Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is a fantasy overture, as the composer himself called it. Like many composers, like Berlioz or Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky was drawn to Shakespeare’s tragedy. Although Romeo and Juliet is not the only play that inspired him: he wrote works based on Hamlet and The Tempest as well.
The original idea didn’t come from Tchaikovsky himself but from another great Russian composer: Mily Balakirev.
In spite of that, the premiere was a total flop. Tchaikovsky revised the work over and over again following Balakirev’s suggestions: from the first version in 1869 it took him 11 years of polishing to arrive at the version we know today. And the premiere of the final version had to wait even longer, as it only happened in 1886.
Mily Balakirev c. 1900
Time well spent, as Romeo and Juliet went from a criticized piece to one of the most loved of all times: its love theme, with its passionate melody, has sunk into our own consciousness.
Tchaikovsky: an analysis of Romeo and Juliet Overture
Romeo and Juliet is a symphonic poem in sonata form. As I mentioned many times now, a sonata form typically consists of an exposition with 2 contrasting themes, a development, and a recapitulation. Everything is often framed by an introduction and a coda.
Tchaikovsky here goes slightly off the rails and follows 3 threads in Shakespeare’s tragedy and assigns them to three different themes:
- Friar Laurence
- the conflict between Capulets and Montagues
- the love between Romeo and Juliet.
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