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
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