Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet Overture-fantasy

Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture after Shakespeare

Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Viatka, Russia and died November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Tchaikovsky composed Romeo and Juliet between October 7 and November 27, 1869. The first performance was given on March 16, 1870, in Moscow. The composer revised the score in 1870 and again in 1880; the final version, completed on September 10, 1880, has become the standard one. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and english horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, harp, and strings. Performance time is approximately 21 minutes.

No other play by Shakespeare has inspired as many composers as Romeo and Juliet. Throughout the romantic era in particular, the drama held an enormous, and sometimes nearly fatal, attraction. After Berlioz saw Romeo and Juliet in a Paris theater and fell desperately in love with Harriet Smithson, who played Juliet, he announced his intention to marry the actress and to write a dramatic symphony based on the play—and did both within a decade. The marriage was a mistake, however, and they later separated, but the symphony is one of his greatest works.

More than twenty operas have been written on Romeo and ]uliet, including Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, with a mezzo-soprano as Romeo (in the tradition of trouser roles), and Gonoud's enduring treatment, with the ending rewritten so that the lovers die at the same moment, singing in unison. Bemstein's urban West Side Story suggests that the fascination with this subject has not waned in our time. And Prokofiev's ballet, first staged in 1940, is now recognized as a twentieth-century classic, although the composer originally wrote a happy ending because he couldn't imagine how dying lovers could dance. But none of these works has surpassed the popularity of Tchaikovsky's fantasy-overture.

The Russian composer Mily Balakirev apparently first suggested the play to Tchaikovsky, at least as early as the summer of 1869. He continued to push the subject and, when Tchaikovsky wavered, he prodded him. In a letter dated October 6, 1869, he offered literary observations, suggested general guidelines for treating the subject, and even dictated four measures of music to open the work. Before Tchaikovsky's Romeo and ]uliet was finished—and it was another ten years before it reached its final form—Balakirev had approved and rejected a number of themes, recommended a new introduction in the style of a Lisztian chorale, and presented his preferred tonal scheme, based on a fondness for keys with five flats or two sharps.

Surprisingly, Tchaikovsky found his own voice with this work; Romeo and Juliet, a "Fantasy-Overture after Shakespeare," is his first masterpiece. The original version, composed in just six weeks, was performed in March 1870, with Nicolai Rubinstein conducting. A new version, completed that summer, incorporated Balakirev's idea of a slow chorale at the beginning. It was played in Saint Petersburg in early 1872.

Although Tchaikovsky and Balakirev had a falling out that year, Tchaikovsky contin­ued to turn to Shakespeare for inspiration: in 1873 he fashioned a symphonic fantasy from The Tempest and late in 1876 he complained of losing sleep over Othello, which he was determined to make into an opera. He dropped the project early in the new year—two years before Verdi and Boito first conceived their Otello. (Hamlet was the last Shakespearean subject to interest Tchaikovsky: he composed a fantasy-overture in 1888 and three years later contributed incidental music to a staging of the play in Saint Petersburg.)

In 1878, while he was recuperating from his failed marriage at his brother Modest's house, he returned to Romeo and Juliet and was struck by its potential as a great operatic subject. (One night that May, when Modest and Sasha went to the theater to see Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky stayed home, put his nieces and nephews to bed, and then read the Shakespeare play for himself.) "Of course I'll compose Romeo and Juliet," he wrote to Modest from Brailov in June, excited by the prospect of writing a new opera. "It will be my most monumental work. It now seems to me absurd that I couldn't see earlier that I was predestined, as it were, to set this drama to music." But instead of writing an opera, Tchaikovsky put the finishing touches on the fantasy-overture two years later. (It is this last version that is now regularly played.) The idea of composing the opera cropped up in 1881 and again in 1893, and on one of those occasions he sketched a duet for the lovers based on material from the fantasy-overture. But he never orchestrated it and ultimately gave up on the project, perhaps realizing how difficult it would be to surpass his orchestral work on the same subject.

Seldom in Tchaikovsky's music are form and content as well matched as in Romeo and Juliet. The contrast between family strife and the lovers' passion ideally lends itself to sonata form, with two dramatically contrasted themes; the conflict assures a fierce and combative development section. Tchaikovsky begins as Balakirev recommended, with solemn and fateful chords that suggest the calm, knowing voice of Friar Lawrence. The street music is noisy and action packed. The famous love theme begins innocently in the english horn and violas; it is one of Tchaikovsky's boldest strokes to save the big statement of this great melody, fully orchestrated and greatly extended—the way most listeners remember it—for much later, at the climax of the recapitula­tion. The lovers' music returns once again in the coda, signaled by the timpani's dying heartbeat, but there it sounds cold and lifeless.

Notes by Phillip Huscher