Article: the music of Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietGabriel Prokofiev is talking about his grandfather, otherwise known as Sergei Prokofiev, one of the great Russian composers of the last century. Specifically, this energetic 33-year-old, who is also a composer, is speaking about his favourite of his grandfather's works, the magnificent ballet for which he is known best: Romeo and Juliet. "My dad would have been 12 when the Kirov Theater presented Romeo and Juliet for the first time in Leningrad, and he might have gone with his father to see it," ponders Gabriel, who lives in London. This Prokofiev writes concertos for turntables as well as piano, and has produced for British rapper Lady Sovereign, been remixed by Hot Chip, and played in punk bands. In other words, he is the Thoroughly Modern Prokofiev.

Interestingly, it took some years for his grandfather's most admired work to reach the Russian stage. Prokofiev had returned to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s after living abroad for 14 years, and this was to be his golden period, with Romeo and Juliet as the jewel in its crown. Not at first, though, Prokofiev completed the score in 1935 but extensive revisions, after it was deemed "undanceable" by the Bolshoi Ballet Theatre, meant that its first showing wasn't until three years later in Czechoslovakia.

In Scottish Ballet's current version some of the original characters (Paris and Nanny) and sections of the score have been cut in order to concentrate the drama, such alterations come with permission granted by Gabriel and his cousin who manage the Prokofiev estate, but Gabriel points out that the version we know and revere today isn't the same as his grandfather's original. "I found out recently that his original had a happy ending," Gabriel says. "It completely surprised me because the power of Romeo and Juliet is its tragic finale. I don't know what he thought of the revised version, which is the one we know now. Did he prefer it? Personally, I feel it might have been a mistake or folly on his part to give it a happy ending."

Whenever Gabriel is approached about new uses of his grandfather's work, he asks himself how Prokofiev might have responded. Though the rule is that his works cannot be added to as such, omissions and rearrangements are permitted on a case by case basis. "I'm sure my grandfather would be quite happy with new uses," he says. "He often recycled his own music, and the Gavotte (one of the pieces removed from this new production) in Romeo and Juliet is actually from his first symphony.  He never wasted any material and sometimes would use stuff that he had scribbled down on a notepad ten years earlier."

JulietGabriel remembers going to see a Royal Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet with his father in the early Eighties, as well as watching on television the iconic 1965 production, with Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn playing the "star-cross'd lovers" at Covent Garden. "I remember it was confusing because I was very young and the whole ballet just seemed so big and powerful to me," he recalls. "From early on, sections of it were landmarks in my musical knowledge. It's one of the most incredible works he ever did."

Gabriel never met his grandfather. He died in 1953 when Gabriel's father was in his early twenties, the same age that Gabriel was when his father passed away. "It's a weird coincidence," he says, pausing for a moment.

"I never had an epiphany as a child when I realised that all this wonderful music performed at these concerts we always went to was by my grandfather. Maybe it's because I didn't meet him, but it was always about being in awe of his music, not the fact that he was my relation."

Nevertheless, it took Gabriel many years of working in the music industry to operate under the family name. Writing pop songs by the time he was ten, and studying classical music to post-graduate level, he wanted to be recognised in his own right as a composer, and until 2004 used aliases. "Because I'm trying to find my own musical voice, I get scared and a bit overwhelmed by having this hugely successful grandfather," he explains. For this reason, Gabriel hasn't delved too much into his grandfather's history, and it's only recently that he read his autobiography, which his father, an artist who left Russia for England in the Seventies, translated from the Russian.

"It's not that we weren't proud of the connection," says Gabriel. "The more I find out now, the more it's inspiring rather than overwhelming.

It was interesting reading about his personal struggles as a composer in his autobiography. He spoke about his fears that he might not be remembered after his time. I'd always thought everything he touched turned to gold because he wrote such amazing music, and that certainly makes it intimidating if you're from the same family. But, you know, he had his tough times as well."

Romeo and JulietAs Gabriel is establishing himself more and more as a composer, he is turning to his grandfather for inspiration. He has written a book of piano music, a big step considering Prokofiev was a virtuoso pianist and renowned composer for the instrument. Having composed a concerto - for a scratch DJ - he intends to study his grandfather's orchestral work more closely. "Obviously, I want to do things my way but I'd be an idiot not to go back to his music for tips," he says. "I don't dwell on it too much when I'm making my own music, but sometimes I do think about what he might have done.

"When my grandfather was younger he composed more avant-garde music and as he got older, with something like Romeo and Juliet, he looked back to Tchaikovsky, and that very big, romantic stuff, while still making it completely new. I find that inspiring, the fact that he wasn't afraid to look back in a time when most composers were rejecting older musical languages and clear melody. He embraced it, and in bucking a trend while also being traditional, he engaged in a form of rebellion."

It's this spirit of swimming against the tide that Gabriel has adopted from his grandfather, whether that applies to the club night he runs in a pub in East London, where indie bands are replaced by informal 'classical gigs', or his record label Nonclassical, which takes a refreshingly experimental attitude to the genre. "Look at Scottish Ballet doing this new production," he says. "It's testament to the fact that the music still speaks to people. My grandfather always believed in melody, in communicating instantly, and in bringing people together through music. I find that hugely inspiring."

- Chitra Ramaswamy