Our Music Director & Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon tells us why Prokofiev’s Cinderella is one of the great ballet scores – and how the composer uses different instruments in the orchestra to make us feel the story and characters.
Why isn’t the Cinderella score as well-known as other ballet scores?
Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is the score that everyone knows, and one of the best ballet scores. Cinderella is probably less approachable, but I actually think it’s a much better score, and there’s a lot more of Prokofiev in Cinderella than there is in Romeo and Juliet. At the time he was writing Romeo and Juliet in Russia in the 1930s, every work of art had to go through a panel of experts to be approved. They ruled that Prokofiev hadn’t illustrated Romeo and Juliet richly and lushly enough, so it was re-orchestrated by a variety of other composers. He had to accept it, and it was a much bigger, lusher orchestration than what he’d actually written. So it’s not all Prokofiev, and not all how he originally wrote it.
You believe the Cinderella score is one of the best ever composed for ballet?
I do. Cinderella represents a much truer original, it’s Prokofiev proper, like his symphonies. It’s not 19th-century, lush orchestration – there isn’t a lot of doubling of parts, not many great big tutti moments where he uses the whole orchestra. Instead there are blocks of sound in the more romantic sense, where every section is used quite virtuosically.
Why is the Cinderella score particularly clever?
Musically, it’s really carefully thought through. There is a brilliant use of orchestral colours to tell the story and underscore character development. Prokofiev uses every possible musical device – whether it’s melody, harmony, orchestration or motific development – to tell the story. And in that sense Cinderella is often described as the fourth Tchaikovsky ballet because it’s really on a par with The Sleeping Beauty, where Tchaikovsky used the orchestra to illustrate the psychological development of the characters way beyond anything that anyone had done in the 19th century.
It’s very Russian, and comes out of the Russian theatre tradition where the story is important, but the characters are more important than the story itself. Cinderella is the Russian telling of the fairytale, so it’s quite dark, and it is a dark, cynical score – a child of its time. Often audiences say it doesn’t feel like Cinderella because they were expecting the idea that you’ll find your prince and be transported to a better place. This is definitely not that story. But what all great choreographers do, and Ratmansky definitely does, was to understand what Prokofiev created, and reflect that on stage.
How did the political situation of the 1940s influence the Cinderella score? While Prokofiev was writing the score WWII broke out, then in 1941 Hitler turned on Russia and invaded. Prokofiev had made a start on the score but then he, along with all artists, was evacuated from St Petersburg to the southern states. This was to keep them safe from the war. And he turned to writing the opera of War and Peace instead, which was deemed of more national importance. When he returned to Cinderella Russia had been through the siege of Leningrad, very dark times. It wasn’t a happy environment in which to be write a happy fairytale. So what was happening in the country influenced his take.
Politically as well, it was still Soviet Russia, still the same controls, only stronger during war time, about what was permissible and what art could and couldn’t say. If you think about the traditional story where Cinderella goes to the ball and is rescued from her poor life by the royal court – they would never have been able to portray that in Soviet Russia. The Soviets got rid of the royals and the royal court. So what they created is a version in which Cinderella is a misfit in her environment, with a horrible stepmother and stepsisters – that’s all the same – but she’s not a depressed Cinderella, she’s feisty. And the Prince is also a misfit in his environment. It’s even written in the score that when he first appears he bursts on stage, and it’s quite clear from the music and from the way choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has created it that he’s totally different from everyone else in the court.
How is that characterisation developed in the score?
The characterisation of the aristocracy and the court is really sarcastic, very ironic and quite dark. It is not a beautiful environment into which Cinderella walks. It’s clear from the music that it’s not a pleasant place.
Prior to Tchaikovsky, in ballets like La Sylphide and Don Quixote and La Bayadère, there had been musical themes for characters, but it wasn’t ever developed in any way. What Tchaikovsky started with Swan Lake was to take a theme then change the orchestration, change the key, change the way it resolves, to suggest the emotional growth of the character. And Prokofiev does that with various themes for Cinderella and the other characters.
Cinderella has three themes, which change as her story develops? Yes: the opening theme we come across in Cinderella is in a minor-key theme, not the beautiful theme that audiences might expect. So immediately you get a sense of the sadness and starkness. And that’s the first of Cinderella’s own themes. The structure of the melody itself creates a kind of character, giving you an idea of environment: the overture starts with a huge leap, an octave leap, that gives you a sense of emptiness, a sense of bleakness.
The second Cinderella theme is in the key of C. There’s an understanding that every key will make you feel something different – so C major is quite different to E major. C major is often used for the grand royal theme, there’s a sense of solidity and coming home. But because there are no black notes, or sharps, it gives a sense of simplicity. It’s the most important key in the ending of Romeo and Juliet, when after all the tragedy the music resolves with C major.
And so it is in Cinderella. Her second theme, the love duet at the end of Act II, is in C major. It’s a key of childlike simplicity with an accompaniment that is traditional and melodic, and gives a real sense of beauty and happiness. This second Cinderella theme comes back a lot, in different keys, with different orchestrations, to indicate that different things are happening. It’s quite different to the first theme with its stark bleakness.
And then there’s a third one, also in the key of C major, again reflecting an almost childlike theme. It uses a limited range and comes in on a flute, quite a girly instrument, like Juliet’s theme in Romeo and Juliet. The flute, like the pan pipe, gives you that back-to-nature theme. Yet there’s a harmonic change of colour that suggests there’s more to her than just being a pretty girl. And the way that theme develops isn’t straightforward, the accompaniment isn’t straight unison, it becomes more complex, giving you an idea this is a living, breathing girl.
Which other characters have their own themes in Cinderella?
The fairy godmother has a few themes that characterise her, fragments of which appear in different keys and with different instruments whenever she appears or whenever there’s magic afoot. Her theme appears in oboe, or piccolo/oboe. Piccolo is not usually used as a solo instrument; and the oboe has an otherworldly character, a nasal character, so it’s an odd choice of instruments and makes it clear there’s something else afoot. Underneath that is a cymbal, with flutes, and harp – which Tchaikovsky used to suggest magic. Prokofiev uses tremolo (where you bow the strings up and down very fast) for a shimmering effect; and there is tuba underneath. So again, there is nothing in the middle registers, which gives that otherworldly feel.
Orchestration is also used to great effect when characterising the ugly sisters and the stepmother. From the very first time they appear on stage there’s a vicious attack roll on a tambourine, it’s as if they’re hissing at Cinderella; and a very nasty angular melody that’s quite dissonant and aggressive rhythmically, with no resolution. Prokofiev writes an uncomfortable register on the celli, an angular melody on the oboe, and the poor old first trumpet is given this terribly hard piece to play, so he almost spits it out because it’s so hard, giving that aggressive, nasty, clumsy sound. These are not graceful folk. Even if you had no visuals you would know the ugly crew had come on stage and someone is being nasty!
The prince’s melody is way more down to earth, heralded by trumpets and more traditional, noble brass writing. And every time it’s played it’s a beautiful sound, there’s nothing nasty or discordant about it.