Tchaikovsky wrote this piece in October and November 1869, when aged 28 and a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. It is formally a symphonic poem in sonata form (exposition; development; recapitulation).
Tchaikovsky was deeply inspired by Shakespeare’s plays but it was Mily Balakirev, one of “The Five” Russian composers (the others being Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin), who put the idea of basing a piece on characters and incidents from the lovers’ tragedy to Tchaikovsky in the summer of 1869. Balakirev gave detailed suggestions about the structure of the overture and, after a couple of months without inspiration, Tchaikovsky sent him the main themes in November 1869, saying “In the first place, the overall scheme is yours: an introduction representing the friar; the struggle—allegro, and love—second theme; and secondly, the modulations are yours: the introduction is in E major, the Allegro in B minor, and the second theme in D-flat major.”
Balakirev praised the love theme, saying “I play it often, and I want very much to hug you for it.” But he was suspicious of anyone with formal musical training and some of his other responses would grace the jury of Strictly Come Dancing including: “the first D-flat major theme was beautiful, although somewhat overripe”.
After much back-and-forth with comments and revisions, the first performance took place in Moscow in March 1870. It was overshadowed by a demonstration following a court case involving the conductor and Tchaikovsky wrote that “No one said a single word to me about the overture the whole evening. And yet I yearned so for appreciation and kindness.”
That summer, Tchaikovsky fundamentally revised the work. Balakirev’s response was highly critical, saying “I feel strongly that you need to make further revisions to the overture, and not just to wave your hand at it, and hope for the best in your future compositions”.
Tchaikovsky completed his final revision in 1880, making changes only in the last 80 bars. Despite the many harsh comments, the work remained dedicated to Mily Balakirev, who was asked to play the piece on the piano every time “The Five” met. The overture’s love theme has since been widely used in popular culture from the 1927 film “The Jazz Singer” through to Disney and “The Sims” computer game. It remains one of the most popular works in the classical repertoire.
Robyn Morgan, 2nd Violin