Prokofiev’s Cinderella

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Pui Wah Poon

Check out more of our programme notes for our Russian masterworks concert, courtesy of multi-talented bass player Pui Wah Poon.

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

Cinderella Suite No. 1

  1. Introduction
    II. Pas de chat (The cat’s dance)
    III. Quarrel
    IV. Fairy godmother and Fairy winter
    V. Mazurka
    VI. Cinderella goes to the ball
    VII. Cinderella’s waltz
    VII. Midnight

Russian composer Prokofiev was one of the giants of 20th century music. Another child prodigy, he composed his first piano piece aged five and his first opera four years later. In 1904, he so impressed the composer Alexander Glazunov, professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory, that, at the tender age of 13, he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1918, already something of a celebrity, Prokofiev left revolutionary Russia for America and then in 1920, Paris. However, he was never very happy in the West and from 1932 his visits to Russia became increasingly frequent until in 1936 he returned for good and became one of the leading figures of Soviet culture. The second world war sharpened Prokofiev’s national and patriotic feelings and he composed with remarkable assiduity, even when the evacuation of Moscow in 1941 necessitated his relocation. He reached the peak of his fame in 1945 with the premiere of his Symphony No. 5. However, in 1948, he was one of four Russian composers denounced by the Politburo for “the renunciation of the basic principles of classical music”. Eight of his works were banned and the remainder were considered too dangerous to programme, resulting in severe financial difficulty. He continued to compose even as his health declined until his death in 1953. The subsequent years saw a rapid growth of his popularity in the Soviet Union and abroad and in 1957 he was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union’s highest honour, the Lenin Prize, for his Symphony No. 7.

The music for Cinderella was commissioned in 1940 by the Kirov Theatre in St Petersburg. Prokofiev had finished two of the ballet’s three acts when, in June 1941, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union plunged the nation into crisis. The score was not completed until 1944 and the ballet’s first production took place not at the Kirov, as originally planned, but at the Bolshoi, in Moscow, in 1945. Prokofiev subsequently extracted three concert suites from his full ballet score.

In the Introduction we meet Cinderella. The first theme we hear is wistful and somewhat mournful, as befits Cinderella’s sad lot at the start of the story. This gives way, however, to passionate music accompanied by rippling harp figures as Cinderella dreams of happiness.

In the next piece Cinderella is at home serving her stepmother and stepsisters, while the household cat (represented by the clarinet) scampers about.

Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters have been embroidering a shawl to wear to the palace ball, but in the third piece we hear them quarrelling ever more violently over which of them will wear it before they finally tear it in two!

In the ballet, Cinderella is visited by her Fairy Godmother and four fairies who rule the seasons. Together they conjure a beautiful dress for Cinderella and transform a pumpkin, mice, grasshoppers and dragonflies into a carriage, horses and a retinue of footmen. In the fourth piece we hear first the Winter Fairy, a graceful, lilting woodwind theme, and then Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, a shimmering theme played on the piccolo, as they weave their magic.

A fanfare announces the start of the ball. Awaiting the arrival of the Prince, guests dance a Mazurka.

Next is music for the magic carriage ride that takes Cinderella to the palace. She’s late and you can hear the frantic rush. But when the coach arrives at the palace, the music moves into a graceful dance with descending woodwind phrases and a nervous violin theme.

Cinderella dances with her Prince to the darkly passionate Cinderella Waltz. But she has forgotten her Godmother’s warning not to linger past midnight and the dance is abruptly halted by the striking of the clock.

Prokofiev’s clock is of nightmare proportions as the woodblock marks time and the cogs whirr. Twelve fantastic dwarves pop out of the clock to doom-laden descending phrases in the bass instruments and Cinderella’s horror is palpable. The music finishes with a desperate rendition of the love theme as Cinderella flees from the Palace.

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