quite clear when their pieces would hit the right notes to just stay alive! Prokofiev was in a unique position because he was the wayward son returned back to his homeland, so it seemed he was given more leeway than other composers. For this ballet, he originally had in mind that Romeo and Juliet would both live, and the music would be lively, jubilant, akin to how Prokofiev himself felt at the time. But the Committee on Arts Affairs pushed to have the ending changed back to the original. I have always found that really interesting, that the Soviet censors preferred the original Shakespearian ending, knowing how they felt about “degenerate” Western culture.
In any case, the work as completed and revised is a triumph of composition for ballet. It is also a triumph on stage as well, as you will see in the video I share. The music Prokofiev creates is both exotic in sound and delicately personal. It is both very visceral and dissonant while at the same time holding the loveliest harmonic qualities. Each piece fits perfectly within the whole to create an engrossing tale that, with just the music alone, without watching the dancers fly across the stage, you know what is happening in the tale.
The story starts with a morning dance in the town of Verona that slowly builds toward the climactic battle between the two houses at constant war with each other until someone is dead. The fight is broken up and the prince demands the houses separate. The music through this point is astounding in how accurately it expresses the action of the tale. The prince’s orders are pronounced through loud, harsh, dissonant chords containing up to 8 different notes with a pronounced F on low instruments, leading to a spread out B minor sonority on soft, triple piano. It leads to another round with a full blast on an Eb major 7, 9th chord that drops immediately to a pianissimo on a spread out G# minor, add 6. Those two parts sound just so lovely and set the stage for the inexorable downfall of the two lovers.
Prokofiev’s version follows generally the same storyline as Shakespeare’s. The Capulets have a dinner which Romeo crashes with Mercutio. The Capulets are given this amazing march called the Dance of the Knights. It’s unfortunate that the visual for this dance isn’t given enough action compared to the intensity of the music. Visually, the dancers take slow, solemn steps on each half beat. The melody itself is a fantastic ride on dotted eighths to sixteenth notes up the B minor scale, similar in ways to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.
At the balcony scene is where the music slows down from the intensity of the rivalry to share the newfound love Juliet feels for her Romeo, and it’s a beautiful duet for two violins before Romeo shows up. Prokofiev’s Romeo is a high-flying boisterous young man full of ebullient excitement of love and life. The music culminates in a lovely dance of love between Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev extending the moment by repeating with ever softer intonations the conclusion of the love theme. And that ends the first act.
The second act begins with a folk dance as the town awakens for the net day. To keep the music interesting, Prokofiev does here what he did in Alexander Nevsky (which he composed about the same time), repeating the themes but shifting to a variety of keys. The town awoke, the music now shifts to Romeo and Mercutio meeting and several pieces for dancers in the town square. The music is lively and vivacious, and always tinged with the danger in the air, that trouble lies ahead, a frenetic quality to each and every piece in this ballet.
Following is a Dance with Mandolins in 6/8, a fast paced waltz that starts with mandolins as the background, trumpets on a primary melody and then clarinets on a counter melody. It’s just delicious, especially when the low strings come in with pizzicatos and a tambourine completes the dance.
As for the consummated love between Romeo and Juliet, this act focuses on them trying to find a way in which they could leave the violent town and be able to live together. They try to meet with Friar Lawrence to find a solution. But unfortunately Tybalt, Juliet’s brother, spots Mercutio in town while the townsfolk make merry. He’s very upset that Romeo and Mercutio crashed the Capulets’ party. Tybalt and Mercutio fight, Romeo gets in the way and Tybalt murders Mercutio. Enraged, Romeo murders Tybalt, his lover’s brother. Oh the tragedy, and how it unfolds musically! The merrymaking from the townsfolk is not light and easy. There is constant viperous action happening to keep the listener and viewer on edge before Tybalt shows up for revenge. His battle with Mercutio is quick, vituperative, deadly. Romeo doesn’t realize this until Mercutio starts to fall. His dance of death is painful and sad, the low strings holding a heartbeat pounding that keeps slowing down, the Mercutio theme keeps slowing down until he’s dead.
Romeo’s theme is revisited in the revenge with much more intensity than when first introduced early in the ballet. The strings, particularly the first violins, hammer on their instruments the all consuming rage of Romeo’s theme with clangs and clashes until finally he strikes true and Tybalt has died. Tybalt’s mother laments with a terrible intensity, and the Prince shows up to banish Romeo from Verona for ever.
In the third act, Romeo has to say goodbye to Juliet, while Juliet refuses to marry Paris and Juliet is given this stunning theme as she laments the sadness she feels that the love she had for Romeo is so terribly shattered by the hatred between the two families. The two lovers make a plan, that everyone knows, Juliet is going to take a poison that stops her heart but not kill her. Everyone will think she is dead, and she can escape and flee with her lover. When we go back with Juliet into her room and she is alone, the music quiets down. The scene of her alone, pondering about taking the poison begins with dissonant strikes on the strings followed by gentle pulses in the woodwinds, indicating Juliet’s uncertainty in taking the poison. Tritones are the kings of this scene, particularly as she takes the poison and her little body starts to stop. The pulse slows to a halt and the music drops to the lowest instruments rumbling until death.
Expressing the coming morning and the girls coming into Juliet’s room, Prokofiev brings back the mandolin for a gorgeous morning serenade, the counterpoint contrast with Juliet’s death just adds to the tragedy. Juliet doesn’t move while the music describes the happy servants abounding with joy around the dead Capulet. They finally realize Juliet is not moving and the mourning begins.
For the fourth act, there are only two pieces of music, Juliet’s Funeral and Juliet’s Death. The Capulets understand that Juliet killed herself rather than following their wishes, and they mourn her death with another astounding expression from Prokofiev, a lament of such loss, first in the strings and then the trumpets, and finally the full orchestra. The low brass come in full blast on the main lament and it tears your soul. Especially so when that low brass is accompanied by the higher brass on a dissonant counterpoint halfway through as Romeo appears and thinks his Juliet is dead because he did not get the message in time. He takes the poison he had and dies. Juliet wakes to see her Romeo dead, and she chooses to stab herself and dies along with her Romeo.
When Prokofiev completed the ballet, along with the revisions, he chose to make three separate suites for orchestral playing, I think out of frustration at the revisions that had taken place to what he considered perfection. I actually tend to agree the revisions make the music even more fantastic, but it’s thanks to these suites that I knew of the music.
I first heard the music of Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev through the Time Life Great Men of Music series. They had the 2nd Suite as part of their collection of music by Prokofiev. The 2nd Suite begins with the Prince motif with the dissonant chords, and I absolutely loved listening to that suite. Then on May 23, 1994 I went with some friends to San Francisco. We were originally trying to get into the San Francisco Symphony to listen to them play Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (this was when I was very much into Stravinsky), but the concert was sold out. Right across the street, however, at the San Francisco Ballet, they still had seats for Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, so we went to see the ballet. The full ballet music was fantastic, and the costume design for this ballet is still, by far, the best that I have ever seen.
I highly recommend everyone listen to this music. And in terms of a good ballet, always go see your local ballet troupe whenever you can. I’ve not seen a bad version performed. During this pandemic, yes, it’s really hard to see live performances. I think this version that is on Youtube is quite good. Enjoy!
#07 – Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64
#08 – Ellington Afro-Eurasian Eclipse
#09 – Rimsky-Korsakov Sheherazade, Op. 35
#10 – Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Overture
#11 – Dvorak Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22
#12 – Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps
#13 – Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
#14 – Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551
#15 – Coltrane My Favorite Things
#16 – Dvorak Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70
#17 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
#18 – Mozart Don Giovanni, K. 527
#19 – Liszt Les Preludes, S. 97
#20 – Mozart Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492
#21 – Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Op. 20
#22 – Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor
#23 – Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11
#24 – Williams Empire Strikes Back
#25 – Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb major, Op. 73
#26 – Bernstein West Side Story
#27 – Enescu – Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7
#28 – Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110
#29 – Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain
#30 – Webber Phantom of the Opera
#31 – Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky
#32 – Chopin Nocturne in Bb minor, Op. 9, No. 1
#33 – Debussy Images, Book 1, L110
#34 – Debussy Pour Le Piano, L. 95
#35 – Chaminade Guitare, Op. 32
#36 – Chopin Berceuse in Db major, Op. 57
#37 – Boulanger Nocturne pour violon et piano
#38 – Schönberg Les Miserables
#39 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
#40 – Miranda Hamilton
#41 – Strauss Salomé
#42 – Britten Peter Grimes
#43 – Loewe My Fair Lady
#44 – Liszt Mephisto Waltzes
#45 – Webber Evita
#46 – Poledouris Conan The Barbarian
#47 – Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti
#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50
#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Wolfe Fire in my Mouth
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition
Glass Anthem, Pt. 2
Weber Der Freischütz
Coleman Lonely Woman
Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125
Jobim Girl From Ipanema
Shostakovich Suite for Variety Orchestra
Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C major, D 944
Saariaho L’Amour de Loin
Schubert String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden”
Desmond Take Five
Wagner Die Walküre
Davis So What
Wagner Tristan Und Isolde
Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings
Williams Raiders of the Lost Ark
Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht
Grisey Les espaces acoustiques
Gade – Octet for 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 violoncellos in F major, Op. 17
Schubert – Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759