Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Overture

It was in 1868 in St. Petersburg that Tchaikovsky first made contact with the group of five composers working for the “cause of Russian nationalism in art”. Of that group Mussorgsky is represented in this evening’s programme, the others being Borodin, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev.

The group was not entirely sympathetic to Tchaikovsky’s musical outlook, which was too international for their liking. Nonetheless it was they who suggested to Tchaikovsky that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet would be a suitable subject for musical interpretation. He set to work and submitted his completed score to Balakirev, who was most critical if not scathing, and made numerous suggestions for its improvement. The outcome was that Tchaikovsky did re-work his score, and it is quite unlikely that he submitted the revision to his mentor. Romeo and Juliet received its first performance in Moscow in 1870, and has remained in the orchestral repertoire ever since.

In translating Shakespeare’s tragedy into musical form, Tchaikovsky does not follow the dramatist’s story line, but conjures up in musical terms the three main strands of the drama. These are the holiness of Friar Lawrence, the feuding between the Montagues and Capulets, and of course the romance of Romeo and Juliet. In so doing, Tchaikovsky achieves an extreme dramatic effect.

The music opens with a theme dedicated to Friar Lawrence, with undertones of fate given out by the lower strings. A fate theme seems to have dogged Tchaikovsky throughout his life. The solemn music gives way to an episode clearly depicting the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. One can almost hear the clash of rapiers! Ferocity gives way to the unmistakable Romeo and Juliet love theme on cor anglais and violas, passionate and yearning in character but always with an underlying current of anxiety. Hostility and conflict are soon to re-emerge, and lead inexorably to the tragic climax of the young lovers’ deaths.

In an epilogue we hear a tragic distorted version of the love theme, until woodwind and french horns presage a solemn dirge. Finally, the end of the tragedy is in turn presaged by a reprise of the love theme. On a rising orchestral tutti, the fantasy overture ends with firmly enunciated chords of fate.