Selections from “Romeo and Juliet”, op. 64

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           Prokofiev and Dimitry Shostakovich are the two composers who stood above the rest of those who labored during the years of the Soviet Union.  Unlike, Shostakovich, however, Prokofiev enjoyed part of his career living and composing in the West, returning to the USSR in 1936 voluntarily.  Like his compatriot, he must be counted as one of the great composers of the twentieth century, although unlike Shostakovich, his direct influence on composers outside of the Soviet sphere was minimal.  He was a virtuoso pianist, but who also composed from the outset, graduating from the St. Petersburg Conservatory shortly before World War I.  His musical style was based in the Russian romantic tradition, but he established early on a personal idiom that was characterized by pungent dissonance, soaring lyrical melodies, a facile manipulation of motoric rhythms, and kaleidoscopic harmonic changes.  Part and parcel of his musical personality was an acerbic appreciation of satire, parody, and even the grotesque.

            With the advent of the Revolution he left Russia, and spent most of the next two decades in America and Europe, moving frequently, trying to establish himself in a number of countries—including the USA during a portion of the war.  During this time he adapted his style somewhat to accommodate his audiences.  All the while he returned to the Soviet Union from time to time for extensive concertizing; his works were performed frequently there, and he always kept his Soviet passport.  He was never a political naïf regarding the life of artists under that political system, and it must be surmised that his eventual removal to the USSR was made with open eyes.   His musical language had been gradually moving to a simpler, more accessible style—a necessary condition for artists who wished to serve a collectivist state and appeal to the masses.  So, when he and his family arrived in Russia in 1936, he adapted readily to the political requirements by composing works that addressed the necessary content of  “socialist realism.”   This primarily meant patriotic subjects, in a traditional musical style, that served political ends.  Nevertheless, his ballet, “Romeo and Juliet,” ran into difficulties, and has led a somewhat checkered life since its composition, notwithstanding its position as probably the twentieth century’s most popular ballet.

            The ballet originated in 1935 as a collaboration between the composer and the forwarding thinking Soviet dramatists, Sergei Radlov and Adrian Piotrovsky.  They were in agreement that the ballet should not be conceived as tragedy, but rather, as an affirmative statement of courage on the part of youth to contest old ways and traditions.  Well, suffice it say, courage was understandably in short supply in Soviet Russia during the mid-thirties—the time of the infamous Stalinist purges.  Millions of totally innocent and complaisant Russians died, not to speak of those who had “courage.”  The Soviet artistic censors were in high gear, publicly condemning all who ran afoul of the Byzantine ideological complexity of the party line in art.  Moreover, the Bolshoi Ballet rejected the original version as “undanceable,” leading to an association with the Kirov Ballet, but that didn’t work out, either, at first. The official Soviet newspaper, Pravda, in the meantime had published its infamous editorials condemning a whole raft of the country’s leading artists (including Shostakovich), and that led to all sorts of retrenchments in progressive styles throughout the artistic community.  Accordingly, even before Prokofiev’s ballet was first performed it underwent radical and disfiguring “surgery,” changing much of the original artistic intent.

            The work finally enjoyed its première in the Czechoslovakian town of Brno (capital of Moravia) in December of 1938.  It must have been a rather tense affair, for Hitler had moved into the Sudetenland—which included parts of Moravia—only two months previous, with consequences for the local communists.  Subsequently, even more changes were made in the ballet for the Russian première in Leningrad in January of 1940.  By that time, Prokofiev’s ballet had obviously undergone noteworthy alteration from its original genesis, but that is the version that ultimately went on to international acclaim.  It was rather late in coming to this country, enjoying the first staged performance only in 1969.  But American audiences have long enjoyed concert performances of Prokofiev’s score (1940 version).  Apparently, the composer hit just the right mixture of Russian romanticism and pungent 1930s modernism to please American audiences everywhere.    Prokofiev later extracted three concert suites from the score, each featuring six or seven selected movements from the complete ballet. 

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan