To finish up the series on Prokofiev, we’ll be enjoying the Romeo and Juliet Suite that he wrote for a ballet by the same name in 1935.
Looking at the history of Russian classical music, it is clear who Prokofiev was chasing with the composition of this ballet – Tchaikovsky. Russia’s musical heritage was built on the back of Tchaikovsky’s greatest works, most of which happened to be ballets – Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, etc – and Prokofiev was very aware of the fact that he had a chance to join Tchaikovsky’s ranks with Romeo and Juliet. The pressure was compounded by the fact that his previous attempts at writing for ballet had been unsuccessful and unpopular.
To make matters worse, Prokofiev was at the mercy of scrutinizing Soviet officials during the entire composition process. For instance, the original Romeo and Juliet ballet from many years earlier had changed Shakespeare’s ending and created a happy ending in which the two lovers live happily ever after. This did not sit well with the Soviet authorities, who promptly dispatched most of the ballet company’s employees, exiled the director, and ordered a more melancholy ending to be put in place. Prokofiev was then put in a difficult position, because he was revered by the Soviet government but was also a close friend to the exiled former director of the ballet. On top of all this, the Soviet propaganda of the day published harsh reviews of Prokofiev’s colleague and good friend Dmitri Shostakovich that criminalized him for many of the same musical characteristics that Prokofiev used in his own music. In light of these dynamics and the pressure he must have felt to conform to the Soviets’ tastes, it makes sense that Prokofiev labored over the ballet score for five years before releasing it.
The orchestration of the ballet is unique. Peppered in among the usual orchestral characters you’ll hear a tenor saxophone (let me know if you can pick it out), a viola d’amore (from the Baroque period), a cornet (old-school variation on a trumpet), and several mandolins. The result is a distinctly Russian ballet that features a cat-and-mouse game between a jazz instrument and several unmistakably Italian Baroque sounds. You should also listen very carefully to the opening melody of the ballet, as it is quite similar to another Prokofiev melody that we heard recently.