Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet (hr-Sinfonieorchester, Andrés Orozco-Estrada)

Conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra) plays Romeo and Juliet, TH 42, ČW 39, an orchestral work composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Open air concert on August 26, 2015 at the shipyard of Wesel, Frankfurt.

Composed in 1869, beetween his 1st and 2nd Symphonies, “Romeo and Juliet” was arguably Tchaikovsky’s first true masterpiece. It was the Russian composer Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev (2 January 1837 [O.S. 21 December 1836] – 29 May [O.S. 16 May] 1910) who gave Tchaikovsky the idea of taking the William Shakespeare’s work and setting it to music. Tchaikovsky was having difficulties writing an opera entitled Undine, which he would eventually destroy. Though he complained, “I’m completely burned out,” Balakirev persisted, as was his manner. Balakirev wrote suggestions about the structure of Romeo and Juliet, giving details of the type of music required in each section, and even opinions on which keys to use.

Balakirev had suggested his own overture King Lear as a model for Romeo.

Désirée Artôt
Désirée Artôt (21 July 1835 – 3 April 1907) was a Belgian soprano (initially a mezzo-soprano), who was famed in German and Italian opera and sang mainly in Germany. In 1868 she was engaged, briefly, to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who claimed she was the only woman he ever loved, and who may have coded her name into works such as his First Piano Concerto and the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. After her 1869 marriage to the Spanish baritone Mariano Padilla y Ramos, she was known as Désirée Artôt de Padilla or Désirée Artôt-Padilla.

In the winter of 1868-69, when he was a 28-year-old professor at the Moscow Conservatory, for the first (and only) time in his life, Pyotr Ilyich fell in love with a woman – the Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt. In 1868 they were engaged, but shortly after, Artôt suddenly brought their relationship to an end and married with the Spanish baritone Mariano Padilla y Ramos. Some claims when Tchaikovsky next saw her on the stage, he wept all evening.

In the mood of love and broken heart, Tchaikovsky was ready to write his own work, while basing Romeo and Juliet on King Lear was Balakirev’s suggestion, reducing the plot of the former to one central conflict and then combining it with the binary structure of sonata form. After the first performance on March 16, 1870, Tchaikovsky revised the work radically twice.

The first version of Romeo and Juliet contained basically an opening fugato and a confrontation of the two themes—exactly what an academically trained composer might be expected to produce. While Balakirev responded to the love theme by writing Tchaikovsky, “I play it often, and I want very much to hug you for it”, he also discarded many of the early drafts Tchaikovsky sent him—the opening, for instance, sounded more like a Haydn quartet than the Liszt chorale he had suggested initially—and the piece was constantly in the mail between Moscow and St. Petersburg, going to Tchaikovsky or Balakirev.

Tchaikovsky accepted some, but not all, of Balakirev’s nagging, and completed the work, dedicating it to Balakirev. The first performance on March 16, 1870 was hindered by a sensational court case surrounding the conductor, Tchaikovsky’s friend Nikolai Rubinstein, and a female student. The court had found against the eminent musician the previous day, and this incited a noisy demonstration in his favour when he appeared on the concert platform, which proved much more interesting to the audience than the new overture. The result was not encouraging as a premiere for Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky said of the premiere:

“After the concert we dined…. No one said a single word to me about the overture the whole evening. And yet I yearned so for appreciation and kindness.”

The initial failure of Romeo and Juliet induced Tchaikovsky to fully accept Balakirev’s criticisms and rework the piece. It also forced Tchaikovsky to reach beyond his musical training and rewrite much of the music into the form we know today. This included the unacademic but dramatically brilliant choice of leaving the love theme out of the development section, saving its confrontation with the first theme (the conflict of the Capulets and Montagues) for the second half of the recapitulation. In the exposition, the love theme remains shielded from the violence of the first theme. In the recapitulation the first theme strongly influences the love theme and ultimately destroys it. By following this pattern, Tchaikovsky shifts the true musical conflict from the development section to the recapitulation, where it climaxes in dramatic catastrophe.

Meanwhile, Rubinstein had become impressed with Tchaikovsky’s compositional talents in general and with Romeo and Juliet in particular. He arranged for the publishing house Bote and Bock to publish the piece in 1870. This was considered an accomplishment since Tchaikovsky’s music was virtually unknown in Germany at the time. Balakirev thought Tchaikovsky was rushing Romeo and Juliet to press prematurely. “It is a pity that you, or rather Rubinstein, should have rushed the publication of the Overture,” he wrote to the composer. “Although the new introduction is a decided improvement, there were other changes I had wanted you to make. I had hoped that for the sake of your future compositions, this one would remain in your hands somewhat longer.” Balakirev closed by hoping that P. Jurgenson would sometime agree to bring out a “revised and improved version of the Overture.” The second version was premiered in St. Petersburg on February 17, 1872, under Eduard Nápravník.

In 1880, ten years after his first reworking of the piece, Tchaikovsky rewrote the ending and gave the piece the sub-title “Overture-Fantasia”. It was completed by September 10, 1880, but did not receive its premiere until May 1, 1886, in Tbilisi, Georgia (then part of the Russian Empire), under Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov.

This third and final version is the one that is now in the repertoire. The earlier versions are performed occasionally as historical curiosities.

There is one movement: Andante non tanto quasi Moderato—Allegro giusto (B minor, 522 bars). The overture is scored for an orchestra comprising piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (in A), 2 bassoons + 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in E), 3 trombones, tuba + timpani, cymbals, bass drum + harp, violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky at the time he wrote Romeo and Juliet. Photo: wikipedia

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