Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture

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Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture

Tchaikovsky softly evokes Friar Laurence and the chants of the cloister in opening his Romeo and Juliet Overture. After modulations and suspensions (notes that may clash but then give way) suggest Romeo’s early feelings about “love [being] a smoke raised the fume of sighs,” we hear a noble, Allegro giusto theme: this is a story of aristocratic families, even if their ancient grudge and “civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” For, by killing Tybalt in a duel, Romeo will be expelled from the city by the prince of Verona. Tchaikovsky’s sword-fighting uses dramatic cymbal crashes.

The “love theme” from Romeo and Juliet is one of classical music’s most timeless melodies. First played by English horn and the viola section, over gentle harmonies, it captures the nature of love: illogical in its construction but still perfect. If you’d never heard it before, it would be hard to sing back! However, the melody has been used in the media as a musical shorthand for love, whether in James Bond (Moonraker), The Simpsons, South Park, Sesame Street – it’s a long list.

Through Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky demonstrates his incredible compositional craft. He returns to Friar Laurence’s theme several times, even in the most dramatic parts of the work, for it is Friar Laurence who marries the star-crossed lovers, and also provides the sleeping potion Juliet uses to feign death the night before her arranged marriage to suitable bachelor, Count Paris. Romeo doesn’t know it is a sleeping potion, and returns to Verona where his life is forfeit. Fighting and slaying Paris at the Capulet mausoleum, Romeo then poisons himself – one hears his heartbeat in the timpani. Friar Laurence discovers the tragic scene as Juliet awakes from the potion, too late.

Over a descending bass line, fragments of the love theme rise heavenward – the coda itself pulls the lovers apart. Only the closing chords can bring them together.

Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Categories: Program Notes