An Expert's Guide to Sergey Prokofiev's 'Dance of the Knights'

Sergei Prokofiev at Piano
Sergei Prokofiev at Piano. Bettmann / Getty Images

"Dance of the Knights," also known as "Montagues and Capulets," is a score from Sergey Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet." With its strong horns, stirring bass, and strings, this composition is one of the most popular works by the 20th-century Russian composer. But there's more to the story of this iconic ballet than you may know.

The Composer

Sergey Prokofiev (April 23, 1891–March 5, 1953) is considered one of the great Russian composers of the modern era, along with Dmitry Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky. Born in Ukraine, Prokofiev demonstrated a gift for music at an early age and quickly took to the piano. He wrote his first opera at age 9 and entered the St. Petersburg music conservancy at 13, where he quickly impressed his teachers with his technical skill and audacious, athletic style of play.

Influenced by the radical work being produced by composers such as Stravinsky, artists like Pablo Picasso, and choreographer Serge Dhagliev, as well as his own memories of the folk music of his childhood, Prokofiev composed a number of daring early works, including the ballet "The Buffoon" (1915) and the sonata "Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major" (1917).

Following the Russian Revolution, Prokofiev left his homeland and traveled to the United States in 1918, where he began work on what would become his 1921 opera "The Love for Three Oranges." Prokofiev, restless, would spend much of the following decade composing, touring, and living in France, Germany, and the Soviet Union before moving back to Russia for good in 1933.

The 1930s to the End

The 1930s were a tumultuous decade as Soviet leader Joseph Stalin consolidated his power and life became increasingly repressive. Noted Russian artists like Shostakovich, once lauded for their brilliant works, were now denounced as subversives or worse. Despite this, Prokofiev managed to maintain his relative favor among Soviet authorities and continued to produce new works. Some compositions, like "Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution" (1936), are dismissed by scholars as works of pure political sycophancy. But Prokofiev also composed two of his most famous works during this era, "Romeo and Juliet" (1935) and "Peter and the Wolf" (1936).

Prokofiev worked steadily through World War II and the years after, but by 1948 he had finally fallen from favor with Soviet authorities and became a recluse in Moscow. Despite failing health, Prokofiev continued to produce noteworthy compositions like "Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp Minor (1951)" and left a number of unfinished works behind when he died in 1953, on the same day as Stalin.

"Romeo and Juliet"

Sergey Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet" was inspired by the Shakespearean play. In its original form, the ballet had a happy ending and a bizarre, modern-day Victory Day parade scene. But by the time Prokofiev began performing the work for close friends in 1936, Soviet tolerance for the avant-garde had given way to Stalin's purges. The Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow refused to choreograph the work, saying it was too complicated, and Prokofiev was forced to dramatically revise the work.

A much more conservative "Romeo and Juliet" debuted in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1938, and in Moscow the following year. Although well received, the ballet was soon forgotten in the tumult of World War II. It was revived and discovered by a new generation of classical music fans when the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany staged it in 1962.

"Dance of the Knights"

"Romeo and Juliet" consists of three orchestral suites. "Dance of the Knights" is one of two movements from "Montagues and Capulets," which begins the second suite. It is meant to accompany the fateful encounter between the two warring clans of Shakespeare's romantic drama, then follow the action to the Capulets' masquerade ball, where Juliet encounters Romeo. In the decades since its premiere, "Dance of the Knights" has become an iconic work in its own right. Selections have been excerpted for film and television, sampled by musicians like Tribe Called Quest and Sia, and used for the video game "Civilization V."


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