Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Piano Music inspired by Shakespeare’s Tragedy


  • Artist(s): Danila Tomassetti
  • Composer(s): Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Sergey Prokofiev
  • EAN Code: 7.46160913728
  • Edition: Da Vinci Edition
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Instrumental
  • Instrumentation: Piano
  • Period: Modern, Romantic
  • Publication year: 2022
SKU: C00540 Category:

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Sergei Prokofiev
Prokofiev’s plan for the composition of Romeo and Juliet dates to 1934, coinciding with the composer’s return to his homeland after a long period spent in Paris, and the request made by the Kirov Theater initially, and the Bolshoi later (when the Kirov backed out) for a ballet. Pondering on the subject, together with dramatist Adrian Piotrovsky, the composer initially considered also other great love stories. Eventually, the two authors opted for the Shakespearian tragedy, whilst providing it with a happy ending.
The issue of the happy ending was discussed by Prokofiev himself in his Autobiography. This choice was primarily due to mere choreographic reason, according to which only “living people can dance, the dying cannot”. To support this decision, moreover, it was claimed that Shakespeare himself would have been uncertain about the ending of his plays. However, Prokofiev also considered the impression made by his music on a listener who declared: “Strictly speaking, your music does not express any real joy at the end”. Thus, Prokofiev abandoned the idea of a happy ending, maintaining the Shakespearean one.
The first draft of Romeo and Juliet was completed by Prokofiev in the summer of 1935. This piano score, consisting of fifty-six musical numbers, would have served as a guide to the ballet’s orchestration, which Prokofiev started immediately after. However, when this version was performed for the Bolshoi Theatre, with Prokofiev himself at the piano, during the 1935-6 season, it was by no means successful, causing the contract to be broken since that music was declared “impossible to dance to”.
A few words should be spent about this statement: first of all, according to Leonid Lavrovsky, Prokofiev’s ballet music “carried on where Tchaikovsky left off”, in terms of symphonic orchestration, “genuine human emotions and full-blooded musical images”. Indeed, after the spectacular and showy productions of Romantic ballet, characterized by very clear rhythms and dance numbers, and conceived only to show the dancers’ technique, the music of Prokofiev was found to be insufficiently effective or captivating. Just as Tchaikovsky’s music, a few decades earlier, Prokofiev’s was considered too dramatic, because it was meant to depict a drama within the ballet and not a mere sequence of dance numbers.
Fortunately, after the Bolshoi failure, the Kirov theater engaged Prokofiev again. Since the premiere of the ballet had already been delayed to the following season, a first shorter premiere was given in Brno in 1938, though the composer could not attend it because of his travel restrictions. In 1940, finally, the full ballet was premiered at the Kirov. At first, the dancers found the music rhythmically unclear and “incomprehensible”, but they gradually came to find it meaningful both choreographically and psychologically. Eventually, Galina Ulanova, principal dancer for other ballets, stated: “if I were to be asked what the music of Romeo and Juliet should be like, I would say without hesitation: like Prokofiev’s, for I cannot now conceive of any other music”.

When Prokofiev compiled, in 1937, the Ten Pieces for Piano from Romeo & Juliet op. 75, he deliberately chose “the parts best suited for transcription”. This does not imply a transcription from the orchestra to the piano (Prokofiev had written the first, full draft of Romeo and Juliet as a piano score). This rather implies his choice of the pieces sounding better on the piano, and best suited to a pianist’s technique and hands. According to Prokofiev himself, the pieces included in this piano cycle are of two kinds: pieces “taken directly from the ballet without alteration” (as happens in most of cases), and pieces “compiled from different sources within it” (like Menuet, Young Juliet, Romeo and Juliet Bid Farewell). This second group consists of pieces re-arranged so that they could condense different atmospheres, moments, and leitmotivs depicting a certain character (this is wonderfully achieved in The Young Juliet), even though in the ballet their musical material was presented in different scenes or even acts.
Prokofiev’s mastery, however, does not end here. With his Ten Pieces, he really created a piano cycle in the style of programmatic music: he crafted a sort of miniature tragedy, including all the main characters and themes from the ballet, and offering a complete representation of the story. To this aim, as he had already done (perhaps less effectively) in his Symphonic suites, the composer altered the order of the pieces, adapting it to the small frame of the piano cycle.
Hence, we find Dance of the folks as the opening piece, merging two ballet numbers from the third and the fourth act. This piece is a monothematic perpetuum mobile (probably the most technically difficult piece of the collection) written in the style of a tarantella in 6/8. The choice of the tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance, is undoubtedly connected with the Italian setting of the ballet, although this kind of dance is characteristic of Southern rather than of Northern Italy (Verona, where Romeo and Juliet live). However, as noticed by Ken Stephenson, this Italianate tarantella overflows with fourths and fifths, a feature which is highly characteristic of Russian music. This popular dance immediately throws us in a festive mood, just before entering Juliet’s house, where the masked ball is being prepared.
Scene, that follows, is a monothematic piece, copied exactly and without changes from the ballet score (only the repetitions are omitted). This is the first music from the first act to appear in the suite and, just as happens in the ballet, it accompanies the appearance of the characters on the scene, or the stage. It is characterized by metrical uncertainty, since it opens with a four-measure introduction, followed by an eight-measure repeated phrase (with the melody in the left hand), and eventually a much freer phrase organization in the right hand.
Menuet is a noble and aristocratic dance as opposed to the folklike opening tarantella. The adaptation of this piece is one of the most drastic. In comparison with the version found in the ballet, here two theme repetitions have been cut off. Admittedly, the ballet version, functional to the dance, is freer than the more schematic piano version; however, without dance, it might sound repetitive.
With The Young Juliet, for the first time in this suite, Prokofiev incorporates in one piece all the different facets Juliet acquires throughout the ballet. A gem of its kind, it can be considered the first fully “descriptive” piece of the collection, thanks to its several sections, each of them reflecting a different mood of Juliet. Thus, Juliet is first presented as a young and active girl, depicted by fast figurations and staccato chords, then as a dreamy person, and eventually as a mature woman, after her secret marriage with Romeo.
With its joyful, sarcastic character and powerful sound, Masks depicts very effectively the moment of the masked ball in Juliet’s house. The “sarcastic” element, at times inappropriately called “grotesque”, and better described as “scherzo-ish in quality”, is one of the “five lines”, or five most distinguishing elements, of Prokofiev’s music: this piece represents it excellently.
However, the following piece, Montagues and Capulets, still stands out. The best-known melody of the entire ballet, depicting the quarrel between the two families, is characterized by its immediately recognizable octaves in the left hand and its assertive dotted rhythm in the right hand, followed by a contrasting middle section and, eventually, by the return of the first theme. The meaning of the middle section is particularly important: it is an excerpt from In Juliet’s Bedroom, from the third act of the ballet, signifying the (momentary) triumph of love over the row between the two families. It is characterized by a long melodic line, in sharp contrast with the dotted rhythm of the first section; proceeding by semitones, it is marked by sensuousness. In the ballet version, Montagues and Capulets is much longer, as it contains two Intermezzi omitted in the piano version. Here too, the piece thus modified clearly shows Prokofiev’s aim to create not a “piano reduction”, but another musical work with its own dignity.
Father Lawrence, a short and reflective piece in a lyric binary form, faithfully depicts the figure of Father Lawrence, who helps the two lovers. In the first draft of the ballet (the one with the happy ending) his function was that of a deus ex machina who prevented Romeo from stabbing himself. Instead, in Shakespeare’s version of the tragedy he could not impede Romeo’s suicide. However, this movement’s major key, rich polyphony and serenity avert the tragedy for a while.
Mercutio, in its piano version, appears exactly as in the ballet version, and it is unbelievable how pianistic its writing is, despite its virtuosity and fast speed. The character represented in this piece is that of a young man, with his conflicting changes of mood, and the huge contrast between the first playful section and the ambiguous middle section. After the return of A there is a small coda, and the piece ends eventually with a sarcastic minor-major progression, suggesting the tragic outcome of the sword duel with Tybalt, ending with Mercutio’s death.
In Dance of the Girls with Lilies we find another example of Prokofiev’s use of the grotesque, or scherzo-ish. This was meant to be the festive dance of Juliet’s maidens, coming into her bedroom to wake her up with lilies (a traditional symbol of matrimony) on the morning of her combined wedding with Paris. However, it overflows with uncertainty, both in the beginning (with its suspended notes) and later, in the use of chromatism and of a non-defined tonality (it is in the minor mode, whilst sounding almost atonal for most of the time). Thus, Prokofiev’s precise purpose of turning a happy dance into a sort of funeral march has been undoubtedly reached.
The final piece of the collection, Romeo and Juliet Bid Farewell, contains some of the most beautiful melodies ever written by Prokofiev. Its form is completely free. It consists of the juxtaposition of different leitmotivs of the two lovers, woven together: the main themes presented come at least from four different numbers of the ballet. The initial Lento, characterized by an aethereal melody played in the upper register of the piano, opens with a dreamy atmosphere. Then, the melody moves back to a more matter-of-fact setting, becoming increasingly desperate and romantic as it reaches the climax of Romeo and Juliet’s love. At the end, love vanishes to the ticking of clocks, marking the inescapability of time and death. This is also represented by the wonderful choreography of the pianist’s two hands parting from each other, going from the middle register respectively to the left and to the right part of the keyboard.
Danila Tomassetti © 2021

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Along with the “Bach-Renaissance”, Romanticism is also to be credited with the “Shakespeare-Renaissance”, and the works of the Bard conquered increasingly larger strains of the cultural elites. Music was by no means indifferent to this fascination, and countless operas, symphonic poems, and ballets contributed to the reception history of Shakespeare’s works. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the best known and most appreciated examples of how a tragedy based on words (“Words, words, words”, as Hamlet could have said) could become a wordless cultural paradigm. In this Da Vinci Classics album we can in fact compare two wordless versions of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, one originally in the form of a symphonic “Overture-Fantasia”, the other as a ballet suite.
This was of course possible only given the universal fame of the Bard’s plot, allowing the listeners of musical works derived from it to follow the episodes and to assign a “personality” to the various themes and instruments. The challenge of presenting piano versions of these works is therefore doubled. In the ballet, there are no words, but the dancers’ gestures make the plot perfectly understandable. In the symphonic version of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem, there is frequently a perfect correspondence between an instrument and a character of the tragedy. In a piano recording, it is the performer artist’s task to let the “story” emerge, by virtue of a poignant interpretation.
Tchaikovsky’s Overture had a long and complex gestation; both its initial concept, and many improvements characterizing its final version, were owed to Mily Balakirev, one of the Mighty Handful who kindly mentored and tutored the compositional efforts of a still young Tchaikovsky. This is particularly significant since music historiography, always prone to schematizations, would later oppose Tchaikovsky and the Mighty Handful as representing two contrasting facets of musical Russia. Here, we can clearly observe how Balakirev’s advice resulted in Tchaikovsky’s personal elaboration of a perfect masterpiece, entirely his own, fully original, although crafted with the help of another genius musician.
The version recorded here is a transcription realized by Carl Bial (1833-1892), after a commission by publishers Bote & Bock (1871), and was created after Tchaikovsky’s second version (although the final one would only have been the third and last of his versions), incorporating the suggestions by Balakirev.

Chiara Bertoglio © 2021


Danila Tomassetti
Praised for her emotional playing and richness of sound, Italian concert pianist Danila Tomassetti has performed in various cities in Italy, for prestigious music societies among which Teatro Marrucino (Chieti), Teatro Massari (Rimini), Accademia Musicale Pescarese and Luigi Barbara Society of Concerts (Pescara); Concerts of Villa Torlonia, Brazilian Embassy, Russian Institute of Culture and Concerti del Tempietto (Rome), Festival A Due Voci (Como). Abroad, she performed in Sweden for the world-renowned Aurora Chamber Music Festival; in Malta, Germany and Belgium, and in the Washington DC area (USA).

Danila began studying piano at the age of eight, graduating with Honors under the guidance of Professor Ester Ponziani at the “Luisa D’Annunzio” Conservatory of Pescara, where she also attended Chamber Music classes with Maestro Eduardo Hubert.

She improved with Konstantin Bogino at AIM Academy in Rome and took part as effective student in Masterclasses held by world-renowned Professors like Giuliano Mazzoccante, Jerome Lowenthal, Alexander Kobrin, Pavel Gililov, Nina Tichmann, Lilya Zilberstein, who had a huge influence on her musicianship.

In 2016, The Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art from The Catholic University of America, Washington DC, awarded her a Full Scholarship to pursue her Doctorate in Piano Performance under the guidance of Professor Nikita Fitenko, successfully completed in 2019.

She is prizewinner in international piano competitions both for piano solo and chamber music, such as “European Music Competition- Città di Moncalieri”, Concorso “Euterpe”- Corato, Concorso “Lia Tortora” - Città della Pieve, "First International Piano Competition in Italy" (Alink-Argerich Foundation), "Ibla Grand Prize". She has also been the recipient of Special Prizes for her performances of Scarlatti and Shchedrin, and in 2017 she won the Luciana Montanari-Mendola Award for the best University student showing promise in piano performance in the Washington DC Area.

Her repertoire is wide, ranging from the Baroque Era to contemporary music, with predilection for the Romantic and 20th Century Russian repertoire. Danila is constantly premiering new contemporary music works, in collaboration with both the Composition Department of the Catholic University of America and other contemporary composers from the DC area.

Since she was 18 years old, she has been passionately dedicated to piano instruction and music theory teaching, both in Italy and, while pursuing her Doctorate, in the Washington DC area. She is a member of the WPTA, World Piano Teachers Association.

Eventually, Danila holds a Master in Classical Archaeology from the University “G. D’Annunzio” of Chieti-Pescara, Italy, and has always been interested in merging the study and practice of Music with Classics. Her final thesis "L'estasi musicale e poetica nella rappresentazione figurata greca di VI-V sec. a.C." has been published on First Drafts Online by the Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University.


Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky: (b Kamsko-Votkinsk, Vyatka province, 25 April/7 May 1840; d St Petersburg, 25 Oct/6 Nov 1893). Russian composer. He was the first composer of a new Russian type, fully professional, who firmly assimilated traditions of Western European symphonic mastery; in a deeply original, personal and national style he united the symphonic thought of Beethoven and Schumann with the work of Glinka, and transformed Liszt’s and Berlioz’s achievements in depictive-programmatic music into matters of Shakespearian elevation and psychological import (Boris Asaf’yev).

Sergey Prokofiev (b Sontsovka, Bakhmutsk region, Yekaterinoslav district, Ukraine, 11/23 April 1891; d Moscow, 5 March 1953). Russian composer and pianist. He began his career as a composer while still a student, and so had a deep investment in Russian Romantic traditions – even if he was pushing those traditions to a point of exacerbation and caricature – before he began to encounter, and contribute to, various kinds of modernism in the second decade of the new century. Like many artists, he left his country directly after the October Revolution; he was the only composer to return, nearly 20 years later. His inner traditionalism, coupled with the neo-classicism he had helped invent, now made it possible for him to play a leading role in Soviet culture, to whose demands for political engagement, utility and simplicity he responded with prodigious creative energy. In his last years, however, official encouragement turned into persecution, and his musical voice understandably faltered.