Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, one of the most well known and tragic love stories to date has been set to music by many composers, telling stories of unrequited and tragic love. Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet is one such work.
Prokofiev worked and lived in the former Soviet Union. As a musician, this meant that any music performed in the USSR had to meet the idealist ideas enforced by the government. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the two lovers tragically take their own lives in the end. However, in Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo heroically sweeps in to save Juliet at the very last second. You may be wondering how Prokofiev keeps Shakespeare’s story intact even under intense scrutiny from the government? Here is a little terminology for you! Prokofiev uses a technique called ‘leitmotif’ which is when a short piece of music is associated with a specific character. Take a listen to the first of Juliet’s leitmotivs:
The music indicates so much information about Juliet’s character in a little over three minutes! The government may have been able to control and alter the general plot of the story; however, they were not able to alter the music itself.
At the beginning, Prokofiev paints a picture of young Juliet; innocent, free, frolicking through life. At the minute and half mark, we still have this idea of purity; however, the music indicates a new reflective side to Juliet. We are first introduced to this theme when we hear the solo flute melody. Based on the story, we can assume she is dreaming about love. The saxophone transcends the bounds of the story and music as it paints an image of Juliet spiraling through a fanciful dream. At the two and half minute mark, Prokofiev takes us back to the opening theme, however, he changes it up a little by adding a more pensive ending. This ties the two musical ideas together creating a story for the character of Juliet. The character of Juliet has three leitmotivs; the primary reason for this is to not give her one clear identity. Prokofiev was obliged to musically do this from the government as they did not want to encourage the women of the Soviet Union to believe that females could be free thinking people.
Prokofiev’s Romeo is made out to be a much greater hero in comparison to the Romeo in Shakespeare’s play. The primary reason for this was simply because the government viewed the character of Romeo as the character equivalent to Stalin. Therefore, Romeo only has one main theme and it is quite heroic in character. There is a majestic sense to the music that indeed supports the representation of Stalin in Romeo.
In complete contrast to the main characters, Shakespeare’s character, Friar Laurence, is the voice of reason and calm. Prokofiev sets music that sharply contrasts any of the other leitmotifs in the ballet. This theme is calming, reflecting the idea that he is the voice of reason in the middle of chaos. Hear how Prokofiev captures the peacefulness of Friar Laurence below:
Interestingly, despite the calm the music creates, Prokofiev was afraid the government would ostracize him as the character of Friar Lawrence could have been regarded as the symbol of someone ranked higher than Stalin.
Join us on February 21 at FirstOntario Concert Hall (formerly Hamilton Place) to experience Suite 1 of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet as well as other excerpts from Tchaikovsky and Berlioz’s musical settings of the famous love story.