“Simply delightful“

Tchaikovsky's Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet“

Oil painting by Francis Bernard Dicksee, 1884
(Photo: Southampton City Art Gallery)

We owe the “fantasy overture” Romeo and Juliet to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s encounter with “The Mighty Handful”, a group of young Russian composers in St. Petersburg who pursued a nationalist tone in Russian music, which they considered too “westernized”. In early 1868 – when Tchaikovsky had been teaching theory for three years at the Moscow Conservatory – the composer visited St. Petersburg and used the opportunity for a personal encounter with members of that circle of five. From then on, he met with them regularly during his visits to that city.

A severe critic

One member of “The Mighty Handful” would play an especially important role in Tchaikovsky’s career: Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, the group’s founder and leader. In August 1869, he suggested to Tchaikovsky that he should compose a concert overture based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. After the work was already with the copyist and a date had been set for the premiere, Tchaikovsky sent parts of the score to Balakirev for his approval. The latter thanked him profusely, then offered his unsparing criticism: he didn’t care at all for the opening melody of the introduction – “It conveys neither strength nor beauty” – while the main musical idea struck him as a “beautiful introduction” rather than a proper theme. Only the secondary subject did he find “simply delightful”.

The overture’s premiere, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein at a Russian Musical Society concert in March 1870, was not the success Tchaikovsky had been hoping for. He proceeded to revise the piece yet again, taking Balakirev’s advice to heart and replacing the introduction’s original theme as well as reworking the development section. Balakirev now expressed his approval but still felt the coda could be stronger and less conventional. In his second revision, in 1880, Tchaikovsky found the definitive ending for Romeo and Juliet, and in this form, the composition soon took the concert halls of the world by storm.

A tragic love

Following the established concert-overture form comprising introduction – sonata movement – coda, Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overture depicts the elements giving rise to the tragic conflict rather than Shakespeare’s actual story line. On one side are the feuding families of Capulet and Montague, whose fury and mutual hatred are expressed in the main theme in B minor with its aggressive 9ths, agitated semiquaver (16th-note) runs and oscillating quaver (eighth-note) chords. On the other side are the lovers Romeo and Juliet, whom Tchaikovsky characterizes with a thematic complex of their own: the tender melody heard on violas and cor anglais (English horn) describes the two lovers’ melancholy as well as their infinite longing. A further motif assigned to the couple is the rocking string figure which follows on from Romeo’s theme and symbolizes the lovers’ whispers. Tchaikovsky said this “cooing” was inspired by a Russian children’s song.

A futile confrontation

Tchaikovsky thus presents the clash of two opposing worlds: the belligerent realm of the feuding families set against the intimate universe of the lovers – irreconcilable in emotional content, widely apart in tonality (B minor and D flat major). And yet, he draws on some of the same material for both antagonists: for example, the ascending and descending minor 3rd, which is structurally important in both themes; and the rocking chord progression also found in the main and secondary ideas attains a distinctive colour in each solely through varied harmony.

A further important element is the chorale theme that begins the introduction. It belongs to the lovers’ confidant Friar Laurence and appears in the introduction in three different musical guises: as a suggestion of liturgical chant intoned by clarinets and bassoons, as a woodwind choir highlighted by a swirling accompanimental figure on the cellos, and finally as an anxious plea cloaked in menacing string tremolos. The friar’s theme is brought back in the development and becomes the “adversary” of the Capulets’ theme. The two lovers are represented in the development only by their “cooing”, while in the recapitulation Romeo and Juliet’s yearning melody is again given full scope – overwrought, rapturous and exclaimed by the full orchestra. But the Capulets’ theme puts a sudden end to their bliss, and the overture ends with a coda suggesting the implacable rhythm of a funeral march. We hear the lovers’ melody once more before the work closes abruptly with harsh, heavy syncopated chords.

Nicole Restle

Translation: Richard Evidon


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1869
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, 1860
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)