Sergei Prokofiev was born in Sontsovska in the Ukraine, on April 22nd, 1891, and died in Moscow, on March 5th, 1953. He composed Romeo and Juliet in 1935/6.
In 1934 Prokofiev began discussions with the Kirov Ballet about composing a lyrical ballet for them. The Kirov wanted him to use Romeo and Juliet as his subject matter, but before he finished the ballet the company backed out, claiming that his work was “overwhelmingly complex”. The next year Prokofiev liaised with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet to produce the work, and completed the ballet that summer. However, true to the plot of the story troubles continued to plague it. Most controversial, according to the traditional story, was Prokofiev’s determination to retain the tragic ending. The choreographers protested, until finally the Bolshoi refused to perform the work, calling the composer’s music “impossible to dance to”.
However Prokofiev persisted, opening discussions with the Leningrad ballet school and later the Brno Opera in Czechoslovakia. Eventually it opened in Brno in 1938, although it was not staged in Russia until 1940 where the work was an instant success.
Meanwhile, Prokofiev had decided to arrange some orchestral suites from the ballet to help disseminate the music. All three orchestral suites, concert pieces performed with a large orchestra, were created by Prokofiev himself, Suites 1 and 2 in 1936, Suite 3 in 1947.
The Montagues and the Capulets comes from Suite 2 and portrays the feuding between two powerful families. Prokofiev was particularly good at composing music to portray character. The music, danced by the knights and ladies of the two families, is imposing, almost intimidating. Its bold, musical gestures are interrupted only by a short interlude of quiet calm representing Juliet dancing at the Capulet ball.
The work is in loose ternary firm. The introduction has no thematic content and is only intended to create a dark atmosphere. It begins very loudly, then the strings drop to pianissimo. The horns and woodwind then layer on top of the strings and the dynamics return to fortissimo. Then it drops to piano again. Prokofiev creates the dark and foreboding mood through the extreme dynamic range and very dissonant harmonies.
The A section begins with a strong pulsating beat from the brass section. This shows motor rhythm, one of Prokofiev’s signatures. The texture of this opening is almost metronomic, and provides a strong foundation for the dramatic string theme that comes out on top of it. Later on, the brass takes up a soaring counter theme and also punctuates the original string theme. In the ballet, this section would show the Capulets dancing in a very slow and dignified way, as this is the music for the Capulet ball.
The B section provides a stark contrast, as it is in the pianissimo dynamic range and is played by the flutes. It is marked Adagio and is very calm and serene. Prokofiev also utilises touches of celesta in this section, which was highly unusual in orchestral works. In the middle of this section there is an oboe solo accompanied by pizzicato strings. This section is meant to represent Juliet’s entrance to the ball, as she flits around the room meeting the various guests. She eventually dances with the Count Paris until the close of this section.
When the A section comes back, it is when Juliet has met Romeo. It is abridged and the theme returns first as a tenor saxophone solo, which was highly unusual for the time. Eventually, the strings join in and the piece ends with a very strong cadence.
Many people will recognise the Montagues and the Capulets as the theme music to the television programme The Apprentice. It has been used on many varying occasions, the latest being this year on Robbie Williams single Party Like A Russian.
Lynne Haslam, 2nd Violin