Prokofiev extracted three orchestral suites and a set of ten piano transcriptions from his ballet masterpiece Romeo and Juliet (1935-36). It was his practice to recycle music from his larger works, and he scored a number of successes doing so. The Second Suite from Romeo and Juliet, for example, has become the most popular offshoot and is more familiar than the ballet itself.
The First Suite has nearly attained that level of currency, as well, in the both concert hall and on record. Its seven numbers do not follow the chronology in the ballet and sometimes incorporate music from more than one section. This was typical of Prokofiev's method in his fairly literal transcriptions and suites, as he sought to create a composition with a somewhat different emotional center of gravity from the source work.
Structurally, each movement in the Suite No. 1 is sounder than its more action-defined counterpart in the ballet. The opening movement is Folk Dance, derived from the first dance in the Second Act (No 22). The music here is festive and joyous, at times sounding ecstatic and as far removed from the work's ultimate tragedy as it could be. The orchestration is colorful, the rhythmic main theme catchy and danceable, and the overall effect invigorating. The second movement, Scene comes from No. 3, The Street Awakens. The music here is jovial and features an air of nonchalance in its sparse but colorful orchestration. At about a minute-and-a-half, it is the shortest of the seven numbers here.
Madrigal is derived from the like-named No. 16 in the First Act. The music here depicts the burgeoning love of Romeo for Juliet. Minuet is next, bringing the bright, celebratory music of No. 11 from the ballet. A more festive and high-spirited mood would be hard to imagine.
Masques is the ensuing movement and corresponds to No. 12 in the First Act. It is music that features an infectious theme, a simple but deftly-orchestrated rhythm, and thoroughly colorful writing throughout. Oddly, this movement sounds tamer in any orchestral version compared with the grittier piano rendering in the Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet. Up to this point, the selections in the Suite No. 1 correspond closely with the order in the Ten Pieces, for piano: the first two and the fifth are the same, and the fourth here corresponds to the third in the piano version.
The sixth and seventh, however, like the third, have no actual counterpart in the piano version, even if some themes are shared. Romeo and Juliet, the penultimate movement here, relates mainly to No. 21 in the First Act, Romeo and Juliet's love dance, but also incorporates music from No. 19, Balcony Scene. Prokofiev made minor changes in the orchestration of this section, in the end distilling some of the most passionate and powerful music he ever wrote. This movement features the famous love theme, one of the two most popular melodies in the ballet, the other being the march-like theme that depicts the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets, which appears in the Second Suite.
The last movement, Death of Tybalt derives mainly from Nos. 33, Tybalt and Mercutio fight, and 35, Romeo avenges Mercutio's death. But, again, Prokofiev makes some changes in the orchestration that enhance the suspenseful, exhilarating music in the first half. The brassy, funereal music in the latter part is left essentially as it appears in the ballet.
A concert performance of this music lasts about a half-hour. Prokofiev published the score in 1938.