“What I wanted to put over essentially in the music of Cinderella was the love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and development of this feeling, the obstacles in its way and the realisation of the dream at last. I attached great importance to the "fairytale" side of it … Musically speaking, Cinderella is characterised by three themes: the first represents her undergoing her ordeals, the second finds her pure and pensive and the third, happy and in love. In this way I have tried to project into the music the characters of the charming and dreamy Cinderella, her modest father, her demanding stepmother, her wilful and domineering sisters and the ardent young Prince, so that the audience should not remain indifferent to their difficulties and joys.”
Serge Prokofiev – Composer
A gifted musician and a virtuoso pianist, Prokofiev is acknowledged as one of the major composers of the 20th century. He is perhaps best known for his work as composer of the children’s story Peter and the Wolf.
Sergei Prokofiev was born in 1891 in Russia. He was already composing by age six, and wrote his first opera, The Giant, when only nine. In 1904, at the age of 13, he moved with his mother to St Petersburg, where he studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory. In 1918 Prokofiev left Russia for America and Europe, gaining popularity with audiences, though not critics. In 1927 he returned to perform in The Soviet Union, greeted as a national hero. In the 1930s he travelled between Paris and Moscow, finally settling in Moscow in 1936. The pieces he composed during this period of transition show a new warmth of expression, and are among his most celebrated works. They include the ballet Romeo and Juliet, the Second Violin Concerto and Peter and the Wolf.
He began composing the music for Cinderella in 1940, but put it on hold through World War II to write the opera War and Peace, finally finishing the ballet in 1944. It was said that “If War and Peace reflected the realities confronting the Soviet people at the time, Cinderella, on which Prokofiev continued to work simultaneously, was intended to touch their hearts and lift their spirits."
Although he continued to be a productive composer, Prokofiev fell out of favour with the Joseph Stalin-led Soviet government. He spent his last years in failing health and financial insecurity. Prokofiev died on the same day as Stalin, 5 March 1953.
NICOLETTE FRAILLON ON THE MUSIC OF CINDERELLA
Jane Albert interviews Music Director and Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon about Prokofiev's score.
JA: Why isn’t the Cinderella score as well-known as other ballet scores?
NF: Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is the score of his 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.
JA: How did the political situation of the 1940s influence the Cinderella score?
NF: 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 to have greater 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 writing 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.
JA: Cinderella has three themes, which change as her story develops?
NF: 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. 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.
JA: Which other characters have their own themes in Cinderella?
NF: 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 Stepsisters 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 in 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.
JA: When Cinderella first dances with the Prince, how does Prokofiev use melody to set the scene?
NF: It’s their first pas de deux, so you would expect it to be sweet and romantic. But Prokofiev has actually written such a big melodic span that it’s really unsettling. You’re not even sure what key you’re in – it’s a broad-ranging, scared yet exciting melody. It’s such a brilliant depiction of all the emotions that must be flooding both their brains. It’s definitely not the Disney, saccharine, “isn’t love beautiful?” music – it constantly sweeps you in different directions, just as their emotions are doing to them.
Then he introduces the oboe, which is not the traditional romantic instrument, and it becomes almost aggressive; then romantic again; then off the rails. And you’re left wondering, “is he sweeping her into that nasty court world?” The end in E major is slightly more reassuring as they walk off arm in arm, so you have a sense it might be all right in the end.