The Reflection of Three Themes from Shakespear’s Play Romeo and Juliet In Peter Tchaikovsky’s Overture


Romeo and Juliet Overture is one of the most significant works by Peter IIyich Tchaikovsky, a prominent Russian composer whose dominated the late 1900s. In 1868, after completing his first symphony and opera, Tchaikovsky composed a symphonic poem dubbed Fatum. It was a dedication to his friend and mentor, Balakirev and he so happened to send it to him to conduct in St.Petersburg. Balakirev was a composer, pianist and great promoter of Russian nationalism through music. Today, he is best remembered for his association with famous Russian composers during his time. It is important to note that the public did not receive well the premier of Fatum, which became a source of worry for Balakirev.

Balikarev’s Reaction

Balakirev wrote a letter discussing the weaknesses of this particular work and encouraging Tchaikovsky to write another piece based on William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo, and Juliet. Balakirev also gave him lots of suggestions on how he should structure Romeo and Juliet, and the type of music that he should use for this play. The performance of the first version of the Romeo and Juliet Overture was in 1869. However, the reception among the general public and music aficionados was mild, further disappointing Tchaikovsky. In 1870, he undertook extensive work that would involve the revision of most parts of the overture as per Balakirev’s criticisms; but the results still did not satisfy him. In 1880, 10 years after completing the second version, Tchaikovsky would return to the Romeo and Juliet Overture piece; and rewrite the ending of the work. For instance, the coda of this new piece was completely new, thus the existence of the Romeo and Juliet Overture in three versions (the last one being the current repertoire)version. This work is considered as Tchaikovsky’s first magnum opus.

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Many experts in the field of music describe Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet piece as an overture-fantasia and it is based on Shakespeare’s tragedy going by the same title. The tragedy centers around two smitten lovers who decide to ultimately commit suicide when the feuding families refuse to approve of their relationship. Like other artists during his time, Tchaikovsky’s inspiration came from Shakespear’s works and would use themes from his works as the basis for his music. Tchaikovsky’s  overture is in one movement and lasts around 20 minutes during the performance. This overture is written for a large orchestra, consisting of a piccolo, two flutes,  two oboes, a French horn, two clarinets,  two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets,  three trombones, a tuba, timpani, percussion instruments, a harp, and strings. The overture is in the form of an extended sonata form, a common feature of music from among European composers. A Sonata form consists of the exposition(first subject, transition, a second subject, codetta), development, Recapitulation(first subject, transition, second subject) and a coda. Three main themes are taken from the storyline detail this piece and will be put under analysis in this paper.

Themes From The Romeo And Juliet Tragedy

The first theme found in this tragedy is the theme of Friar Lawrence’s piety. Friar Lawrence acts as an adviser and a voice of reason to both Romeo and Juliet. Other characters in the play also seem to trust him highly.  The mood in this theme is calm, encouraging and uplifting. However, the atmosphere becomes tense and violent as the story continues. The Friar Lawrence theme is in the Introductory part of this piece (b1-111). Four major ideas come out in this theme. It starts with the first idea, a chorale, played by clarinets and bassoons in the F minor it. The second idea, in the form of a motif in the bass section with a chromatic harmony and repeated in the treble. The third idea is yet another motif that starts at b21, with a new key signature. A rising sequential pattern with a chain of suspensions in the woodwinds, a descending pattern of 3rds in the cellos are involved in this motif. The fourth idea(b28-37) follows immediately in the form of a sequence of sustained chords and with some receiving the accompaniment of harps rising harps and arpeggios.

After 3 bars of passage as a link, the chorale theme returns to b41. However, at this time, the theme shifts and is slightly different from the first chorale. It also receives accompaniment from more instruments which include pizzicato strings, among others. The second(b51) and third motifs(b61) then  return respectively. The fourth motif similarly returns with an accompaniment of violins. At b78, the key signature changes, signaled by the stringendo and accelerando modes. The second passage containing a motif follows at b78 in A minor. At b86, a modified form of the chorale theme follows, with the climax appearing at b90. The A minor key then modulates to F sharp major over the next six bars(b97). There is the development of another passage based on the second motif as a link to the first subject of Exposition. The key of B minor begins at b105 and it is played by woodwind and strings section.

The second theme represents the conflict between the Capulet and Montague families. In this section, a loud pulsating 4-bar music is used to represent the strife. As the story darkens, this the music becomes louder and more incessant; ominously interrupting the other theme. Generally, this strong theme does not change throughout the whole piece, perhaps depicting the immovable presence of the feuding families till the end. The location of the theme is the first subject of exposition. The main theme(B1) is played in a tutti and it has strong, syncopated rhythms. Another theme(B2) appears at b115 and has rising semiquaver scales in the violin section. Then a third idea(B3) develops at b120. A passage of development that’s based on a new motif(B4) follows at b122 that’s accompanied by violins and syncopated rhythms. Then, A modified form of A1 is played by woodwind and lower strings in the key of D(b126) and G minor(b130) respectively. Starting from b135, idea A4 reappears and its inversions are played by woodwind and strings; then it modulates to a tonic in B minor. A passage that is based on A2 is then followed by scales in the strings, tonic chords in the wind and brass. At the end of the first subject, A1, A2, and A3 are all played respectively.

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Transition lasts from b161 to b183. A modulating chord progression can be heard at b163, which then modulates to the dominant chord in D major at b164. Materials based on B4 can be heard throughout the rest of transition. In this section, a diminuendo and syncopated chords can be heard in the accompanying chords. At b183, transition rests on the dominant 7th chord in D major.

Lastly, we have the theme of love, which is the most famous part of this work. We find this theme in the second subject of exposition, which has two major ideas. The first idea is the well-known love theme melody (C1), which is played by a French horn and muted violas. The bass line of this melody is provided by the bassoon, pizzicato cellos, and the double bass section. After the end of the first melody, the second love theme melody (C2) starts at b194, with the sound of a soft chord progression played by muted string in D flat major. A chromatic harmony and crescendo swiftly follows and develops into a modified form of the first love theme melody. The woodwind section then plays the melody with quaver movements in the strings and the motif in the horn section. The climax is achieved at b234, which is followed by a rapid diminuendo for a repeat of the first love theme melody at 235.

After the end of the second subject of Exposition, the codetta lasts from b243 to 272. In this section, a chordal figure is played by the harp in chromatic harmonies; an expansive melody from the bassoon and English horn then follow. It is also noteworthy to mention the many augmented 6th chords are involved in the whole codetta.The development follows at b273, which is very similar to the First Subject. The main motifs used include B1, B2, and the Chorale theme. A dramatic climax is reached at b335 where two trumpets play the Chorale theme in unison and fragments of A1 are played by the rest of the orchestra. A repeat of b143-150 follows, then leads to the recapitulation. The recapitulation starts with the return of B1, B2, and B3 respectively. Semiquaver scales can also be heard from the violins, which give the music an unsettling atmosphere. A gradual crescendo follows as C1 appears in the key of D major. This crescendo continues as C1 undergoes further development until a massive climax is reached at b410. Then the development continues again with B1. Another climax is reached at b436 after a long and gradual crescendo with more materials from the first subject starting at b446; this section ends with more emphasis in the bass instruments on a dominant note(484). A fortissimo on the timpani at 482 can be heard clearly, representing the death of the two lovers.

The last section of Romeo and Juliet Overture is Coda(b485-522). The first part of Coda is similar to a funeral march(b485-493). With repeated pizzicato Bs in the double bass and an insidious drumbeat from the timpani being heard at the same time. In addition to this, the strings play the famous love theme melody. A sad Chorale(b494-509) is then played by the woodwind with an inversion of the B3 motif. The theme of love is depicted at the last time(b510-518) with a chromatic bass line and syncopated chords from the woodwind section. B major chords are repeated multiple times at the end of this work, which resonates with the B minor chords at the beginning. At this moment, the atmosphere is solemn and mournful, which is entirely converse to the one at the beginning. David Brown, a music scholar on Tchaikovsky, describe the ending of this work in the as “… a succession of fierce tonic chords that harshly recalls the fatal feud in which two young lives were broken; the warring families now stand transfixed, the repeated chords no longer suggesting at the end of the introduction, an imminent explosion of ferocious strife is heard..”

It is very clear that the three sections of this work present the three themes musically: the Friar Laurence, strife, and famous love theme. Tchaikovsky uses various techniques, dynamic and instrument to present the themes in order to evoke different emotions from the audience. Tchaikovsky makes a deliberate effort to bring popular evocations that previous Shakespearean repertory to light through music. It is worth noting that Tchaikovsky makes no effort in tracing the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet, but instead uses music for this purpose. The focus in Tchaikovsky’s overture has the three elements found in the drama as it’s epicenter. The long introductory segment, for instance, serves the purpose of conveying a sense of spirituality that is resigned that goes hand in hand with Friar Laurence’s overall demeanor. The love that these two lovers share is represented by the soaring melody that dominates the whole overture.

It is remarkable how Tchaikovsky chooses to present a number of moods and characters with contrasting musical melodies instead of presenting the events in the play in the order of their occurrences. In the opening segment of the piece, a serene bassoon, and clarinet play a melody that is meant to signify the presence of Friar Laurence, a friend, and ally to the two. The music soon shifts to a rather chaotic them, suggesting the violence that exists between the Capulet and Montague families. Tchaikovsky is always introducing the soaring theme melody that represents the love that exists between these two lovers as the musical work of art progresses from love, violence and finally to the sense of urgency reprised in a minor key that signals their approaching deaths. The conclusion piece contains Friar Laurence’s theme that is quite melancholy (he arrives late in the play and is unable to prevent the two suicides).

Everything about Tchaikovsky’s `work of art is intriguing to the audience, to say the least. The overture is written in a sonata form which is quite uncommon.Tchaikovsky also gives his work a name(Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture) that would most certainly encourage more listeners to use their imagination in regard to the events and personalities that are found in the play. As mentioned earlier, Tchaikovsky decided to dedicate the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture to his friend Balakirev because it was him who gave him the confidence that he lacked to compose this piece in his own style. It was this confidence that was responsible for the productivity that Tchaikovsky exhibited in the coming years. All the musical themes found in Tchaikovsky’s work, Romeo and Juliet, have a direct connection to the characters that are found in Shakespeare’s play. The musical theme also clearly express situations, personalities, feelings and relationships.

Tchaikovsky was also very careful when choosing the arrangement of the themes in his work. The introductory theme, for example, was a chorale that sounded tranquil together with the peaceful atmosphere it brought and was specifically chosen to portray a great sense of unease and tension. The subject in the first theme of overture involving strife portrays the bickering that can occur between opposing families and the effects it may have on development. Tchaikovsky also does a good job at harnessing the power of the theme of love with great results. The repetition of the melody, signifying the love that exists between Romeo and Juliet, is an indication that it would endure till the end. Additionally, the choice of instruments used was solely meant to evoke certain emotions from the audience. For instance, harp chords that are normally played to herald peace are played during the funeral of the two lovers. During the end of the overture, the syncopated B major chords that are played in the last four bars are meant to create a hint of the unease that was yet to come. All was not well with the two families that were left behind.

It was this sweeping and lush work that was written in 1869 that set a kind of standard in the notion of what the public referred to as love music. It is evident from the composition that Tchaikovsky did not want words in his version of the Shakespearean tragedy, but only wanted a series of instrumental music as felt that words were too limiting for his form of expression. Other experts in Tchaikovsky’s works are of the opinion that the overture represents a love duet that contains occasional interruptions. A beautiful story of two lovers was thus responsible for inspiring a composer. Love was responsible for the creation of this masterpiece, thus showing the profound effect that love has on the society and people’s lives and the decisions that they make during their lifetime.

There are various instances I the overture where there are overt signs being given by the symbols available. The Engish horns that are played represent Romeo while Juliet is represented by the various flutes. Tchaikovsky was a typical classical composer who spent nearly 20 years to complete his work. His version of Romantic music was more concerned with the expression and fantasy part as opposed to the structure of the music he was making.  From his use of themes that are inspired by characters from Shakespear’s indicates that he was a Romantic composer who was capable of implementing the use of a great orchestra imaginatively. Furthermore, the use of beautiful melodies that are lyrical in nature with contrasting textures, tempos and keys (Brown). The creative use of classical structures that are expanded and unexpected keys also serve to improve the beauty of the overture.

The final product of Tchaikovsky’s composition was an all-inclusive form of music that encompassed the themes of turmoil, love and dark tomblike town passages.

Tchaikovsky tries to relate a tale of two children that are full of innocent love who are now caught up in a desperate, tragic love (Wright 254). Daring to love, and to love truly and purely becomes their only crime, firing Tchaikovsky’ imagination that led him to equally compose an overture that was far from being ordinary. It did not follow the initial arrangement of the themes in the original work and did not include any lyrics in the music that he wrote. He was also successful at capturing the tension and the overall drama that found in the play in a one-of-a-kind way. His novel approach in composing this intricate work of art was able to turn a simple popular play into a symphonic poem.

What makes this composition interesting to music aficionados is that Tchaikovsky simply decides to translate a Shakespearean play to a linear music narrative. He picks his themes and ideas from the plot of the story and is able to brilliantly illustrate them in color. Tchaikovsky does a good job at building and maintaining anticipation with his style of adding foreboding music to the begin of the overture. He does not end his musical composition abruptly either or on a down note. There is the presence of an apotheosis towards the end which symbolizes the notion that Romeo and Juliet would continue to live and endure forever in the minds, heart or souls of people. The exist as innocent lovers who paid the ultimate price for loving without bounds and with all that they had. Love prevailed.

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