On Music: Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet

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Sergei Prokofiev was one of those precocious Mozartian geniuses, composing his first piece at the age of five and his first opera at the age of seven. He also mastered chess early on and I think even went on to compete against some heavy-duty Russian world-champion types later in life. Don't think the biographies I've read of him ever said whether he won or not, but I'd imagine not. Still, I've always been fascinated with chess and those that are really good at it.

But this post is about Romeo and Juliet, which I thought would fit well considering today's Valentines Day and all. In 1934, Prokofiev was commissioned by the famous Kirov Ballet to write a score for a new ballet.. The result? One of his most beloved works, and easily my favorite scoring of the Shakespeare tragedy. (Many other composers have set the story to music, including Berlioz, die-hard Romantic that he was, and Tchaikovsky, and come to think of it Radiohead, maybe too?)

violin_neck_250.jpgIn this excerpt, which is from the famous Balcony Scene, I want you to listen to the string writing. There's plenty of what I call the "Prokofiev trademark" here, which is that high-pitched, thin string moment where the violins take the melody into the extreme upper register. Very few composers have dared to write way up there because it's very hard for the violinists to stay in tune. Just like on a guitar, the higher up the neck you go, the smaller the space between notes. A violin neck is already pretty small, so you can imagine toward the end of the neck notes tend to be separated by millimeters. The chances of 12 violinists hitting the same spot at the same time aren't too hot, as you can imagine, so we wind up with a slightly out-of-tune quality. But just as basketball players now jump higher, and baseball players hit more homeruns* than ever, so violinists, over the last 100 years, have gotten much better, technically, and more accustomed to playing in the stratosphere. Prokofiev is one composer they can thank for that.

This classic footage features Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, the world's most popular pas de duex team at one time--worth watching even if you're not interested in the string writing!

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February 14, 2007 - 3:05am
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