Romeo and Juliet

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

In the nineteenth century, the Russian aristocracy and Imperial Court developed a strong appetite and respect for European classical music, which was mainly performed in their palaces. Embracing Western styles and tastes manifested into an artistic and social pedigree, and travel to the West was part of the elite lifestyle. Upper class Russians also liked to be speak French, and by age six Tchaikovsky was able to speak French and a bit of German, taught to him by his nanny, Fanny Durbach, whom he addressed all of his life as mademoiselle.

After a short career as a civil servant, he turned to music, producing symphonies, ballets, operas, concerti, string quartets and piano trios in traditional western formats. Ultimately, Tchaikovsky became the first Russian composer known and loved internationally. He received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Cambridge, and became a member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts in France.

However, there was a reaction to Western enthusiasms. Within growing Russian nationalism, a counter-current developed. Led by a group called The Mighty Five, a formidable insistence on purely Russian music and Russian sources gained momentum.  Its members, largely self-taught, were Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, and Cui.

In the simplest terms, there were two basic and contentious factions: those who embraced the West and those who were focused on “new music” with Russian roots and influences.  Somewhat ironically, Tchaikovsky and the Five both shared a commitment to “Russianness,” but how it was to be expressed was very different.

Tchaikovsky, who had formal Conservatory training, and Balakirev, founder of the Mighty Five, had a friendship and a “working relationship.”  On his side, Balakirev thought that academic musical training was a threat to inspired composition, probably because he never had any. However, he managed to maintain an influential career in composition, conducting and research into Russian folk music.  Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, noted that the composer’s relationship with the Mighty Five resembled “ those between two friendly neighboring states—cautiously prepared to meet on common ground, but jealously guarding their separate interests.” (The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky by Rosa Newmarch)

It was Balakirev who suggested that he write the Romeo and Juliet Overture, explaining literary analyses, and even sent suggested themes, harmonic development and orchestration.  The composer was only 29, and he took the advice to heart and collaborated extensively.  The composer was happy with the idea and noted, “It will be my most monumental work.  It now seems to me absurd that I could not see earlier that I was predestined, as it were, to set this drama to music”. In a letter to Balakirev he stressed,  “The layout is yours.  The introduction portraying the friar, the fight—Allegro and love—the second subject; and secondly the modulations are yours: also the introduction in E, the Allegro in B-flat minor, and the second subject in D-flat.” He completed the Overture in 1869, and the Overture premiered on March 16, 1870. The response was tepid, and eventually there were two revisions in 1872 and 1880. The Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy put Tchaikovsky on the map and became a masterpiece.

The Overture (cast in sonata-allegro form) begins with a long introduction: a solemn chorale sung by clarinets and bassoons opens the scene, representing Friar Lawrence.

Two contrasting main themes emerge. The first brutal and nervous, represents the warring Capulet and Montague families.  The second is the splendid love theme for Romeo and Juliet, first stated by English horn and muted violas.  Many have said, “ This is the best love music there is…” A development section (complete with warring families) is brilliantly scored and developed before the recapitulation.  Herein, the love theme melody receives its most grand statement. At the conclusion, the music moves into a quiet, reflective segment with quiet timpani. Steadily the music retreats into deep sadness:  what futility and tragedy had occurred.  A roaring conclusion marked by aggressive, angry timpani and a stern chord brings the Overture to its close.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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