Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous love stories in history. This explains why many Romantic composers have used this story as inspiration for their works. This month on Clef Notes, I would like to explore love stories in music. We’ll begin by looking at three pieces over the next week that each draw upon Shakespeare’s beloved tale.
Peter Tchaikovsky’s setting of Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most well-known and is considered his first masterpiece. Prompted by fellow composer Miley Balakirev to write a work using Shakespeare’s work as a program, Tchaikovsky completed the piece in just six weeks. Balakirev received the dedication and it was later premiered in Moscow by Nikolai Rubinstein. Initially it was not received well, so Tchaikovsky worked to revise it both in an 1870 version and then in the 1880 version we have come to know and love today.
Though the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was not directly fueled by the composer’s own love affairs, it is likely Tchaikovsky’s experiences from a year earlier gave him knowledge as how it feels to be infatuated with another person. Tchaikovsky had taken a liking to the French opera singer Désiré Artôt and even had thoughts of offering her a marriage proposal. When she ended up marrying another famous singer, Tchaikovsky was crushed. The nature of his passionate feelings for Artôt is questionable since scholars now know that the composer was homosexual.
Below you can listen to a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra. Listen to how Tchaikovsky brilliantly allows the music to follow Shakespeare’s plot. It begins with a slow introduction including a chorale-like theme representing Friar Lawrence. The music then introduces intense themes depicting the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets. The lovers are introduced for the first time as the music quiets down and the English horn beautifully plays the famous love theme, followed by soft responses in the violins. The development section displays the struggle between families with interjections from Friar Lawrence displayed by fragments of his chorale theme. We hear the love theme again, only this time it bursts forth in a full array of passion, alternating with the continuing conflict that’s appeared throughout. The piece ends with funeral drum beats, implying a tragic ending.
Next time we’ll look at Prokofiev’s setting of Romeo and Juliet!