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Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet Overture [analysis]

Last updated Jan 30, 2024 | Published on Oct 15, 2020

Winner of a fellowship at the Bayreuther Festspiele, Mr. Griglio’s conducting has been praised for his “energy” and “fine details”. Mr. Griglio took part in the first world recording of music by composer Irwin Bazelon and conducted several world premieres like "The song of Eddie", by Harold Farberman, a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize. Principal Conductor of International Opera Theater Philadelphia for four years, Mr.Griglio is also active as a composer. His first opera, Camille Claudel, debuted in 2013 to a great success of audience and critics. Mr. Griglio is presently working on an opera on Caravaggio and Music Director of Opera Odyssey.
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Table of contents

Introduction

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.

Balakirev c. 1900

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

Structure

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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Notes

Cover image by Lucas Craig from Pexels

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Gianmaria Griglio is an intelligent, exceptional musician. There is no question about his conducting abilities: he has exceptionally clear baton technique that allows him to articulate whatever decisions he has made about the music.

Harold Farberman

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