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romeo juliet

Selections from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64, Suites 1 and 2
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Sergei Prokofiev

In retrospect, Prokofiev’s life is confusing and full of odd twists of fate and puzzling, personal decisions. Like many Russian composers of the time he was a child prodigy educated by Russian musical masters during the fairly stable final years of Czarist Russia. Then, like so many others, he fell victim to World War I and the effects of the Soviet revolution. In 1918 Prokofiev left the fledgling Soviet Union and settled in the United States. His one success in this country was the opera The Love for Three Oranges but his music seemed too avant-garde and strange to American audiences, and he simply could not obtain enough commissions to make a living. In 1922 he moved back to Europe. There, often in partnership with Sergei Diaghilev and the famed Ballets Russes, Prokofiev succeeded in writing some of his greatest compositions and established a lasting fame throughout Europe.

During the early nineteen-thirties Prokofiev became nostalgic for his home country and began splitting his time between Moscow and Paris. In 1934 he received a commission for a full-length ballet from the Kirov Theater in Leningrad, and chose the lyrical subject Romeo and Juliet. But the following year, for unknown reasons, the Kirov backed out of the deal. Fortunately, Prokofiev’s contract was picked up by the Bolshoi ballet, and in 1936 he moved back to Soviet Russia permanently. NOTE: There is a lot of speculation about why he would do this, knowing the political climate was becoming increasingly oppressive. Many think that the Soviet Union’s most famous composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, had come under such harsh attacks that Prokofiev saw an opening to fill that great composer’s shoes. In any event, Prokofiev would spend the rest of his life under a kind of “house arrest” in Joseph Stalin’s extremely oppressive Russia.

Back at the Bolshoi in 1936, there was constant fighting over the new ballet, and many of the lead performers declared the music impossible to dance to. The premiere of the ballet finally took place, not in Russia, but in Czechoslovakia in 1938. The Kirov Theater gave the first Russian performance in 1940 amid constant bickering among the staff. Without Prokofiev’s permission, the director added music and re-orchestrated some sections. In spite of all the difficulties, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was a great commercial and artistic success and remains one of the composer’s most beloved works today.

Due to the uncertainty of few performances of the ballet, (at least during his lifetime) in 1936, 1937, and 1946, Prokofiev compiled suites from the complete ballet score. These suites are popular with contemporary symphony orchestra conductors because they allow a variety of choices from among the brilliant music of the ballet. In this form, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet has largely been preserved and has remained popular in concert halls for over a half century.

Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Leonard Bernstein

When it premiered in Washington D.C. in August, 1957, music critics proclaimed that West Side Story was the great American opera that so many composers had for decades been trying to write. But its composer, Leonard Bernstein, felt that it was not an opera, but an authentic Broadway musical, even though “So much was conveyed in music, including the enormous reliance upon dance to tell the plot – not just songs stuck into a book.”

It was in 1949 that Bernstein first had the idea of creating what he expressed at the time as “a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in the slums.” In collaboration with the playwright Arthur Laurents, the musical was first conceived along the lines of a Catholic/Jewish conflict. Then Bernstein read a Los Angeles Times article about gang violence in southern California between Mexicans and whites. “In New York we had Puerto Ricans, and at that time the papers were full of stories about juvenile delinquents and gangs.” Based on this new idea, the lyricist Stephen Sondheim along with the choreographer Jerome Robbins were brought on board, and the rest, as they say, is history. In his diary Bernstein noted that “Suddenly it all springs to life. I heard rhythms and pulses and – most of all – I can sort of feel the form.”

The production ran for over two years in New York City followed by a national tour and the motion picture in 1961. While helping to arrange the film score, Bernstein created the suite of dances from the musical for performances by symphony orchestras. From jazz syncopations to Latin-American dance rhythms (sometimes developed using classical techniques such as fugue) the Symphonic Dances present a beautiful reflection of Bernstein’s timeless musical.

This is a description of the music taken from the printed score:

Prologue (Allegro Moderato) – The growing rivalry between two teenage street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks.

“Somewhere” (Adagio) – In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship.

Scherzo (Vivace e Leggiero) – In the same dream, they break through the city walls and suddenly find themselves in a world of space, air, and sun.

Mambo (Presto) – Reality again; competitive dance between the gangs.

Cha-cha (Andantino con grazia) – The star-crossed lovers [Tony and Maria] see each other for the first time and dance together.

Meeting Scene (Meno mosso) – Music accompanies their first spoken words.

“Cool” Fugue (Allegretto) – An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility.

Rumble (Molto allegro) – Climactic showdown between the two gangs where the leaders of both groups are killed.

Finale (Adagio) – Recalls the dream of “Somewhere,” – conflict ending with a whisper.

Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Sometime early in the winter of 1869, Peter Tchaikovsky, then a twenty-nine year old professor of music at the University of St. Petersburg, became obsessively attracted to a woman, the Belgium soprano, Desiree Argot. It was apparently the only time in his life this happened because the young composer would soon discover that he was gay. But his strong romantic feelings at the time were luckily influenced and directed by an internationally known senior professor at the University, Mily Balakirev. Balakirev had earlier composed an overture based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, and proposed to his young colleague that Tchaikovsky write a musical fantasy based on Romeo and Juliet.  Balakirev (who was something of a busybody) also included a few bars he felt were right for the opening of the new piece, as well as tonalities (keys) for various sections, and ways to compose that would stimulate inspiration. Tchaikovsky’s resulting 1869 composition is a masterpiece in its own right (it is sometimes still performed for historical reasons), but one that its creator felt necessary to revise twice; once in 1870, and a revision in 1880 which he blessed as the final revision, and the one that has become a staple of the standard repertoire.

Tchaikovsky’s Overture does not adhere so much to Shakespeare’s story line as to a series of musical themes representing characters and action in the play. This thematic material is organized using a musical devise, sonata form, consisting of an introduction to themes, a development section, and a final, grand presentation of the developed material. Tchaikovsky also added a short introduction and a coda (ending), which are slow, church-like and represent (as in the play) Friar Lawrence who functions as something of a narrator of the tragic tale. Following the slow opening passages Tchaikovsky introduces a wonderfully fast and chaotic section representing the feuding families, the Capulets and Montagues complete with the clash of swords. Then comes one of the most beautiful and well-known love themes in all music, played quietly at first by muted violas and solo clarinet. After some tantalizing oscillations in the violins, the theme is played again, this time by flutes and oboes with a heartbeat counterpoint played by a solo French horn. The development section is built largely on the Friar Lawrence and Capulet-Montague feuding themes building up to the full presentation of the love theme in all its intense, unforgettable glory, played by the full string orchestra accompanied by the other instruments.

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