It is the greatest tragic love story of all time, the blueprint for doomed romances for almost half a millennium. But in 1935, Sergei Prokofiev boldly set out to rewrite the script of Romeo and Juliet, granting the star-cross’d lovers in his ballet score a happy ending in which they pirouette, hand-in-hand into a glorious future.
It was only thanks to the disapproval of Josef Stalin and his assorted cultural henchmen that Shakespeare’s original heart-rending denouement was reinstated and Prokofiev’s lyrical masterpiece as we know it today was born.
On Friday, some 73 years after it was first composed, Prokofiev’s original work – complete with cheery conclusion – received its world premiere at the Bard Summescape festival outside New York in July, 2008. Mark Morris choreographed a new ballet for the piece performed by the American Symphony Orchestra.
“Strangely, the score that is known and loved is the Stalin-approved version,” says Simon Morrison, a professor of music at Princeton University who found the original manuscript hidden in a Moscow archive. “This is the Prokofiev-approved version.” Morrison was researching Prokofiev for a book about the composer’s Soviet period when he came across 10 pages of meticulous notes for the scenario of the ballet, the first version of the score and various letters regarding the work, including one revealing the work’s full title, Romeo and Juliet: On Motifs of Shakespeare, and a memo signed by Stalin, granting his approval for a performance of the heavily revised work at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1946.
In fact, Morrison uncovered 20 minutes of previously unheard music, six new dances – including an exotic group number, a playful pantomime involving Mercutio and the Nurse and, most importantly, the two elaborate concluding pas de deux in which Romeo and Juliet celebrate their blissful love. This ending begins conventionally enough with a sombre funeral theme as Romeo arrives at the tomb, believing Juliet to be dead. He is then, crucially, intercepted by Friar Lawrence who explains the effects of the sleeping potion. At this, the magical, Rimsky-Korsakov-style tinkling of a glockenspiel heralds the breaking of the spell while Juliet’s breathing is played out by slowly pulsing harp and strings. Her awakening is followed by a joyful passage in which the various characters reconcile and give praise for a tragedy averted. Finally, the two lovers reappear to dance their duet which climaxes with a ringing succession of positive C Major chords.
So what possessed Prokofiev to rewrite one of the most famous endings in literature? The composer’s own, rather pragmatic explanation was that “living people can dance, the dead cannot”. There is also the little-known fact of Prokofiev’s deeply held Christian Science beliefs, according to which death does not exist. In Prokofiev’s vision, the love of Romeo and Juliet is infinite, transcending all earthly boundaries and existing in a paradise-like realm. “The question of whether they live or die becomes moot. They step outside it all. She wakes up and they embrace but the texture is of a magic spell,” explains Morrison. “If they have died, their love lives on. If they live, they’re in another realm. They’ve walked away from the problems that surround them into paradise.”
In 1935, Prokofiev was still living in Paris but Stalin was increasingly keen to woo him back to the Soviet Union as an emblem of its cultural credibility. As an enticement they offered him a commission to write the ballet of Romeo and Juliet for the Bolshoi Theatre. He accepted, moved back to Moscow permanently and started work with the dramatist Sergei Radlov on a scenario. Theirs was a radical reimagining of the story along proto-revolutionary lines, in which the ancient rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets was played down and replaced by the struggle between the old feudal order, embodied by the parents and the young, progressive types who fight for the freedom to love. “They actually thought they were doing the politically correct thing,” says Morrison. And for a time, they were. The general director of the Bolshoi, Vladimir Mutnykh, approved the work and scheduled it for the 1935/1936 season.
But 1936 ushered in a new wave of bloody repressions, including the creation of a Committee on Arts Affairs to enforce ideological policy in the cultural sphere. As its chairman, Platon Kerzhentsev’s first move was to denounce Shostakovich and ban his latest opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; his second was to liquidate the entire administration of the Bolshoi, including Mutnykh, who was later executed in the purges. The ballet was shunted on to the following season, but 1937 brought the 20th anniversary of the revolution. The idea of producing a work commissioned by someone who had been officially declared an enemy of the people in this landmark year was unthinkable.
The ballet remained on the shelf with Prokofiev salvaging some of the work in two orchestral suites. In 1938, a theatre in Brno in the Czech Republic was granted permission to stage the ballet which led to an invitation from the Kirov in Leningrad to produce it in their 1940 season – on the proviso that Prokofiev “traditionalized” his score. “His version would have worked very well in the 1920s but by the 1930s and 1940s things were far more conservative,” says Morrison. “Messing with Shakespeare was the equivalent to messing with Pushkin. You just didn’t do it.”
Along with the new, traditional tragic ending in which there was no doubt about the deathly fate of the young lovers, Prokofiev was forced into a raft of changes, additions and reordering. Finally, Prokofiev thickened the orchestration to give the work a more monumental, Socialist-realist feel. “Prokofiev was literally powerless at this point,” says Morrison. “But faced with the prospect of not ever having the ballet performed, he acquiesced.”
The Russian premiere went ahead but the ballet had yet to reach the glittering showcase of the Bolshoi stage. For that the nod had to come from the very top. Eventually, convinced that Prokofiev had shed all possible poisonous Western influences, Stalin signed off a letter approving the score. In 1946 it was staged at the Bolshoi in a politically-motivated, post-war performance designed to send a signal to Winston Churchill about the USSR’s fertile relationship with Great Britain and its precious Bard.
“Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score,” says Morrison. “It became the defining version, a reorganized, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it.”
Prokofiev never recovered from this artistic setback. In 1948, his health rapidly declining in a series of strokes, he was denounced by the regime. His works were removed from the repertoire and his wife was sent to the Gulag for eight years. He died on 5 March, 1953, the same day as Stalin.
Despite Prokofiev’s original reservations, his music has certainly stood the test of time. It has been used in productions all over the world, and is one of the most iconic pieces of ballet music. And who’s to say what the final ending was for Romeo and Juliet? Perhaps they found that "Somewhere" that West Side Story hints at. It is the wondering and “what if” that appeals.