Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Tchaikovsky - Romeo And Juliet Overture - Fantasy

William Shakespeare's plays have inspired many composers, especially in the Romantic era. Over 20 operas
have been written based on the play, some ballets (most notably by Prokofiev), a dramatic symphony by Berlioz and the modern adaptation West Side Story with music by Leonard Bernstein.  Perhaps the most
well-known work based on a Shakespeare play is the Romeo And Juliet Overture-Fantasy by Tchaikovsky.

The piece was written by Tchaikovsky when he was 28 years old in 1869 while he was a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. It was written at the suggestion of Mily Balakirev, the leader of the group of Russian nationalistic composers called The Five. Tchaikovsky had already written his first symphony and a symphonic poem and complained that he was already burned out, but Balakirev pestered him until he began work on it. Balakirev gave him some advice on technical matters of form and critiqued the first version of the work. 

The second version of the work was not an immediate success. It was even hissed the first time it was played in Vienna. But The Five composers embraced the work, even though Tchaikovsky was not considered in their group. About ten years after the premiere of the second version Tchaikovsky revised it again, changed the ending and added Overture - Fantasy to the title. It is this third version that is played in concerts. 

Shakespeare based Romeo And Juliet on a story from Italy written in the middle of the 16th century, but the theme of tragic romance goes back way before the 16th century. Shakespeare fleshed out the story by adding characters and expanding the plot. A short synopsis:
The story is set in Verona, and revolves around the conflicts between two families that are sworn enemies, the Montagues and Capulets.  Romeo is the son of the patriarch of the Montagues, and he attends a ball given by the Capulets to try and meet a woman that he is attracted to, but he meets Juliet instead at the ball and falls in love with her. They meet after the ball (the famous balcony scene) and agree to marry despite their families' mutual hatred. With the help of Friar Laurence they are married the next day. Trouble brews and lives are taken after a fight between supporters of the families. Romeo is banished from Verona, and as Romeo and Juliet's marriage is a secret, Juliet is betrothed to another. Romeo steals away and spends the night with Juliet.  Juliet's family tries to force her to marry another, and Juliet goes to Friar Laurence for help. He gives her a potion that will make it appear as if she is dead and promises to send word to Romeo about the plan. Romeo returns to Juliet's chamber but he wasn't informed of the potion and thinks her dead. He gets poison and goes to the crypt where Juliet lays. The other to whom Juliet was betrothed is in the crypt mourning her death, Romeo kills him and drinks the poison. After Romeo dies Juliet awakens from her potion-induced sleep, sees that Romeo has killed himself, so she kills herself with Romeo's dagger. Members from the two families find all three of them dead in the crypt, and realizing the tragedy their family feud has caused, reconcile with one another. 
The play itself has many side plots and Shakespeare combines some comic scenes with the dramatic and
tragic to keep a steady build-up to the climax of the play. Tchaikovsky uses dramatic and tragic elements of the play to construct his Romeo And Juliet Overture-Fantasy.

The work is a tone poem written in sonata form. The opening of the work is an introduction based on the character Friar Laurence.  Friar Laurence is a man of the church, in Verona no doubt it is the Catholic church, but Tchaikovsky, a Russian,  gives the introduction the solemn tones of a Russian orthodox chant! The next theme is one of agitation and drama as it represents the warring Montague and Capulet families, with cymbal clashes symbolizing the clanking together of swords. The next theme is one of soaring passion and beauty, the love theme of Romeo and Juliet. These three themes make up the exposition of the piece.

In the next section of the piece only the themes are developed. After the development, the themes return and move towards a representation by cymbal clashes of the suicides of the lovers. An epilogue with a steady pattern of timpani taps underscores a beautiful reminiscence of the lovers by the woodwinds, the love theme enters one last time and the work ends with a loud climax by the orchestra.