Tales are a major inspiration for Prokofiev’s works. Commissioned in 1940 for a ballet, Cinderella took five years to be presented to the public because of the Second World War. The musical composition perfectly highlights each character’s role in the tale and creates a symbiosis with classical ballet.
Prokofiev was deeply involved with fantasy and fairy tales all his life. One of his first works was an opera called The Giant, composed with the help of his mother, when he was just nine. Later operas included Desert Islands, Undina (about a water sprite), and The Love for Three Oranges (based on Gozzi’s commedia dell’arte play). The story of Peter and the Wolf is known to just about every child in the Western world. Then there is the song “The Ugly Duckling” (from an Andersen fairy tale), a ballet called The Tale of the Stone Flower (based on a Russian folk tale), Tales of an Old Grandmother for piano, music for the film Lieutenant Kijé, whose plot involves the “true” story of a man who never existed, and of course, above all, the ballet score Cinderella.
Charles Perrault’s fairy tale Cinderella has long been a fertile source of inspiration for composers. In addition to Prokofiev’s score, they also inspired operas by Rossini, Massenet, Wolf-Ferarri and Leo Blech; ballets by Johann Strauss II, Frank Martin, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Fernando Sor; orchestral pieces by Eric Coates, Selim Palmgren, and Sir Ernest MacMillan, to cite just a few. In Russia alone, the Cinderella story has been danced in one form or another for over 250 years; it was, actually, a grand pantomime-ballet of Cinderella with music by a forgotten composer that opened the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1825.
Following the successful production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at the Kirov in Leningrad (St. Petersburg again today) in 1940, this company asked the composer for another ballet. Prokofiev joined forces with Nikolai Volkov, who provided the scenario for Cinderella. The first two acts were completed in piano score by June of 1941, but with the German invasion on June 22, Prokofiev laid aside the ballet to begin work on something that would reflect Russia’s struggle against the Nazi onslaught. This was to become his huge, four-hour opera War and Peace. He also wrote during this time the three “wartime” piano sonatas (Nos. 6, 7, and 8), and the film score for Ivan the Terrible.
Prokofiev resumed work on Cinderella two years later, in mid-1943, and expected that it would be performed by the Kirov company, which was spending the war years in Molotov (once again Perm today), but in the end the first performance went not to the Kirov at all, but to the Bolshoi in Moscow on November 21, 1945, six months after the war had ended in Europe. The choreography was by Rostislav Zakharov, and the conductor was Yuri Fayer, who deeply annoyed Prokofiev by tampering with his orchestration. (Due to ill health, the composer was unable to attend final preparations for the premiere.) Soon after the highly successful premiere, Prokofiev drew from the full score nineteen numbers arranged into three suites that soon found their way into the orchestral repertory as his Opp. 107, 108, and 109. In 1946 a new production was given by the Kirov in Leningrad.
Some composers have deliberately downplayed or eliminated the fairy tale elements of the story. Prokofiev did the opposite. “A major role in my work on Cinderella,” he wrote, “was played by the fairy-tale nature of the subject, which faced me as the composer with a number of interesting problems ̶ the mysteriousness of the good godmother fairy, the vivid and poetic breath of nature in the figures of the four fairies of the seasons of the year and their attendants, the fantasy of the twelve dwarfs leaping from the clock at midnight and beating out a tap-dance reminding Cinderella to return home, the swift alternation of the countries of the world visited by the prince in search of Cinderella.”
Remembering the difficulties he had experienced with the Kirov in Romeo and Juliet, (the dancers and the choreographer had all called it “undanceable”), Prokofiev deliberately modeled it after the great Tchaikovsky ballets (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker), and incorporated music that fit classical patterns and structures, including eighteenth-century traditional dances like the bourrée and gavotte, adagios, variations, and pas de deux.
Sergueï Prokofiev: Born in Sontzovka (now Krasnoye) Ukraine, April 27, 1891; died in Moscow, March 5, 1953
Notes by Robert Markow