Sergei Prokofiev left his homeland in 1918, at which time he embarked upon the life of a successful touring pianist and composer, residing at first in the United States and then for a long period in Europe. He came into contact with the newest developments in Western music at that time — including jazz, Hollywood and Broadway — and naturally began to spread his musical wings; he composed three large-scale operas and then went on to compose three ballets — Chout, Le pas d'acier and Le fils prodigue — for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. His Scythian Suite was also originally conceived as a ballet.
During the 1930s Prokofiev began to consider returning to Soviet Russia. Not only was he tired of living as a touring concert pianist but commissions for new works in the West were drying up and his operas were not being performed. Prokofiev moved back to Moscow with his originally Spanish wife and their two sons in 1936. This was during one of the darkest periods of Stalin’s dictatorship, but Prokofiev nonetheless managed to find work in abundance; the regime was very much in favour of cultural forms that were energetic and expressive and Prokofiev’s music fitted this description well. In the Soviet Union he composed the last three of his seven symphonies, four piano sonatas, the film scores for Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1942-1945), the fable Peter and the Wolf and the ballets Cinderella (1940-1944) and Romeo and Juliet (1935-1936).
In the first instance it was the commission for Romeo and Juliet that brought him back to Russia. The initial proposal came from the writer and dramaturge Adrian Piotrovsky; Prokofiev then worked with the dramatist Sergei Radlov on a first draft of the scenario. This followed the ideas of the drambalet, a ‘dramatised ballet’ in which Radlov and Prokofiev interpreted Shakespeare’s tale as ‘… a struggle for the right to love by young, strong, and progressive people battling against feudal traditions and feudal outlooks on marriage and family’.
Prokofiev, Piotrovsky and Radlov completed the four-act scenario for Romeo and Juliet in May 1935, although with a happy ending. Vladimir Mutnykh, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, put the ballet into the programme for the 1935-1936 season. The scenario was approved by Sergei Dinamov, a member of the Central Committee and of the board of directors of the Bolshoi. Given that the ending differed from Shakespeare’s text, Dinamov suggested the addition of a subtitle, ‘based on themes from Shakespeare’. Radlov wrote an article published in Sovetskoye iskusstvo (Soviet Art) in June 1935 in which he again discussed the central themes of Romeo and Juliet: class warfare, a fundamental conflict between comedy and tragedy, the clash between youth and a feudal society.
Prokofiev set to work, composing first of all a version with 51 scenes for piano with annotations for later orchestration. His orchestra would include a tenor saxophone, a rather unusual choice; he also called for a cornet, a viola d’amore and mandolins to give an Italian flavour to the piece. A first play through of the piano version for the directors of the Bolshoi led to spirited discussion about Prokofiev’s unorthodox interpretation of Shakespeare and above all about his decision to give the work a happy ending. In Shakespeare Romeo believes that Juliet is dead and kills himself; she awakens and, seeing the dying Romeo, follows him in death. Prokofiev, however, allowed both lovers to live; he later wrote ‘At that time there was a great fuss about our suggestion to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending. Romeo arrives one minute earlier, finds Juliet alive and all ends happily. The reasons for this tiny barbarism were purely choreographic: dying people cannot dance, living people can”.
There was possibly another reason for this ending: Prokofiev had joined the Christian Science movement in 1924, at that time the fastest growing religious movement in the United States. Christian Science preaches that the material world is an illusion and that reality is purely spiritual; death in fact does not exist. So in Prokofiev’s vision the love between Romeo and Juliet is therefore eternal; they pass beyond earthly limits. Whether they live or die is therefore beside the point.
Such artistic discussions were, however, lethally dangerous in 1936. The Soviet Union now became a platform for bloody repression; the arts came under the control of a new Committee for Artistic Affairs, led by Platon Kerzhentsev. New conservative and anti-modernist measures were announced for music, theatre and literature. Kerzhentsev’s first act was to denounce and then to ban Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk; his second was to dismantle the management of the Bolshoi. Dinamov, Piotrovsky and Mutnykh were all arrested and executed within eighteen months. The complete new season’s programming was also scrapped, Romeo and Juliet included. Prokofiev luckily escaped this dance of death, but was compelled to rewrite the ballet comprehensively, giving it a totally new fourth act and a new ending; he was extremely uncertain whether his work would ever receive a performance. The ballet was given for the first time in 1938, although not in Moscow but in distant Brno in what was then Czechoslovakia. Prokofiev was not present.
When Stalin was finally convinced that Prokofiev had shaken off all corrupt Western influences and had become a true Soviet artist, permission was finally granted for a Russian premiere of the ballet in the Kirov theatre in Leningrad on 11 January 1940. The score and the orchestration had to be adapted yet again, and Prokofiev was compelled to accept that others — the choreographer Lavrovsky above all — would make all sorts of alterations. Added to this, the dancers complained about the difficult ‘modern’ rhythms. The prima ballerina — Galina Ulanova — was reported to have said “For never was a story of more woe / Than Prokofiev's music for Romeo”. Prokofiev was scarcely able to recognise his own work when he finally saw and heard the final version. He wrote a long letter of complaint about all the changes and alterations, but in vain.
To the astonishment of all concerned, the production was an enormous success; Romeo and Juliet was acclaimed as the most important dramatic ballet that the Soviet Union had produced. It was finally performed at the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1946. It was this shortened version approved by Stalin that then began the work’s triumphal journey throughout Europe’s theatres. The musicologist Simon Morrisson rediscovered the lost sections of Prokofiev’s original composition in a Moscow archive in 2008; only then could Romeo and Juliet finally sound as Prokofiev had intended it. Prokofiev had himself made a reduction of the ballet as a suite for solo piano and also made three different concert suites from the orchestral version. He also reused two sections of the ballet in the second movement of his Fifth Symphony. Daniele Gatti has made his own choice of six movements from the First Suite and three movements from the Second Suite. They are:
Montagues and Capulets (2nd suite/1)
The child Juliet (2nd suite/2)
Madrigal (1st suite/3)
Minuet (1st suite/4)
Romeo and Juliet (1st suite/6)
Death of Tybalt (1st suite/7)
Friar Laurence (2nd suite/3)
Romeo and Juliet before parting (2nd suite/5)
Romeo at Juliet’s grave (2nd suite/7)
Translation: Peter Lockwood