In the summer of 1917, Chicago businessman Cyrus McCormick Jr., the farm machine magnate, met the 26-year-old composer Sergei Prokofiev while on a business trip to Russia. Prokofiev was unknown to McCormick, but the composer recognized the distinguished American’s name at once, because the estate his father had managed owned several impressive International Harvester machines. McCormick expressed an interest in the composer’s new music, and he eventually agreed to pay for the printing of his unpublished Scythian Suite. He also encouraged Prokofiev to come to the United States, and asked him to send some of his scores to Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Frederick Stock.
McCormick wrote to Stock at once, saying that Prokofiev “would be glad to come to Chicago and bring some of his symphonies if his expenses were paid. But not knowing myself the value of his music, I did not feel justified in taking the risk of bringing him here.” After Stock received Prokofiev’s scores, he replied to McCormick: “There is no question in my mind as to the talent of young Serge.”
Although Stock at first doubted that it was feasible to bring the Russian composer to the U.S. right away, Prokofiev made his debut with the Chicago Symphony the following season, playing his First Piano Concerto and conducting the orchestra in his Scythian Suite in December 1918, both U.S. premieres.
Prokofiev returned to Chicago four more times. In 1921, he oversaw the world premieres of his Piano Concerto No. 3, which he played in Orchestra Hall on Dec. 16-17, and his opera, The Love for Three Oranges, which was staged by the Chicago Opera at the Auditorium Theatre on the 30th. During Prokofiev’s last trip to Chicago, in January 1937, he led the Chicago Symphony in selections from his new, still-unstaged ballet, Romeo and Juliet.
Shortly after he arrived in town he sat down with a Chicago Tribune reporter and talked freely while eating apple pie at a downtown luncheonette. He was staying in the same hotel room where he had lived for several months during his Chicago visit in 1921. He told the Tribune that his Romeo and Juliet featured the kind of “new melodic line” that he thought would prove to be the salvation of modern music — one, he said, that would have immediate appeal yet sound like nothing written before. “Of all the moderns,” the Chicago Herald-Examiner critic wrote after hearing Romeo and Juliet later in the week, “this tall and boyish Russian has the most definite gift of melody, the most authentic contrapuntal technic [sic], and displays the subtlest and most imaginative use of dissonance.”
Chicago was the first American city to hear music from Romeo and Juliet (following recent performances in Moscow and Paris), and not for the only time in Prokofiev’s career, orchestral excerpts were premiered before the ballet itself had been staged. The idea for a ballet version of the Shakespeare play came from the director Sergei Radlov, who was a friend of Prokofiev and had mounted the first Russian production of The Love for Three Oranges. He and Prokofiev worked together to flesh out a scenario early in 1935, and the composer began to write the music that summer.
But the Kirov Ballet, which had commissioned the work, unexpectedly backed out, and the Bolshoi Theater took over the project. There were further problems with the score itself, including Prokofiev’s initial insistence on a happy ending — “Living people can dance,” he later wrote in defense of the decision, “but the dead cannot dance lying down.” The end was ultimately changed to match Shakespeare’s, but then the Bolshoi staff pronounced Prokofiev’s music “unsuitable to dance” and dropped out as well.
The premiere of Romeo and Juliet eventually was given in Brno, Czechoslovakia, without Prokofiev’s participation (he didn’t attend the opening in December 1938), and the ballet wasn’t staged in Russia until January 1940. In the meantime, Prokofiev made two orchestral suites of seven excerpts each, and it was the first of these that he conducted in Chicago.
On this recording, Riccardo Muti conducts selections from both of Prokofiev’s suites, beginning with Montagues and Capulets — menacing music to depict the warring families, introduced by the prince’s powerful order to preserve peace. The centerpiece of the movement, with its lovely flute solo, is Juliet’s dance with Paris — the moment Romeo catches his first glimpse of the girl who will steal his heart.
That is followed by a fully sketched portrait of the 13-year-old Juliet, capricious, playful and eager for romance. The Madrigal sets the scene in the Capulets’ ballroom; the Minuet provides stately entrance music for their guests. In Masks, Romeo appears at the Capulets (with his fellow Montagues, Mercutio and Benvolio) in full masquerade. The richly lyrical balcony scene that follows is one of the most rapturous moments in all ballet. The Death of Tybalt, tightly packed with incident and action, climaxes with 15 powerful, hammering chords, signaling Tybalt’s fate. A cameo appearance by Friar Laurence, waiting to marry the lovers in his cell, leads to Romeo and Juliet’s final moments together.
Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb is a lament — a tragic march of power and intensity, and, when it is overpowered by the lovers’ theme, great poignancy. This is the music that was played at Prokofiev’s funeral on a tape recorder because all of Moscow’s musicians had been tapped for the funeral of Stalin, who had died on the same day as the composer.
Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.