Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful, symphonic poem-like work that encapsulates the tragic love story between Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This piece of programme music went through three stages of being re-drafted and manipulated by Tchaikovsky until the version that is catalogued today was premiered in 1886. Tchaikovsky’s admiration for Shakespeare is seen through the basis of some of his other musical works, such as The Tempest and Hamlet. The idea of basing this new composition on Romeo and Juliet came from an older friend of Tchaikovsky, Mily Balakirev. Interestingly as well, Tchaikovsky branded this work as an Overture-Fantasy, rather than a symphonic poem, which may have been to sound less pretentious (though one can not prove this) or it may have been to style the piece differently. Saying all of this though, the basis of the work is essentially a symphonic poem in sonata form, though styled as an overture-fantasy.
Though in sonata form, the piece embraces a slow introduction at the beginning of the piece, which is primarily led by clarinets and bassoons. This opening phrase is delicate, steady and a wonderfully whimsical opening to this fantastic work. The simple melody played is based on a motive which is reminiscent of a Russian canticle. The parts here are doubled so you can hear the low, woody tones of the clarinet and the bassoon as well as the octave contrast above, which seamlessly rises above the dark colours created below. One thing I certainly admire about this work is the fact that Tchaikovsky doesn’t just write a linear piece of music, merely outlining the story of Romeo and Juliet. Instead he takes three main themes and uses them as the basis of different sections of the work. So the first is based upon the saintly figure of Friar Lawrence, to which Tchaikovsky names the section ‘Friar Lawrence’s Piety.’ The beautiful initial wind entry is matched by an equally exquisite string entry which is then developed into a larger orchestrated section, which really emphasises the harp and flute parts. This development is headed by some wonderful arppregiated chords from the harp contrasting with the high register played by the flute. This somewhat foreboding section of the work then moves to a pizzicato section, where you can hear a descending theme from the strings which really keeps the section moving along. A previous harp theme is heard again, which essentially leads us into a new section which is dominated by the strings playing a tremolo sequence. A much more unified passage is heard, with the strings in unison and the winds in unison. A call and response passage is then played before the tonality shifts once more into ‘Allegro giusto’ section, which also is the start of the next themed section, entitled ‘The Montagues and Capulets Battle.’
The tempo is much faster and the vigorous playing from all the parts really gives an extreme contrast from the slow introductory section. This fiery syncopated rhythm is essentially the first subject within the work, and its purpose is to suggest Romeo’s defiant temperament. The tumultuous and frankly impassioned figures played by the strings really gives an excitable feel to the section, and also gives a rolling feeling, as if the piece is quickly moving through the theme. The winds play syncopated beats to accompany some of these passages, which emphasises how important strength is within the piece. The orchestra then come together which is incredibly powerful, which swiftly develops into the second subject which is primarily presented by the violas and cor anglais. The strings (muted) play an epilogue on top of this melody, which then develops around the orchestra. This theme is, in its basic form, the basis of the very famous theme that everybody knows and loves from this piece. However, that theme doesn’t fully develop until the recapitulation section of the work. After this highly romantic theme is manipulated somewhat, we move back to the fiery Romeo theme which also acts as the development section within the sonata form structure. The first horn theme and the romantic theme are both developed in various ways, both rhythmically and harmonically. After a monstrous semiquaver passage is played by the strings its fiery climax leads us into the recapitulation section, which is definitely my favourite section of the work.
The Romeo theme returns, with the orchestra all playing at ff and the brash brass very much being a prominent sound within the mix. This section is the most famous as it has the completely jaw-dropping and passionate romantic theme. This marks the third and final theme that Tchaikovsky uses, and rightly so it is entitled ‘Romeo and Juliet’s Romance.’ This simple theme is played by the orchestra as a unit, which gives it an even bigger impact on the theme it is representing. The luscious strings playing in all the registers makes for a truly breath-taking theme, which is the absolute pinnacle of this work. The romantic theme is interrupted at points by the fiery Romeo theme, but in the end the romantic theme takes precedence, which represents the idea that love conquers all, which is practically the whole idea of the tale of Romeo and Juliet. A chorale-like recap of the slow introductory theme is heard again, which makes a wonderful transition theme into the dynamic ending of the work. With a strong timpani roll, the orchestra play off-beat quaver stabs at the end before all uniting and playing a deep-rooted B minor chord.
I really love this piece of music, it’s so incredibly good to listen to as it takes you on a journey of Romeo and Juliet like you have never heard it before. The work encapsulates not only musical themes, but programmatic themes which act as a developmental and compositional tool for Tchaikovsky. Even after having been rewritten three times, this piece has certainly entered the classical music hall of fame with its romantic melodies and fiery developmental sections. An exciting work which is well worth your listening time, I highly recommend it to anybody, but especially those who are not so hot on your classical music as it is an ideal piece to start your classical music journey on!