Cinderella (1944)


Contes de ma Mère l’Oye —“Tales of Mother Goose” — Charles Perrault’s 1697 collection that gave classic form to Cinderella, Puss-in Boots, Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood and many other popular narratives, is one of the most enduring and influential of all literary classics.  Perrault’s “fairy tales” are, of course, the essential stuff of children’s literature, but their spell has also held powerful sway over many who have left childhood behind in years but not in spirit.  These stories have probably inspired more musical settings than any secular texts except those of Shakespeare.  Cinderella has been among the most frequently used of these tales, serving as the basis for operas by Rossini (La Cenerentola), Massenet (Cendrillon), Wolf-Ferrari (La Cenerentola), Leo Blech (Aschenbrödel) and a half-dozen others, a ballet by Frederic d’Erlanger, a symphonic suite by Eugene d’Albert and an orchestral fantasy by Eric Coates.  Cinderella’s popularity in Russia was confirmed by the quick success there of Rossini’s opera (the country had little distinctive  musical tradition until the middle of the 19th century, relying until then almost exclusively on Italian and French imports to supply its concert halls and opera houses), by an elaborate pantomime ballet (whose composer is now unknown) based on the story used to open the Moscow Bolshoi Theater in 1825, and by the fact that Tchaikovsky considered it in 1869 as the basis for his first ballet (Tchaikovsky’s project never got beyond a few now-lost sketches, though nearly twenty years later he composed the ballet The Sleeping Beauty on another of Perrault’s tales.)

     Immediately after the belated triumph in Russia of his Romeo and Juliet with its production by the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad in 1940, that company commissioned Prokofiev to write another full-length ballet, and suggested the topic of Cinderella.  Prokofiev jumped at the idea (this was to be his sixth ballet, following Ala et Lolly, Chout, Pas d’Acier, L’Enfant prodigue, and Romeo and JulietThe Stone Flower followed in 1950), and he began the piece the following year.  He worked quickly, and had largely finished the first two acts by early summer. On June 22nd, 1941, the Nazis invaded Soviet Russia, and under the circumstances, Cinderella seemed frivolous and unpatriotic. Prokofiev therefore put the score away and spent time working on military marches, his epic opera War and Peace, and the monumental Symphony no. 5. Prokofiev and other artists were evacuated to the relative safety of Nalchik in the Caucasus Mountains, and then to Tiflis, the capital of Georgia, for the next two years. Prokofiev still tinkered with Cinderella, however, and by 1944 he had completed the work. Cinderella was premiered with great success on November 21, 1945, and has remained one of the most widely performed and important contemporary ballets in the repertoire ever since.

Prokofiev, who wrote quite well regarding his works, had this to say about his ballet:

“The main thing I wanted to convey in the music of Cinderella was the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince — the inception and flowering of the emotion, the obstacles in its way, the realization of a dream.  A major role in my work on Cinderella 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  grandmother fairy, the fantasy of the twelve dwarfs leaping
at midnight from the clock 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, the vivid and poetic breath of nature in the figures of the four fairies of the seasons of the year and their attendants. The authors of the ballet wanted the onlooker to see living, feeling, experiencing people in this fairy-tale setting.”

As with other of his theater works, Prokofiev extracted excerpts from Cinderella for independent concert performance.  In 1942 and 1943, even before the work was finished, he issued two sets of piano pieces (Op. 95 and Op. 97), based on the ballet’s music.  In 1946 he arranged three orchestral suites from the complete score, which he said “are not a simple mechanical collection of numbers: much of them was rewritten and displayed in a new, symphonic guise.”

The symphonic excerpts of Suite No. 1 begin with the Introduction to Act I, in which themes representing Cinderella are presented. The first theme, wistful and somewhat anxious, describes her lamentable role as the de facto servant of her stepsisters; the second, broad and filled with passion, anticipates her future happiness with the Prince. Naturally, the Quarrel music for her stepsisters conveys their inner and outer ugliness as manifest in incessant bickering.
The shimmering Fairy Godmother and Winter Fairy music suggests her beneficent and supernatural essence. The following sections, all related to the Ball and magic slippers, convey the beauty and spirit of dance, enhanced by occasional premonitions about what will happen at midnight. One notes how the original themes presented in the Introduction appear transformed, reflecting the magic brought by the fairy godmother. As we all recall from the much-told tale, Cinderella forgets about the admonition concerning midnight, and at the fateful hour the orchestra becomes a ticking clock, Cinderella flees in alarm, dropping a slipper in her frantic haste.

Leo Eylar

Program Notes by Dr. Richard Rodda


Sergei Prokofiev

(1891 - 1953)