Program Notes

These pages contain program notes written for Redwood Symphony. You are free to use the information in your own program notes. If you quote me directly, please attribute it. Thanks!

These notes were edited, amended, and otherwise improved by Eric Kujawsky, Peter Stahl, and Doug Wyatt. 

Barbara Heninger

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Romeo and Juliet

In 1869 Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was an up-and-coming composer and a professor of music at the Moscow Conservatory. Just 28 years old, he had produced a number of piano works, songs, a symphony (No. 1 in G minor, 1866), and an opera (The Voyevoda, 1867–8). But he had not yet created anything that could be called a great success by either critical or popular acclamation.

Tchaikovsky had recently met Mily Balakirev, a self-taught composer who led a circle of amateur composers promoting Russian musical traditions (see Rimsky-Korsakov notes). Balakirev was the least successful of the lot, yet he had an eye for talent and a head full of ideas, and attempted to direct all in his circle in matters of composition. Tchaikovsky had just finished an orchestral work titled Fatum (Fate) and ventured to dedicate it to Balakirev, who conducted the first St. Petersburg performance. The piece did not meet with success, and the older composer wrote a detailed letter to Tchaikovsky explaining why the work failed: "It's not properly gestated … the seams and unmatched stitching are everywhere conspicuous."

Tchaikovsky weathered the criticism, recognizing that Balakirev was correct: Fatum suffered from a lack of focus. The two continued to correspond, and in August Balakirev arrived in Moscow and suggested a project with a built-in focus, an orchestral piece based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

In proposing this topic, Balakirev likely knew that Tchaikovsky had just emerged from what would be his only infatuation with a member of the opposite sex, a Belgian soprano named Désirée Artôt with whom he had discussed marriage, but who had recently married a Spanish baritone. Tchaikovsky's deeper emotional struggle, however, was with his homosexuality. Indeed, his brother and biographer Modest once suggested that the composer's emotional inspiration for Romeo and Juliet was his unrequited feeling for an old friend from his school days, Vladimir Gerard.

Whatever encouraged Tchaikovsky to tackle the theme, he did so sincerely but couldn't make headway. "I'm beginning to fear that my muse has flown off," he wrote Balakirev. The latter happily wrote back with organizational suggestions (start with music representing Friar Laurence, interrupt with the clatter of the warring families, then portray the young lovers), opinions on which keys to use for each theme, and even a sketch for the music for "sword clashes." Tchaikovsky followed this advice and finished his first draft, forwarding the main themes to Balakirev.

Balakirev responded by pronouncing the Friar Laurence theme thoroughly unsuitable (more like Haydn than church music), another only half-finished — but praising the love theme: "I play it often, and I want very much to kiss you for it."

Tchaikovsky finished the work, and his friend and promoter Nikolay Rubinstein premiered it on March 16, 1870. The result was not encouraging, though critic Vladimir Stasov also praised the love song. Tchaikovsky began rewriting the piece, taking Balakirev's criticisms as his guide. He replaced the original introduction with a "chorale" theme as suggested by his mentor and reworked sections depicting the feuding families. The new version was published in 1870 and first performed in February 1872. Balakirev still quibbled that the ending was not powerful enough, but as his own musical fortunes were declining, his influence faded from Tchaikovsky's life. Yet in 1880, ten years after his first reworking of the piece, Tchaikovsky rewrote the ending, finally giving the piece a conclusion that Balakirev could endorse.

The work opens with a quiet chorale of clarinets and bassoons in a pseudo-liturgical theme. The strings enter with some foreboding but then join the woodwinds with a series of prayer-like, calm chords, accented by fluid glissandos from the harp. A first interruption, with trembling timpani, seems to subside into the peaceful theme, but not for long. A single chord passed back and forth between strings and woodwinds grows into the agitated theme of the warring Capulets and Montagues. Whirling woodwinds are echoed by swirling strings, punctuated by onslaughts of percussion.

The action suddenly slows, the key dropping from B-minor to D-flat (as suggested by Balakirev) to the accompaniment of tolling horns. The English horn sounds the opening bars of the famous love theme. The strings enter with a lush, hovering melody over which the flute and oboe eventually soar with the love theme once again, signaling the development section.

The recapitulation proceeds conventionally, with the themes brought back with more intensity. But the love theme breaks into fragments and is overwhelmed by the feuding subject in a climax capped by the roll of timpani. A muted death knell sounds and the wind chorale plays quietly, perhaps signifying the friar's sad reflection on the horror the warring families have wrought. The love theme is heard a last time over dark, chromatic bass before ending in four bars of abrupt chords, fiercely proclaiming the tragedy of the lovers' deaths.

February 11, 2001