Experience Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet—Without Dance

By Simon Morrison - January 23, 2018

Sergei Prokofiev Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Sergei Prokofiev Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

This month’s all-Prokofiev program at the New York Philharmonic is an opportunity to experience the composer’s musical storytelling in its purest form.

How do music and movement relate? Is one merely accompaniment to another? An ornament, akin to a costume, or just the setting—perhaps a stage? Or might music itself embody the motions of dance and so convey a sense of story? For conductor Stéphane Denève, Prokofiev’s music creates entire scenes through sound. In the ballet Romeo and Juliet, for example, the teenage heroine is introduced with a rising C-major scale that climbs ever upward. A pause in the ascent suggests a moment’s hesitation, a looking down to measure the distance, before the music moves up again. The simple scale thus captures the lure of freedom, suggests a desire to escape. Denève asks the musicians he conducts to imagine “landing on a cloud” at the end of the episode. Another tune is then introduced, but with an errant note, signaling Juliet’s polite but knowing refusal to heed the rules.

Prokofiev himself, in composing Romeo and Juliet, refused to heed Shakespeare’s text: not wanting Juliet to die, he concluded the original 1935 version of his ballet in an undefined elsewhere. The young couple simply walks out of the plot, away from the drama, and into a realm awash in lush C-major chords—that same key of Juliet’s first appearance. She and her beau are left spinning alone to the music of the spheres. Love lives on. (Or at least it did until the composer was overruled and Shakespeare’s ending was restored for the ballet’s premiere.) You can hear it all at the David Geffen Hall January 25–27.