“Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet, fantasy-overture for orchestra in B minor, 1880. Maestro Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Numerous composers have responded to Shakespeare’s timeless drama of forbidden and youthful love, but Tchaikovsky’s response (along with Berlioz’s and Prokofiev’s) is at the top of the list. It is the only one of the three to be intended as a number in a symphony concert, and, hence is by default the most famous of the lot.
Tchaikovsky, a lawyer, was still developing as a composer at age 29 when Mily Balakirev (self-appointed father figure to Russian composers) persuaded him to write an orchestral work on the subject of the “star-cross’d lovers.” Balakirev outlined the form, planned the keys, and even suggested some of the actual music. After the 1870 premiere, he convinced Tchaikovsky to revise it. The work’s success in this form did much to transform the composer’s tendency toward crippling doubt into useful self-criticism. (Not that the transformation was ever total; Tchaikovsky suffered bouts of depression and self-doubt throughout his career.) The composer revised it again in 1880; this version is almost universally the one played. While the final version is probably the best one, the 1869 text is also a fine work and very much worth hearing. The earlier version begins with a charming tune that carries elements of the great love theme. In the first and second revisions Tchaikovsky eliminated this and replaced it with the benedictory theme representing Friar Laurence. The effect of this change on the overture’s structure is large. The first version seems to begin with Juliet still in a relatively childlike state, but with the potential for the great love present in the disguised premonitions of the love theme. The focus is, therefore, on the development of the drama as it unfolds. The later versions, beginning as it were with a prayer, seem to invite the hearer to look back on a tragedy that has already happened. Both versions proceed identically through depictions of the clashes between the houses of Montague and Capulet, and then unveil the great love music. After that, though, Tchaikovsky’s original idea seems to this writer to be superior: There is a great development, fugal-sounding and allowing for contrapuntal conflict based on the overture’s main rhythms and themes. It is tremendously exciting, more so than the music which replaced it. Justification for dropping it might be made along the lines that the original version has too much dramatic weight and overshadows the rest of the music. The main differences thereafter are in details of scoring, and in the finale, which in the original version is much too curt.
It is often instructive to see what a great composer has done at two different times with the same ideas and material. Whether or not it has greater musical merit, Tchaikovsky’s blessing of his final version served to ensure that it is the one that prevailed, and in that form it is accepted as one of the greatest programmatic pieces in the symphonic repertoire. The yearning love theme, in particular, is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest melodies ever written, while the exciting fight music and Tchaikovsky’s unfailingly clear and imaginative orchestration carry the listener through with hardly a misstep. But the original version is not far behind it in musical worth; it should be given more frequent revivals, if only for the sake of hearing the great fugato passage described above.
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