It is fair to say that no Shakespeare play has inspired a greater number of composers than Romeo and Juliet; indeed it is also arguable that, of all musical adaptations from the Bard, few surpass in quality those based on the timeless story of the two ‘starcross’d’ young lovers, whose youthful passion is destroyed by their families’ hatred of each other.
At least twenty four operas, including those by Gounod, Bellini and Delius (A Village Romeo and Juliet, from which comes the wonderful Walk to the Paradise Garden), have been based on the story, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the play, together with numerous orchestral representations, including Berlioz’s Symphonie Dramatique; one of the very finest of all adaptations is Prokofiev’s superb ballet, whilst of many attempts to distil the play’s modern resonances surely the greatest is Bernstein’s West Side Story, with libretto by Stephen Sondheim, arguably the finest of all stage musicals.
Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture joined the list of masterpieces inspired by the play with the premiere of the original version in early 1870; the idea had been suggested to him in 1869 by the composer Balakirev, who knew of Tchaikovsky’s passionate response to a huge range of literary works, the plays of Shakespeare in particular; Tchaikovsky was also to write symphonic poems based on Hamlet and The Tempest. In addition he had a lifelong predilection for stories of Love blighted by Fate – Francesca do Rimini and the Manfred Symphony follow a similar theme – mirroring his own life, which followed a disastrous progress through initial conventional relationships towards his abortive attempt at marriage despite his own undeniable homosexuality. His own inescapable conclusion was that Fate is an even more potent force than Love, which gave him a special affinity with the story of Romeo and Juliet. The premiere of the original version was, however, unsatisfactory, and Tchaikovsky immediately set about a major revision of the work, postponing its publication for a while. His mentor Balakirev remained sceptical about the work following the revision, and Tchaikovsky too was still dissatisfied, so in 1880 the maturer composer, now at ease in the sponsorship of his benefactor Nadezhda van Meck, came back to the work and made a second, smaller revision which at last satisfied him and met with Balakirev’s approval. The final version distils the essence of the play completely; it is only partially chronological in terms of the events of the play but crystallises the main elements into a magnificently taut structure. The work is dedicated to Balakirev, but the premiere of the accepted version did not take place until 1886. Since then it has achieved a vast popularity and has become virtually the epitome of romanticism in music.
Reverent clarinets and bassoons begin the work with a portrait of Friar Laurence; his role in the play is pivotal – he secretly marries the young lovers, believing in the maturity of their love, and then vainly attempts to make good after Romeo has killed
Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in revenge for the death of Mercutio.
The strings enter ominously, their harmonic tensions the first stirrings of the tragic conflict, which soon breaks into open battle between the Montagues and Capulets. The initial skirmish subsides into the first flowering of the love-at-first-sight between Romeo and Juliet which crosses the divide between the families, the famous theme introduced by cor anglais and violas. This in turn leads to a rocking, lullaby-like motif in muted strings which suggests the extreme youth of Juliet – in the play she is a mere fourteen years old. The love theme returns, but the conflict bubbles again with still greater venom; at its height the trumpets sear through the conflict with Friar Laurence’s theme, now in anguish that the marriage of the lovers is being destroyed by the feud. A final burst of passion – perhaps as they celebrate their wedding night against the backdrop of Romeo’s inevitable exile – is rudely shattered by the bitter culmination of the feud.
After an eloquent pause the epilogue begins with the timpani quietly articulating a funeral march, above which the cellos’ and first violins’ sadly contorted fragments of the love theme express the torment of the families as they realise the devastating consequences of their actions. Friar Laurence, having finally proved powerless to prevent the tragedy, offers a benediction, before upper strings sing a melancholy version of Romeo and Juliet’s theme, ascending harp chords counteracting the bassoons’ dark descent. Crashing, unpredictable chords bring to a cataclysmic end one of the greatest of all compositions inspired by the universal genius of Shakespeare.
Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018