fall 2017 Concert Notes

Sergei Prokofiev 

  • Selections from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64
  • Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78

Selections from Romeo and Juliet

Sergei Prokofiev - BCCO fall 2017 concertSergei Prokofiev composed the ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1935. For this composition, Prokofiev used the principle of “drambalet” (dramatized ballet), featuring oboe and prominent, though sometimes offbeat, percussion. Woodblock, chimes, sleigh bells, church bells, steel plates, and even an anvil count among the percussion called for in the ballet.

The Soviet cultural authorities were horrified when Prokofiev first presented his composition, because his storyline diverged in significant ways from Shakespeare’s play. Prokofiev was forced to rewrite the music and the story’s ending, insert new dance solos in the ball and balcony scenes, and thicken the orchestration.

Finally, the Kirov Theater premiered Romeo and Juliet in 1940, five years after it was composed, perhaps partly due to the increased fear and caution in the musical and theatrical community about promoting “modernist” works. This production received international acclaim and was awarded the Stalin Prize. However, an earlier premiere took place in Czechoslovakia, in 1938. It was a single-act production with music mainly from the first two suites.

In 1955, a film version of the Kirov Theater production was made by Mosfilm. The film won the Best Lyrical Film in the 1955 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d’Or.

It was not until 2008 that the Russian State Archive and Prokofiev’s family permitted the release of Prokofiev’s original score of Romeo and Juliet. The ballet, with its original music, was premiered in New York by The Mark Morris Dance Group.

Prokofiev reused music from the ballet in three suites for orchestra and a solo piano work. BCCO’s performance will include movements from three of Prokofiev’s suites:

“Montagues and Capulets”: The two rival families are presented through the string theme and the horn’s counter-theme. In contrast, the middle section, a colorful instrumentation of harp, flute, violas, triangle, tambourine, and snare drums, represents Juliet’s first dance with her parents’ choice of suitor.

“The Young Juliet”: One of Prokofiev’s most miraculous musical portraits, it radiates an excited naïveté and intimates the teenage Juliet’s recognition of her growing, mature emotions.

“The Balcony Scene”: For what is probably the best-known scene in all of Shakespeare, Prokofiev creates the atmosphere of a magical silvery midnight. The music rises to a level of emotional passion, yet remains luminous. The music and scenery idealize Romeo and Juliet’s love.

“Romeo at Juliet’s Grave”: The love theme intensifies Romeo’s grief over Juliet. At the end of the scene, a contrabassoon melody plays while a voice rises from the depths of the tomb, a voice that is silenced by soft, shining strings; a piccolo with a single high note; and, underneath with great sorrow, cellos and a bass clarinet.

“Death of Juliet”: In an adagio movement that ends the ballet, Juliet awakens to find Romeo dead beside her and decides to follow him. Prokofiev’s original finale included the two lovers dancing after “death,” suggesting either that Romeo and Juliet didn't actually die, or that their love lived on.

Alexander Nevsky

In 1938, Prokofiev paired with influential Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein on the film Alexander Nevsky after returning from Hollywood, where he was wooed by Walt Disney, among others, to join the ranks of Dmitri Tiomkin, Max Steiner, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold in writing scores for American films. Instead, Prokofiev chose to score Alexander Nevsky, the story of one of Russia’s national heroes, Grand Duke Alexander—a 13th-century warrior duke who united his countrymen to crush a horde of invading Germanic crusaders.

The film was entrenched with the Soviet propaganda of the late 1930s; the Nazis in Germany profoundly unsettled Stalin, who saw Hitler as an enemy. Alexander Nevsky aimed to raise the issue of the German threat and to prepare Russia for potential war with Germany. Despite the Soviet state’s propaganda, Alexander Nevsky remains a lauded achievement in the history of film, and it was Eisenstein’s first “talkie.” With Prokofiev’s help, Alexander Nevsky created a dynamic combination of visual, aural, and story elements.

In 1938–39, Prokofiev condensed the film score into the seven-movement cantata that BCCO will perform:

In “Russia under the Yoke of the Mongols,” Russia is largely under the control of the Mongols; the oboes and muted strings suggest grief and loss.

In “Song about Alexander Nevsky,” the chorus sings of Alexander’s victory over the Swedes.

In “The Crusaders in Pskov,” the Germans, representing the Roman form of Christianity, threaten to burn any citizen who refuses to convert. The crusaders and the priests accompanying them chant in Latin while this egregious activity is happening.

Prokofiev did some research into 13th-century music before composing the crusaders movement, but invented his own chants in a similar style. For “Arise, People of Russia,” the chorus accompanies the preparations of the citizens of Novgorod to defend their homeland. The melody of the contrasting middle section is an important theme of the film score.

In “The Battle on the Ice” on frozen Lake Chud, Russian peasants and townspeople battle Germans. The orchestra represents the battle with colorful brass accents, then plays a recollection of the melody from the previous movement.

In “The Field of the Dead,” many warriors lie dead or wounded. A young woman sings to search for her lover.

“Alexander’s Entry into Pskov” signals the triumphant return of Alexander’s troops. Alexander warns of retribution while the chorus sings of celebration.

Some of the music from Alexander Nevsky echoes earlier works of Prokofiev’s—notably, his ballet score for Romeo and Juliet.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Selections from All-Night Vigil, Op. 37

Sergei Rachmaninoff - BCCO fall 2017 concertThe All-Night Vigil was composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff early in 1915. Rachmaninoff took only two weeks to completely compose this lengthy fifteen-movement piece. It was one of his favorite choral compositions. So much so, that he requested that the fifth canticle, “Lord, now lettest thou,” be sung at his funeral.

The All-Night Vigil, which literally means “without sleeping,” is a combination of multiple services in the Russian Orthodox Church. The service, which includes portions of Vespers, Matins, and Prime, is celebrated through the night before major feast days and Saturday evenings. The Church Slavonic text, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church, is sung a cappella, for instruments are not allowed in Orthodox services.

While the traditional vigil contains twelve parts, Rachmaninoff’s Vigil has fifteen movements, three of which (12, 13, and 14) he said he created “in a conscious counterfeit of the ritual.” For these original movements, Rachmaninoff used the liturgical znamenny chants, a melismatic liturgical chant in the Russian Orthodox Church. Rachmaninoff also introduced uncommon elements to the style, such as prolonged humming, which creates a sonic texture and continuity.

The first performance of the All-Night Vigil was in March 1915 as a benefit for war relief. The piece was performed by “the Synodal choir,” the Russian Patriarchal Choir formed in the 16th century of adult clerics, under the baton of Nikolai Danilin, director and conductor of the Moscow Synodical Choir.

Although Rachmaninoff’s Vigil won tremendous acclaim, it was banned in 1917 after the October Bolshevik Revolution. Rachmaninoff was a member of the Russian bourgeoisie, and his lifestyle was seen as incompatible with Bolshevik ideology. Two months after the Bolsheviks came to power, Rachmaninoff and his family left Russia and later, in 1918, settled in New York.

BCCO will perform three of the original fifteen movements:

Movement 6, “Rejoice, o Virgin,” is one of Rachmaninoff’s most popular compositions and is consequently often performed alone.

Movement 9, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord,” relates Jesus’s crucifixion to his glorious resurrection, the essence of Christian faith. A tenor soloist in the role of the cantor chants the story line, while in the background we hear a pedal tone humming, alternating with a soothing choral refrain. In BCCO’s concerts, the soloist’s line will be sung by the tenor section.

In movement 13, “Today salvation has come into the world,” Rachmaninoff inserts a znamenny chant to express, in traditional meditative melodies, worshipful gratitude for God’s compassion.


— ONDINE YOUNG, Assistant Conductor, with Revital Schmerling