“The love theme of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ cannot be developed, like all true melodies […] This said, such an inspiration! Such an inexpressible beauty, such an arduous passion! It is one of the most beautiful themes of Russian music as such.” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote this in 1892 after he had heard Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s overture “Romeo and Juliet” in St. Petersburg. By then the work was 23 years old and had been rewritten by the composer two times. A late recognition by another expert in melodies. When the overture was first performed in 1870, nobody took notice, and for a long time Tchaikovsky’s orchestral fantasy “Francesca di Rimini” remained much more popular than “Romeo and Julia”.
Tchaikovsky started the composition upon a suggestion by Mily Balakirev, a fellow composer, who had very precise ideas about the piece, suggestions that Tchaikovsky initially took up and which underwent considerable changes in the first revision. During the summer of 1870, after the premiere, he wrote to Balakirev: “The end, I think, is well crafted now, the introduction is completely new, the central part almost new, the second appearance of the second theme had been totally re-orchestrated.” Which does not leave much room for any of Balakirev’s ideas.
In his extensive study of the composer’s life and works, André Lischke notes that “Romeo and Juliet” unfolds its full psychological effect only after these major re-arrangements. And it is true, the piece has a profound emotional effect. The strife (the House of Capulet versus the House of Montaigu), that gives the love story its tragic touch, is of a rare violence, perfectly illustrating the unabated hate between the two families. The love theme itself, the romance developing between Romeo and Julia, their defiance of the will of their respective families, unfold before his background in two steps: the element of passion (Romeo) and the element of tenderness (Julia).
This second version of the overture was performed in St. Petersburg in February 1872 and was acclaimed by Cesar Cui, like Balakirev a member of the “Mighty Five”. “The overture is the work of a great talent. Its merit lies in its magnificent themes”. So much applause from his colleagues! And the composer himself was satisfied too! It’s almost unbelievable. As unbelievable as the beauty of the music. I can listen to the overture again and again and never grow tired of it.
I can recommend the recordings by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
© Charles Thibo