Sergei Prokofiev was born into a family of agriculturists in Ukraine. Fascinated by his mother’s piano playing of Chopin and Beethoven, the child was captivated by the power of music. His mother, Maria, gave Sergei his first music lessons and arranged trips to the opera in Moscow. The young Prokofiev was inspired by the Russian composer Glière, who came to stay at Prokofiev’s home town in the summer to teach him theory and composition. With Glière’s help in musical skills, Prokofiev entered the conservatory of St. Petersburg in 1904. Upon graduation with the Anton Rubinstein Prize in piano performance, Prokofiev’s talent flourished further: he gave his first piano recital in 1908 and made his first appearances as a composer in 1911 and 1912. As a composer, Prokofiev was competent enough to get a contract with the music publisher Boris P. Jurgenson. The 1917 Russian Revolution made Prokofiev’s musical activities difficult, and he had to look for opportunities abroad. First Prokofiev went to the United States, where he succeeded as a pianist and an opera composer. He then moved to France, writing modern ballet music. Around that time, the Soviet Union made some attempts to bring Prokofiev back to his homeland, proposing a possible teaching job and places for presenting his music. Missing his native land and his family, Prokofiev finally decided to return and settle in the Soviet Union in 1934, a year before starting work on the ballet music for Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy written circa 1594–1596, inspired numerous musical compositions, including incidental music, songs, piano pieces, symphonies, and operas. The French composer Berlioz wrote a dramatic symphony and Gounod, also French, wrote an opera. The nineteenth century Russian composer, Tchaikovsky, wrote the Fantastic Overture. Prokofiev’s ballet music, however, is arguably the most frequently performed among the various pieces based on the Shakespearean play. In 1934, just before returning to Moscow, Prokofiev received a commission for a full-length ballet from the Kirov Theatre in St. Petersburg. The composer chose Romeo and Juliet and wrote the ballet score for it in 1935. The Bolshoi Theatre cancelled the contract of premiere, however, saying that the music was impossible to dance to. Prokofiev disagreed such a claim. The problem, perhaps, was not just in the music but also the happy ending, which was a huge change from the original plot. According to the composer, “Romeo arrives a minute earlier, finds Juliet alive and everything ends well.” The main reason for this alteration was based on the composer’s assertion that a dead person cannot be a good dancer on the stage. The revised ballet score with the tragic ending was premiered on stage in Bruno, Czechoslovakia in 1938. The Soviet premiere took place in 1940 at the Kirov Theater with a commercial and critical success.
Before the ballet’s Soviet premiere, the composer extracted two orchestral suites, first performed in 1936 and 1937, respectively (he also created the third suite in 1946). The music in these suites demonstrates some notable characteristics in Prokofiev’s music: its masterful use of modern harmony, his keen sense of drama, and his brilliant orchestration, enhanced by the huge range of dynamics and vibrant rhythms.
Additionally, this ballet music depicts each character’s inner feelings with sensitivity. To differentiate the characters, the composer assigned a particular instrument to each character. For example, Romeo is performed by the violin; Juliet, by the flute, the knights in the masquerade, by the French horn and the clarinet. For today’s concert, the maestro Noseda personally selected ballet numbers from the three orchestral suites and created an original concert suite.