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The music of Cinderella

CinderellaEveryone knows the story of Cinderella. While sweeping the floor for her ugly sisters, a benevolent Fairy Godmother somehow gets her to the ball, before she loses her slipper at midnight, and all in the process of falling in love with her Prince Charming. But the simple fairy story, told in different forms in many different cultures, arguably reaches its richest form in Prokofiev’s ballet, written in the early 1940s. Scottish Ballet’s latest production arrives in a version artistically directed by Ashley Page, designed by Antony McDonald, and conducted by Richard Honner, and two guest conductors.

“This Cinderella is very much a 20th century take on the 18th century, but with much more modern colours, and a modern sense of rhythm,” says Honner, “It’s of our time and yet looks into the past, which imbues it with a fascinating yet objective quality. The version of the story that Prokofiev uses is the westernised version rather than the version that, say, the Russians know. In one version, they have three balls on three different nights, and Cinderella goes to all of them: I think that might be a bit too repetitive for any one production!”

There’s always a danger that such a familiar story could end up a chocolate box production, a sweet enough confection, but lacking in passion. But Honner is comfortable with the drive of Page’s elaborate production, which also allows the story’s romantic centre to flourish amongst some pretty nasty family business.

“There’s actually a bitterness to Cinderella’s story,” he says. “It’s easy to forget in the wake of a happy ending that Cinderella’s world is a tough, dog-eat-dog one, and she and the Prince are about the only two good people in it. That contrast makes for a great piece of theatre, and what’s so good about our production is that the stage production and the music are unified in presenting that dichotomy.

Cinderella and her step-family“At the very beginning of the ballet, in the prelude, you hear the two sides of Cinderella’s character,” he continues. “You have her in a state of suppression, misery and unhappiness, but then you have the theme that represents what she aspires to and what she finally achieves. Prokofiev wrote this passionate theme in the scale of C major, which is very unusual. If a musician plays something on the piano in the key of C, that’s using all the white notes and none of the black, it can seem rather cool and unemotional. Yet Prokofiev often writes his most emotional music in C major, the Balcony Scene and the closing three minutes in Romeo and Juliet, and the second act pas de deux in Cinderella. Somehow he uses it to carry a great emotional burden, imbuing the passion with an inspired and appropriate sense of purity and chasteness.

With seventy musicians in the pit, and forty dancers following the music on-stage, conducting the Scottish Ballet orchestra and bringing Prokofiev’s ballet to life is a big responsibility, and one that starts with Prokofiev’s score.

“Initially, the dancers learn the steps along with the music, and over the rehearsal period that relationship develops. Very often by the time we get into the theatre, with Ashley Page looking at the overall effect, numbers that have been performed at quite a moderate speed in the rehearsal studio now need to be performed with an added dynamism. Things go much faster by the end of the tour than when we started out, but our major responsibility is to make sure that the music is exactly as is required by  the dancers to do the steps in the right dynamic or expressive way that is being demanded of them. They mustn’t be hurried or dragged back by the music, so it’s a very organic learning process; if it’s not, we’re missing out on something.’

The delicate art of the conductor, of course, is to strike just the right balance between making the music flow while keeping the right tempo to let the dancers express the emotions of the story.

Cinderella and the Prince“Because conductors are used to calling the shots in the opera house or concert hall, it can be difficult for them to work with ballet where the choreography takes precedence, although diplomacy and negotiation ensures there’s give and take. I think it can take a while for choreographers to see that musicians are not there to destroy their work, and also for the orchestra to understand that they might have to play at an unexpected speed which can be uncomfortable for the players to begin with. It’s our job to see that the music doesn’t get in the way of the choreography,” says Honner. “I think that, musically, we in ballet are sometimes thought to be poor cousins, because ballet is driven by choreography rather than music, and there can be a definite snobbery there, but in the end, there’s a terrific resolution to Cinderella’s story, and it’s tremendously satisfying to have guided the audience through the travails of the characters. The experience is bigger than the sum of the parts, something spiritual, when everyone is pulling in the same direction for two hours.”

It is with Prokofiev, of course, that many of us begin our musical education, experiencing the melodic story of Peter and the Wolf. Honner began his appreciation of the Russian maestro’s art in this same way, and believes that Cinderella also offers an accessibility that charms novices and devotees alike. “I first heard Peter and the Wolf back in the 1950s when I was still at primary school; I was taken to the Festival Hall for a Robert Mayer concert. It was a wonderful way to give children a first taste of classical music, and the kind of appealing, formative experience you remember all your life.”

“So with Cinderella, the great thing is that it’s a story that everyone knows:  you can always understand the narrative” says Honner. “Along with great dancing to watch and great music to listen to, a story gives the audience something to hang onto. After all, it’s the story that everyone’s here to enjoy.”

 - Eddie Harrison

 

Audio: Listen to clips of the music from Cinderella.

 

Audio: Richard Honner discusses Prokofiev's score

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