Program Notes: Romeo and Juliet

Lera Auerbach (b. 1973)

Born in Chelyabinsk in west-central Russia, close to the Ural Mountains, Auerbach was a child prodigy. After winning several piano competitions, she was invited on a concert tour to the USA in 1991, and decided to stay. She graduated from The Juilliard School, studying piano and composition. She also studied Comparative Literature at Columbia University. 

Commissioned by the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra, Icarus was first performed by the Verbier Festival Orchestra, conducted by Charles Dutoit, on July 18, 2011. The music comes from the last two movements of Auerbach’s First Symphony (Chimera). The result is a tone poem inspired by a story from Greek mythology. Daedalus, the master craftsman, fashions a set of wings for his son Icarus, warning him not fly too close to the sun. Icarus does anyway, and falls into the sea.

In her program note on the work, Auerbach writes: “What makes this myth so touching is Icarus’s impatience of the heart, his wish to reach the unreachable, the intensity of the ecstatic brevity of his flight and inevitability of his fall. If Icarus were to fly safely—-there would be no myth. His tragic death is beautiful. It also poses the question–from Daedalus’ point of view–-how can one distinguish success from failure? Daedalus’ greatest invention, the wings which allowed a man to fly, was his greatest failure as they caused the death of his son. Daedalus was brilliant, his wings were perfect, but he was also a blind father who did not truly understand his child.”

Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 64
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

“I would like to write you a violin concerto for next winter,” wrote Mendelssohn to his friend Ferdinand David in July of 1838. “One in E minor keeps running through my head, and the opening gives me no peace.”

Mendelssohn and David had known each other since they were teenagers. By a strange coincidence, they were born in the same house in Hamburg. When Mendelssohn was appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he brought David in as concertmaster. 

David introduced the Concerto with the Gewandhaus Orchestra on March 13, 1845 with Niels Gade conducting. Two weeks later, the soloist wrote to Mendelssohn: “I should have written you earlier of the success that I had with your Violin Concerto. It was unanimously declared to be one of the most beautiful compositions of its kind.”

The Concerto’s popularity sometimes obscures its structural innovations. Indeed, German musicians once devised a sing-along motto for the opening theme: “Schon wieder, schon wieder, das Mendelssohn Konzert” (Yet again, yet again, that Mendelssohn concerto).

The work is in three movements, played without pause.  Mendelssohn omits the usual orchestral introduction; the soloist enters in the second bar. The cadenza neatly connects development with recapitulation. A held note by the bassoon leads directly into the slow movement. Rory Guy calls the middle movement “serene, contemplative, and elegant and, at its conclusion, a wistful bridge of 14 bars leads into a spirited, scherzo-like Finale.”

Music Romeo and Juliet
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Prokofiev’s seventh ballet, Romeo and Juliet. was commissioned by the Kirov Theater in Leningrad during the autumn of 1934. “I have taken special pains,” Prokofiev said, “to achieve a simplicity which will, I hope, reach the hearts of all listeners. If people find no melody and no emotion in this work, I shall be very sorry–but I feel sure that sooner or later they will.”

It was to be later. The Kirov shelved the work and so did the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, which rejected the music as “impossible to dance to.”

Undeterred by these developments, Prokofiev put together various orchestral suites from the ballet. The complete ballet finally reached the stage on December 30, 1938, when a company in Brno, Czechoslovakia performed it without consulting the composer. Prokofiev did not attend.

Meanwhile, the Kirov Theater had changed its mind. When the choreographer suggested changes in the score, Prokofiev was adamant: “I have written the exact amount of music that is necessary. And I am not going to do anything more. It is done.  The piece is ready. If you want to produce it–there it is, if not–then not.”

After much negotiation and delay, Romeo and Juliet was finally given in Leningrad on January 11, 1940. The Bolshoi Theater followed suit on December 22, 1946.

~Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2023.