Excerpted with permission from The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years by Simon Morrison, Princeton University
It was here, in a very brief time span, that Prokofiev composed Romeo and Juliet, a ballet about clandestine love that bears, in and of itself, a clandestine history. Its path to the stage was extremely difficult. Prokofiev ascribed its negative initial reception to archaic tastes in choreography (Soviet ballet clung to the kind of melodramatic pantomime that Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes had abandoned) and old-fashioned approaches to Shakespeare (remarkably, the first version of the ballet featured a happy rather than a tragic ending). The composer perhaps delighted in the challenge of upending common practice but cultural and political forces thwarted his ambitions. It took several years and much difficult revision before Romeo and Juliet became the greatest success of his career
The conception of this (now) celebrated but (then) controversial work dates to late November 1934, when Prokofiev traveled to Leningrad to discuss prospective performances of his opera The Gambler and The Fiery Angel at the State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet. He arrived from Moscow, where he had been attending rehearsal of Egyptian Nights - a hybridized staging by Aleksandr Tairov (real surname Kornblit), of scenes from Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, Shakespeare' Antony and Cleopatra, and a Pushkin poem for which Prokofiev composed incidental music. According to a 1934 diary fragment, Prokofiev met with Asafyev and the dramatist and artistic director of the Lenfilm studios Adrian Piotrovsky to evaluate the prospects for The Gambler and The Fiery Angel in Leningrad. They also assessed potential subjects for a new dramatic work. These included Pushkin’s The Blackamoor of Peter the Great an unfinished historical novel and proxy biography about the poet's great-grandfather. "If [it is to be] Blackamoor," Prokofiev informed his colleagues, “then [it will be] a ballet." Piotrovsky liked the idea; Asafyev did not. The latter was basking in the glow of the positive reviews of his Orientalist ballet The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, and perhaps feared losing the spotlight to Prokofiev. Following a trip to Moscow for the opening of Egyptian Nights, Prokofiev returned to Leningrad for additional brainstorming. "A get-together at Asafyev's," he wrote in a notebook. "I critiqued Blackamoor - too little material. We searched for a lyrical subject. Piotrovsky threw out [the names of] several classics including Romeo and Juliet. I immediately blurted out: a better [subject] cannot be found.”
Further details of the discussions come from Prokofiev, annotated 1951-52 work list. Before recommending Romeo and Juliet, Piotrovsky proposed two other love stories: Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande and Gottfried von Strassburg's epic Tristan und Isolde. To work with either of these texts would have been to contend with the operatic specters of Debussy and Wagner. By settling on Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev joined the more agreeable (for him) company of Bellini, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Gounod. Once the decision was reached he began to discuss the scenario with the innovative and influential director Radlov, a longtime friend. In April 1934, Radlov had mounted a stripped-down, unsentimental version of Romeo and Juliet with young actors at his Studio Theater in Leningrad. Prokofiev saw the production on tour in Moscow and admired its contrapuntal juxtaposition of comic and tragic scenes.
The scenario for Prokofiev’s treatment of the drama passed through different hands and different drafts. The first five-act draft, dated January 1935, survives in the London Prokofiev Archive; a second four-act draft, dated May 16, 1935 is preserved at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Prokofiev appears to have written the first draft himself in Paris and then turned it over to Piotrovsky and Radlov in Leningrad for their input. Noelle Mann, who translated and published this document, remarks that it is unclear whether Prokofiev used an English language edition of Shakespeare's play, a Russian-language edition, “or both." It is also unclear whether this first version was intended for a ballet: it reads like an opera script.
On May 17, 1935, the Leningrad Komsomol newspaper Smena (Change of Work Shift) released a habitually terse statement from Prokofiev about his work on Romeo and Juliet. He reveals that the State Academic Theater had encouraged the creation of the ballet, yet an agreement had not been finalized. He does not indicate the reason for the turnabout, but it was likely tied to the infighting at the State Academic Theater that followed Radlov's extremely bitter resignation as its artistic director on June 22, 1934. Vladimir Mutnikh, the new administrative director of the Bolshoy Theater in Moscow, acquired the ballet a year later with the understanding that Piotrovsky would remain involved as scenarist, and Radlov as both scenarist and director. Radlov offered his general thoughts on the chain of events in an August 8, 1935 letter to Prokofiev:
As before, I think ahead with enormous interest and happiness to that time when it will be possible to begin staging your wonderful ballet. Please inform VI. Iv. Mutnikh, if he’s still in Polcnovo, that I haven’t yet signed the contract for the libretto only because I must consult with Adr. Piotrovsky about it. Meanwhile I'm not sure when and where I’ll see him. In essence, however, nothing has changed because of this. That is, in the area of ballet I feel not the slightest surge of Leningrad patriotism. To the contrary, I'm more than loyally disposed to the Bolshoy Theater.
With Mutnikh committed to Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev moved ahead on the assumption that, following an official hearing, it would be produced by the Bolshoy Theater in the spring of 1936. He worked on the music through the idyllic summer of 1935 finishing the piano score on September 8 and the orchestral score on October 1. Alterations and refinements extended into the late fall, when he was on tour in Morocco and Algeria. Insight into the creative process comes from two letters the first to Vera Alpers, a St. Petersburg Conservatory classmate and lifelong friend, and the second to Myaskovsky. To Alpers, Prokofiev reported that the score involved fifty-eight numbers, “a list painstakingly worked out and annotated during my stay in Leningrad and nothing gives me greater pleasure than putting a cross beside a composed number (a black cross if the music is conceived in principle and a red cross if the number is composed and written out).” To Myaskovsky, he bemoaned the time it took to work up the orchestration. "I am maintaining a pace of about 20 pages a day ... but it is hard and the main thing is to avoid succumbing to Asafyevism, that is to say, the path of least resistance." Such was the path evidently taken by Asafyev in The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, which Prokofiev obviously disliked but whose success he at least hoped to replicate in Romeo and Juliet - even to the extent of consulting the same choreographer: Radlov's pupil Rostislav Zakharov.
Prokofiev's full-time work on the ballet, and his signing of a contract to compose the Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of October, provided him leverage to petition Mossovet (the Moscow Council of Worker, Peasant and Red Army Deputies - essentially City Hall) for permanent housing. Atovmyan had, of course, offered a two-story private residence on the Garden Ring Road, but Prokofiev declared that he "could not afford it”, (ne po moemu karmanu). He briefly considered inhabiting an apartment in the composers ' residence then being built, but progress was slow and the thought of living alongside his colleagues did not appeal to him. Tired of living out of suitcases, Prokofiev on November 11, 1935, wrote to the chairman of the Executive Committee of Mossovet, Nikolay Bulganin, requesting an alternate arrangement:
I have been commissioned by the Bolshoy Thearer for a four-act ballet on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and by the Radio Committee for a large-scale cantata to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet accession to power, about which V. I. Mutnikh and P. M. Kerzhentsev have already written to you. There is no point in undertaking such commissions unless they can be fulfilled to the very highest standards. At present, I do not have suitable conditions for working in peace, because I do not have a flat in Moscow. When I was living abroad, everyone told me (and quite rightly) that I ought to work in the Soviet Union· but when I arrived in Moscow, the more or less general opinion seemed to be: Prokofieff’s used to traveling, so let him live out of his suitcase while he's here….
Please do not refuse this request made on behalf of myself and my family for a quiet flat in Moscow, where I can concentrate on the aforementioned pieces. The present situation has become bizarre; in fact, it is almost like something out of a story when a Soviet composer is forced to live abroad to work on pieces commissioned by major Soviet institutions, because there is no room for him in welcoming Moscow!
Prokofiev was promised an apartment for the spring, but did not receive it until the summer. For the time being, he lived and worked in temporary lodging.
Forces had already begun to align themselves against Romeo and Juliet...