Romeo and Juliet
February 21, 2015
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, in Russia’s Ural Mountains. Died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The original version of this work was premiered on March 16, 1870, in Moscow under the baton of Nikolai Rubinstein. After revision, it was re-premiered on February of 1872. After further reworking, the now-standard version was first heard on September 10, 1880. It is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
Concert life in Imperial Russia during Tchaikovsky’s youth was inextricably linked to the court. When the Russian Musical Society was formed in 1859 to bring concert music to the public, young composers discovered new opportunities. Entertainment and art, formerly confined to aristocratic salons, were now accessible to the public. Music classes and learning institutions, including several Imperial conservatories that gradually arose in Russia’s major cities, offered instruction to students of all skill levels. One of the most notable schools was the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which opened in 1862 with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as one of its first students. Although his association with the Imperial court was never formal, some of his most celebrated scores resulted from his coincidental association with Imperial organizations.
Mily Balakirev, most memorable as a member of the composer’s collective called the “Russian Five,” became a close friend of Tchaikovsky and conducted the failed premiere of the orchestra work Fatum (Fate). He suggested the subject of Shakespeare’s fated lovers as a possible choice for another work for the same forces. Balakirev’s idea was perfect, as Tchaikovsky’s early and immature works were far from seamless and often rambled with no discernible direction. Balakirev’s suggestion would allow the young composer to write a musical representation of a familiar story, thereby forcing him to compose within a nearly inflexible narrative framework.
Another reason for Tchaikovsky’s attraction to this story stemmed from his recent infatuation with Desirée Artôt, a Belgian soprano who jilted the composer. With the sudden loss of a female companion, he was forced to face a renewed struggle to accept his own homosexuality – a monstrous taboo in Imperial Russian society, and a pernicious liability for a popular composer. He was secretly terrified that, without visible evidence to the contrary, his sexual orientation would be revealed, in effect destroying any chance of public success. This no doubt made the subject of a love doomed by fate even more relevant to him.
The first draft of the overture was completed in 1869 and was first heard in March of 1870 at a Moscow concert conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein. Despite the premiere’s failure, Tchaikovsky felt compelled to rework the score, replacing the original opening measures with the “Friar Laurence” theme that gives this section its dark and foreboding aura. After a re-premiere two years later, the piece satisfied the composer, but he was still insecure about the tumultuous ending. In 1880 he revised the final portion of Romeo and Juliet, polishing the finer points of his first major success as a composer.
Traditional sonata form was the perfect package in which to enfold Shakespeare’s tragedy and Tchaikovsky used it to remarkable advantage. A slow introduction represents the matchmaker Friar Laurence with somber woodwind chords. As the allegro giusto exposition begins, we hear the heavily accented martial theme depicting the feuding Montague and Capulet families. After the tension builds, the low woodwinds (the same voices that embodied the well-meaning Friar Laurence) begin a clever transition to the famous second theme that depicts the two lovers. Quietly, almost secretively, the English horn and viola unfurl Tchaikovsky’s sensuous melody over a soft cushion of horn chords. Tumultuous and aggressive, the development section shows the violence between the families, while the anxious Friar Laurence gives voice to nervous entreaties for a truce. In the recapitulation section, we hear the love theme in its glorious and most familiar dressing with passionate and breathless sighs in the horn. As the coda begins, Tchaikovsky returns to the mood of the development, but funereal drums interrupt the battle to focus on the tragic deaths of the two lovers. As life fades away, the woodwind chords are heard once again, but are transported to the symbolic higher register.
Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17, Love Scene
Born December 11, 1803, in La Cote- Saint-Andre, France. Died March 8, 1869, in Paris, France.
This work was given its premiere on November 24, 1839, in the main concert hall of the Paris Conservatoire conducted by the composer. It is scored for two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, two trumpets and strings.
The first notable composer to raise the practice of orchestration to an art – not just a novel tool, but also the center of musical conception – was Hector Berlioz. From one work to the next, Berlioz used orchestration as one of the basic elements of symphonic music. Such a complete mastery of orchestral colour was especially useful for Berlioz’s operas. Naturally, the composer was drawn to outlandish and escapist subjects. His Symphonie Fantastique traces the story of a man’s obsessive fixation upon a love interest as he descends into an opium-induced dream that takes him to the gallows and on to eternal punishment. Other works deal with the Trojan War and the Italian Renaissance. Berlioz also composed music inspired the works of Shakespeare, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott.
On December 16, 1838, the great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini gave the premiere of Berlioz’s symphony with solo viola entitled Harold in Italy, which was commissioned by Paganini. The virtuoso was so pleased by what he heard that he presented the composer with 20,000 francs at the premiere. This was the money that made it possible for Berlioz to devote time to a project that had been ruminating for nearly a decade – a setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The idea for a piece based on Romeo and Juliet started in 1831 when Berlioz heard a performance of Donizetti’s opera I Montecchi e i Capuletti (The Montagues and the Capulets) in Florence on the same trip that inspired the Paganini commission. His interest in Shakespeare was related to his obsession with the Scottish actress Harriet Smithson. She was the subject of the artist’s opium-driven infatuation in Berlioz’s 1830 semi-autobiographical Symphonie Fantastique, and the subject of rather aggressive stalking. She found his advances threatening and avoided him until an 1832 concert where she heard the work. The two became engaged and were married the next year – a not-always-happy union that lasted until her death in 1854. Berlioz likely saw himself and Smithson as “star-crossed lovers,” which makes the subject even more fitting.
The result is a very innovative work that combines chorus and orchestra in a way that is an obvious homage to Beethoven’s Ninth, but is different in many important ways. The orchestration is very innovative, as is always the case with Berlioz. Vocal parts are heard in most of the movements, unlike Beethoven’s use in only the finale. Where Beethoven used Schiller’s poetry (with a few additions of his own), Berlioz had poet Emile Deschamps create a highly adapted version of Shakespeare’s original verse. Berlioz’s full title for the work is “Dramatic symphony with chorus, vocal solos, and a prologue in choral recitative, composed after Shakespeare’s tragedy.”
It is cast in five movements: an Introduction that sets the combative and romantic atmosphere of the work, Romeo alone – Festivities at the Capulets with its pensive mood turning into a festive showpiece, a gentle Love Scene, the dazzling Queen Mab Scherzo and the funereal Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets.
This concert includes the Love Scene, for which Berlioz held a special affinity, as he explained in his memoirs:
“If you ask me now which of my works I prefer, my answer is the same as that of the majority of artists: the adagio (the love scene) of Romeo and Juliet. One day, at Hanover, at the end of the piece, I felt I was being pulled from behind by someone. On turning round I saw it was the players near my desk who were kissing my coattails.”
Selections from Romeo & Juliet, Op. 64, Suites 1 and 2
Born April 23, 1891, in Sontsovka, Ekaterinoslav, Russia. Died March 5, 1953, in Moscow.
The complete ballet was first performed on December 30, 1938, in Brno, Czechoslovakia, with Quirino Arnoldi conducting. Suites Nos. 1 & 2 date from 1936. This work is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, tenor saxophone, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps, piano, celesta and strings.
Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet dates from 1936, a period of growing popularity for his music, especially in Russia. Having resided abroad since 1918, mostly in Paris, the composer would return to his homeland the same year – just after finishing this score, but before its premiere. The origin of the ballet is interesting. The Kirov Ballet and stage director Sergei Radlov had approached the composer, suggesting that he compose a new work based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for the company. By doing so, the Kirov initiated Prokofiev into an illustrious group of composers who had written music based on the classic tale of love vs. hate and life vs. death. By the 1930s there had been many operas, overtures, and other concert works based on the play, but this score would be the first ballet of consequence.
Despite the commission, Prokofiev envisioned his ballet as being premiered in Leningrad, but the volatile political climate there made him change his plans to a Moscow premiere with the famed Bolshoi Ballet. Although Prokofiev was never satisfied with the Kirov Company, he was eventually forced to rely upon them when the Bolshoi claimed that his music was undanceable. It seemed that a St. Petersburg premiere with the Kirov would happen after all, until politics once again stood in the way. Instead of a Russian premiere, the work was first heard in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in late December of 1938, two years after the score was completed.
As a further complication, Prokofiev had to tread gently with the government. Soviet Russia’s artistic censorship was legendary, especially during the Stalin regime. Artists chose their subject matter carefully, as the simple act of deciding on a story line for a ballet or opera was often viewed as a political statement. Soviet authorities could easily have seen Shakespeare’s story as subversive. For example, Friar Laurence could be understood to represent an authority higher than Stalin’s, while Juliet’s independence could have been a dangerous example for Soviet women. Prokofiev and Radlov anticipated such objections, so they did the unthinkable and allowed Soviet censors to give the play a happy ending (because, in the words of the authorities, “dead people cannot dance”). The academic outcry proved to be more powerful than Stalin, forcing the creative team to restore the Bard’s tragic conclusion.
During the two-year delay between the ballet’s completion and premiere, Prokofiev felt that it was important for his music to be heard. He was still trying to re-establish himself as a Soviet composer after returning to Russia and a project of this size could not be allowed to depend on the whims of politicians. The obvious solution was to assemble some of the music from the ballet into a concert suite, which resulted in such a success in November of 1936 that Prokofiev compiled two additional suites from Romeo and Juliet within a year. Before the 1938 premiere of the complete ballet, nearly all of its music had been heard in concert as part of the three suites.
This performance draws individual movements from each of the suites. Since Prokofiev arranged the suites without regard for the events in Shakespeare’s play, this performance organizes several excerpts in such a way as to restore the basic elements of the story.
The Montagues and the Capulets (Suite 2, No. 1) opens with the renewed rage of the two families building over Tybalt’s death. The second half of the movement, a sinister march sometimes called Dance of the Knights, is perhaps the most famous excerpt from Prokofiev’s ballet.
The Child Juliet (Suite 2, No. 2) relies upon the strings and upper woodwinds to show the youthfulness of the 13-year-old Juliet.
Madrigal (Suite 1, No. 3) is the first music from the Capulets’ ball at which Romeo and Juliet first meet. String textures serve as bookends to a brilliant flute solo.
Minuet (Suite 1, No. 4) marks the arrival of the guests at the ball. An example of Prokofiev’s penchant for neoclassicism, it follows the form of a Classical minuet with its heavy-footed and pompous opening and contrasting central trio section.
Masks (Suite 1, No. 5) represents the mystery of a masked ball. A trumpet solo is featured in the middle of the movement.
Death of Tybalt (Suite 1, No. 7) begins as an almost-humorous scherzo representing the verbal jibes of Mercutio and Tybalt. The inevitable propulsion of the strings continues until a loud brass chord represents Tybalt’s death. After the tragic event, all humor is replaced with seething music as Romeo swears vengeance.
Dance of the Girls with Lilies (Suite 2, No. 6) represents an addition by Prokofiev in which West Indian slaves perform a dance with flowers.
Romeo at the Tomb of Juliet (Suite 2, No. 7) is the young man’s lament for the lover he believes to be dead. Written as a funeral march, it was played at the composer’s funeral. As musicologist Phillip Huscher explained, this was because “all of Moscow’s musicians had been tapped for the funeral of Stalin, who had died at the same hour on the same day as the composer.”