In 1975, 1976 and 1977 I spent two weeks each August at camp at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT, where I played violin in the orchestra. Of all the pieces I played there over the course of those three summers–works by Shostakovich, Copland, Rossini and Franck, among others–my favorite was Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture. What a thrill it was to ‘meet’ this piece as a 15-year old.
After a friend and fellow composer, Mili Balakirev, suggested that Shakespeare’s play could be a rich source of inspiration, Tchaikovsky began composing the work in 1869, when he was 29 years old. After two iterations, he completed the version that is known to most listeners today in 1880; it is widely considered his first masterpiece.
Romeo and Juliet is an example of program music, music that tells a story or describes a particular scene. In this instance, characters and incidents from the play are presented as different musical themes, structured in sonata form. [In sonata form, themes are introduced in the Exposition section; extended, fragmented or combined in the Development section; and then revisited, with modifications, in the Recapitulation section. There are an introduction and a coda as well].
Romeo and Juliet opens with a solemn chorale, played by clarinet and bassoon, that represents the lovers’ friend, Friar Laurence. (This recording is by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic). The strings enter (0:37), initially with a sense of foreboding but the woodwinds return (1:11) and calm prevails as the harpist plays glissandos (1:30). The chorale is repeated at 2:10. The Exposition begins at 5:15, as we hear the first of the piece’s two key themes, an agitated, syncopated representation of the longstanding conflict between the Montague and Capulet families, featuring contrapuntal interplay between the woodwinds and strings. Among the bursts of percussion are cymbal clashes that are often felt to represent the clashing of swords. At 7:27, we hear the piece’s second theme; if you recognize any part of this piece, it will likely be this lovely melody in D-flat major, representing the love of Romeo (English horn) and Juliet (muted strings).
In the Development section (10:36 to 12:36), the feuding theme predominates, but Friar Laurence’s theme returns as well, as if he is trying to intercede and lessen the strife that’s swirling around him. During the Recapitulation, we hear the love theme again, albeit briefly, and the section ends with a crash of tympani–the moment of death?–at 16:13. The coda then begins with a kind of funeral march; as the tympani play a solemn drum beat, the strings offer two fragments of the love theme–no longer joyous–and the woodwinds play, at 17:17, a mournful yet gorgeous chorale. At 18:20, the love theme soars one last time, and everything comes to an end with a series of repeated B major chords. These chords recall the repeated B minor chords heard in the Exposition (at 6:04). The musicologist and Tchaikovsky specialist David Brown noted that the “succession of fierce tonic chords [that close the piece] harshly recalls that fatal feud on which these young lives have been broken; the warring families now stand transfixed, the repeated chords no longer suggesting, as [they did earlier], an imminent explosion of ferocious strife, but a stunned horror at what has been done.”
Bonus: In March of 2011, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic presented a concert, broadcast in HD to movie theatres around the country (which is how I saw it), of Tchaikovsky’s three orchestral renderings of Shakespeare plays: Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and Hamlet. Before each piece, actors performed selected passages from the plays. Here’s a clip of Dudamel and the orchestra rehearsing a snippet of Romeo and Juliet for that performance.