In composing 'Romeo and Juliet,' Prokofiev witnessed betrayal, exile, execution


Like the original play "Romeo and Juliet," the story of Sergei Prokofiev and his famous ballet with the same title is filled with betrayal, struggle and untimely death, according to a Princeton University professor who spoke March 15 as part of the College of Arts and Sciences Humanities Lecture series.

For years musicologists believed the composer had abandoned his original score for the ballet by choice. But some sleuthing by Simon Morrison, who presented "Romeo and Juliet, Music and Dance, and Happy Endings" in Goldwin Smith Hall, discovered otherwise when he gained access to Russian archives that have been sealed since Prokofiev's death. In reality, Morrison said, the composer struggled desperately to keep his music intact from Soviet censorship.

Prokofiev was lured back to the Soviet Union in 1936 with promises of lucrative commissions. But the bureaucrat who commissioned "Romeo and Juliet" was executed, as was the Central Committee flunky who approved the ballet's original happy ending. Even the scenarist who inspired Prokofiev to write the ballet ended up dead.

Authorities exiled Prokofiev's first wife to the Gulag, and in 1938 confiscated Prokofiev's passport, determining that he needed "ideological correcting" for too much Western influence.

As did his ballet: The happy ending Prokofiev wrote for "Romeo and Juliet," with the lovers saved from death but going "elsewhere," was axed by Soviet traditionalists. Other changes forced upon the ballet included the deletion of three exotic dances, some of the ballet's most interesting music, according to Morrison. Prokofiev was bullied into adding a group dance that, in protest, he dashed off in 20 minutes. The ballet's director also simplified parts of the music, added superfluous repeats and altered the orchestration without Prokofiev's knowledge.

At one point Prokofiev's primary collaborator, the director Sergei Radlov, renounced the ballet altogether, asking friends to "bear in mind I take no responsibility for this disgrace." Prokofiev took some comfort later in the success of the ballet, changed though it was.

Morrison described the ballet's original score as sexy, violent, zesty and fast; Soviet censors ruined its character. But in 2008, the original ballet as restored by Morrison was performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group to critical acclaim, "restoring the madness and energy and details of the original," says Morrison.

The Prokofiev archive in Moscow -- to which Morrison was granted exclusive access by a family wanting to hold its intimate secrets close -- contains unknown film scores, songs and even additional ballet drafts by Prokofiev. It also contains material about other composers, such as the acclaimed Dmitri Shostakovich who, it turns out, lived in buildings associated with the Soviet security apparatus.

"The narrative in the West is that Shostakovich suffered under the tragic circumstances of the Stalinist regime, and he was a romantic hero, and all that's largely nonsense," said Morrison in an interview.

Morrison has firsthand experience with the Soviet system; he arrived as a student in Moscow just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Some of the sights and sounds of that period I won't forget," he said in the interview. He added that "the sheer banality of the horror of the Stalinist period to this day is something I find difficult to deal with."

Morrison is the author of "Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement," "The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years" and editor of "Sergey Prokofiev and his World."

The Arts and Sciences Humanities Lectures are presented with support from the Office of the President and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Linda B. Glaser is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.


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