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Prokofiev’s Happy Ending, and Further Thoughts on Conducting Ballet

In 1936 Sergei Prokofiev decided to move with his family to Stalin’s Soviet Union. He had first returned to Russia in 1927 and had written in his diary: “It’s a shame to part from the USSR. The goal of the trip was obtained: I have certainly, definitely become stronger.” Subsequent visits were also fortifying. In Europe, he had felt his creative gift atrophy. He discovered that he needed to compose on Russian soil.

Though the Soviets had coaxed him with prospective commissions and performances, and with promises that he could continue to travel abroad, in 1936 they issued an ultimatum: unless Prokofiev relocated to Russia, he would no longer be permitted in Russia at all. So Prokofiev took up residence in Moscow knowing a thing or two about Soviet conditions. He also knew that he would never be allowed to leave with his wife and children. As it happened, he last left Soviet Russia in 1938. He died there in 1953, the same day as Stalin, at the age of 61.

In the West, Prokofiev had competed with Stravinsky as a modernist. Works like the Fifth Piano Concerto (1932) attempted a complex, non-traditional idiom. In the Soviet Union, he embraced a “new simplicity” connecting to “the people.” It was the same conscious reorientation that Aaron Copland undertook in the US, a move from modernism to populism, a response to changing social and political conditions.

An early product of Prokofiev’s “new simplicity” was the ballet Romeo and Juliet. He finished composing it in 1935. But in Soviet Russia composers were subject to aesthetic dictates and to peer-review committees. Not until 1940 was Romeo and Juliet as know it premiered in Leningrad. In the intervening four years, the head of the Bolshoi Theater had been executed as an “enemy of the people.” This delayed production of Prokofiev’s ballet, as did various objections to the scenario and to the music.

The most intriguing of these objections was to Prokofiev’s “happy ending.” Prokofiev did not wish the lovers to die. Publicly, he explained that “the dead cannot dance.” Also, the director Sergey Radlov argued for a Socialist Realist ending updating the story as “a play about the struggle for the right to love by young, strong, and progressive people battling against feudal traditions and feudal outlooks on marriage and family.” But there can be little doubt that Prokofiev’s adherence to Christian Science was a crucial factor.

He had become a Christian Scientist in France. For him, the body was illusory, the spirit (transcending death) eternally real. And so Prokofiev’s Romeo witnessed Juliet awakening from the effects of Friar Laurence’s potion. The ballet was to end with Romeo bearing Juliet “into a grove,” where she slowly revived. Meanwhile, a gathering of people observed the lovers. Romeo and Juliet “express their feelings of relief and joy in a final dance.” A quiet apotheosis came last.

Prokofiev’s own account of what next happened to his ballet reads: “Curiously enough whereas the report that Prokofiev was writing a ballet on the theme of Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending was received quite calmly in London, our own Shakespeare scholars proved more papal than the pope and rushed to the defense of Shakespeare. . . . After several conferences with the choreographers it was found tat the tragic ending could be expressed in dance and in due course the music for that ending was written.”

Whatever one makes of the changes imposed on Prokofiev’s ballet (including bravura moments for the dancers), the result was an international triumph – and an ending quite literally recapitulating Shakespeare.

Not until decades later did the music historian Simon Morrison (whose 2009 book The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years discloses the story I here recount) discover that Prokofiev’s initial “happy ending” survived. It has since been performed several times in the US, most recently by the Pacific Symphony last week in Orange County, California. It has not (to my knowledge) been recorded.

The discarded happy ending is fully 15 minutes long – substantially longer than the revised ending we know. Some of the music is the same. But unique to the happy ending is the passage of public excitement – an Allegro moderato that years later became the scherzo of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The apotheosis (Andantino), beginning with a sublime pizzicato passage, is also much different from anything in the Romeo and Juliet we normally see and hear. Prokofiev’s discarded happy ending is not a mere novelty – it remains a beautiful and viable alternative.

The Pacific Symphony’s performances – of a one-hour mini-production of Prokofiev’s ballet — incorporated two dancers and two actors. The actors were Romeo and Juliet in old age, reminiscing. The dancers (compassionately choreographed by Lorin Johnson) were their younger selves. This ingenious concept was the brainchild of Carl St. Clair, the orchestra’s music director. It fell to me to write the script, combining Shakespeare with such faux Shakespeare as:

But family feuds are not so readily ’scaped
As by mere lovers wishéd dreams.
Tybalt, thy fiery distempered cous’,
Did my bosom mate Mercutio slay
When I would forestall their bloody duel.
So I in turn my rash weapon drew
And in my own anger raging Tybalt slew.

St. Clair’s affinity for this Prokofiev score is distinctive – he reads it with maximum emotional and musical weight. The addition of the happy ending was seamless. A fade to black silhouetted the paired Romeos and Juliets. This presentation deserves future performances – as does the happy ending itself.

A footnote: No less than Valery Gergiev’s recent performances of Prokofiev’s Cinderella with his Mariinsky Ballet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, St. Clair’s Romeo – with its portentous tempos and massive rallentandos — illustrates what can happen when a conductor leads rather than follows the dancers. Like the happy ending, this is a trade-off worth pondering, a risk worth attempting.

When I shared this blog in draft with Lorin Johnson, he wrote back:

“You ask about the dancers. Since we had rehearsed the choreography to recorded music that was faster, they needed to completely reevaluate how to use the space. They never became frustrated with the challenge, but instead found ways to ‘fill out’ moments in time that had been of shorter duration in rehearsal. Actually, when I came to Sunday’s final performance, I was amazed at the level of nuance they portrayed on stage. The choreography had taken on new life, and they had very much ‘found themselves’ within both movements and music. I feel I saw the chemistry of Carl/orchestra/dance come together in this final show.”

Surely a dynamic, dialectic interaction of music and dance is what best serves the big ballets of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.

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