Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ‘Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy’: A Forbidden Love

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful, symphonic poem-like work that encapsulates the tragic love story between Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This piece of programme music went through three stages of being re-drafted and manipulated by Tchaikovsky until the version that is catalogued today was premiered in 1886. Tchaikovsky’s admiration for Shakespeare is seen through the basis of some of his other musical works, such as The Tempest and Hamlet. The idea of basing this new composition on Romeo and Juliet came from an older friend of Tchaikovsky, Mily Balakirev. Interestingly as well, Tchaikovsky branded this work as an Overture-Fantasy, rather than a symphonic poem, which may have been to sound less pretentious (though one can not prove this) or it may have been to style the piece differently. Saying all of this though, the basis of the work is essentially a symphonic poem in sonata form, though styled as an overture-fantasy.

Though in sonata form, the piece embraces a slow introduction at the beginning of the piece, which is primarily led by clarinets and bassoons. This opening phrase is delicate, steady and a wonderfully whimsical opening to this fantastic work. The simple melody played is based on a motive which is reminiscent of a Russian canticle. The parts here are doubled so you can hear the low, woody tones of the clarinet and the bassoon as well as the octave contrast above, which seamlessly rises above the dark colours created below. One thing I certainly admire about this work is the fact that Tchaikovsky doesn’t just write a linear piece of music, merely outlining the story of Romeo and Juliet. Instead he takes three main themes and uses them as the basis of different sections of the work. So the first is based upon the saintly figure of Friar Lawrence, to which Tchaikovsky names the section ‘Friar Lawrence’s Piety.’ The beautiful initial wind entry is matched by an equally exquisite string entry which is then developed into a larger orchestrated section, which really emphasises the harp and flute parts. This development is headed by some wonderful arppregiated chords from the harp contrasting with the high register played by the flute. This somewhat foreboding section of the work then moves to a pizzicato section, where you can hear a descending theme from the strings which really keeps the section moving along. A previous harp theme is heard again, which essentially leads us into a new section which is dominated by the strings playing a tremolo sequence. A much more unified passage is heard, with the strings in unison and the winds in unison. A call and response passage is then played before the tonality shifts once more into ‘Allegro giusto’ section, which also is the start of the next themed section, entitled ‘The Montagues and Capulets Battle.’

The tempo is much faster and the vigorous playing from all the parts really gives an extreme contrast from the slow introductory section. This fiery syncopated rhythm is essentially the first subject within the work, and its purpose is to suggest Romeo’s defiant temperament. The tumultuous and frankly impassioned figures played by the strings really gives an excitable feel to the section, and also gives a rolling feeling, as if the piece is quickly moving through the theme. The winds play syncopated beats to accompany some of these passages, which emphasises how important strength is within the piece. The orchestra then come together which is incredibly powerful, which swiftly develops into the second subject which is primarily presented by the violas and cor anglais. The strings (muted) play an epilogue on top of this melody, which then develops around the orchestra. This theme is, in its basic form, the basis of the very famous theme that everybody knows and loves from this piece. However, that theme doesn’t fully develop until the recapitulation section of the work. After this highly romantic theme is manipulated somewhat, we move back to the fiery Romeo theme which also acts as the development section within the sonata form structure. The first horn theme and the romantic theme are both developed in various ways, both rhythmically and harmonically. After a monstrous semiquaver passage is played by the strings its fiery climax leads us into the recapitulation section, which is definitely my favourite section of the work.

The Romeo theme returns, with the orchestra all playing at ff and the brash brass very much being a prominent sound within the mix. This section is the most famous as it has the completely jaw-dropping and passionate romantic theme. This marks the third and final theme that Tchaikovsky uses, and rightly so it is entitled ‘Romeo and Juliet’s Romance.’ This simple theme is played by the orchestra as a unit, which gives it an even bigger impact on the theme it is representing. The luscious strings playing in all the registers makes for a truly breath-taking theme, which is the absolute pinnacle of this work. The romantic theme is interrupted at points by the fiery Romeo theme, but in the end the romantic theme takes precedence, which represents the idea that love conquers all, which is practically the whole idea of the tale of Romeo and Juliet. A chorale-like recap of the slow introductory theme is heard again, which makes a wonderful transition theme into the dynamic ending of the work. With a strong timpani roll, the orchestra play off-beat quaver stabs at the end before all uniting and playing a deep-rooted B minor chord.

I really love this piece of music, it’s so incredibly good to listen to as it takes you on a journey of Romeo and Juliet like you have never heard it before. The work encapsulates not only musical themes, but programmatic themes which act as a developmental and compositional tool for Tchaikovsky. Even after having been rewritten three times, this piece has certainly entered the classical music hall of fame with its romantic melodies and fiery developmental sections. An exciting work which is well worth your listening time, I highly recommend it to anybody, but especially those who are not so hot on your classical music as it is an ideal piece to start your classical music journey on!

Recommended Recordings:

St. Petersburg Kirov Orchestra – Valery Gergiev. This is a wonderful interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and Gergiev is as skilled and controlled as ever in this particular recording

This recording is also great, its taken at a slightly faster tempo.

Antonio Vivaldi ‘The Four Seasons’: Well Weathered Concertos

Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is certainly one of the most well-known works by this baroque composer and indeed in classical music repertoire. This set of four fairly short violin concertos offers musical descriptions of the four seasons, creating an atmospheric and frankly wonderful interpretation of the different seasons. Vivaldi was born in 1678 in Venice and was a composer and virtuoso violinist (which can certainly be heard in his string writing). The Four Seasons was composed around 1720, which was in the middle of Vivaldi’s musical career. The concertos are all instrumented the same – Solo violin, 2 violins, viola, cello and basso continuo. This work includes some incredibly intelligent writing, which was really ahead of its time. Each concerto is three movements long, with a fast-slow-fast structure, though the concertos are separate pieces and do not segue into one another, though usually they are all played in one concert/recording. I will be analysing each concerto in order of how they’re supposed to be performed, so kicking off this seasonal blog is…spring!

Spring or La Primavera (Italian translation) is the first concerto to be heard within The Four Seasons, and it certainly starts off the work in style! The first movement, marked allegro, is perhaps the most well-known movement of the whole work. The unison playing between the solo violin and the first violin really highlights the famous quaver-semi quaver motif. A variation of the main theme is then heard before the solo violin takes the limelight with a quaint, trill-orientated solo over the top of a condensed ensemble below. A compositional feature which you can prominently hear throughout this work is Vivaldi’s use of scalic runs to create an exciting texture within the ensemble. This simple but highly effective compositional tool really brings this movement to life, with all parts being of great importance to the overall texture. A thicker texture follows after the soloistic passage, with all instruments playing in unison on a semiquaver motif. The theme returns again, which acts as a segue into the next solo passage from the principal violin. The use of tremolos and semiquaver patterns contributes to the excitement of this movement, usually leading to a climactic point in the movement, for instance the next solo passage or tutti section. The movement ends with a reprise of the main spring theme with the all parts ending on a held E major chord at the end, which creates a comfortable ending for the movement. The second movement of Spring is marked ‘Largo e pianissimo sempre’ which is quite a change in mood and tempo from the first movement. A slow dotted semiquaver pattern is heard from the violins att he beginning before the lyrical solo violin line enters in bar 2. This theme is very slow, flowing and delicate, and it really highlights the solo violin as all the interest is within that part. This movement is rather short, and is fairly similar in tone throughout and it acts as a sigh of relief between the two faster-paced movements its sandwiched between. So finally, the third movement is another very well-known piece of music, with the opening 12/8 dance theme being played very strongly by the upper strings. Vivaldi embraces the solo sections again with this movement, allowing climaxes to be built up between the instruments to suitably set up the soloist. There are many points within this movement where the solo violin plays with a very condensed ensemble underneath, for instance the first solo passage is only scored for basso continuo and soloist. The compound-time main theme returns in varied forms throughout this bouncy movement, ending the whole piece on a strong E major chord.

Summer or L’estate, is the second concerto in this collection, and it definitely is my favourite concerto of the four. Written in 3/8 time, the first movement starts off fairly slowly, where a delicate quaver-semiquaver motif is heard. The parts are in unison at this point, and it really emphasises the idea of unity and togetherness in contention with the season. This soon ends though when the Allegro sections begins at bar 31. A fiery semiquaver pattern is played by the soloist which is accompanied by the continuo part, which makes it all the more exciting when the other parts join in to create a luscious, thick texture by bar 49. The excitement, for me, comes from Vivaldi’s interesting use of variation. The main ‘theme’ is essentially pushed and pulled around within varying rhythms to create a new effect for the listener. So for instance the use of semiquavers, dotted semiquavers and triplets all highlight Vivaldi’s use of rhythmic variation within this movement. The semiquaver patterns in the home stretch of this movement is just so thrilling as all parts are vital and have technically demanding parts. Interestingly though, all parts end on a concert G, which does highlight the tonic of the piece, however, its intriguing that Vivaldi left the piece in such an open way. The second movement, once again, is incredibly short and is marked adagio. Its an absolutely beautiful movement with the soloist really being shown off with a simple, yet effective melody over the top of delicate dotted rhythms being played below. This fluid theme is interrupted by a short presto section which is played by the whole ensemble on a concert Bb. This semiquaver interruption is essentially used to highlight this harmonic shift from the first movement, though the effect it has on the movement is incredibly strong. The third and final movement of Summer is my favourite movement just because it has a fiery nature that is not only gripping but incredibly thrilling to listen to. Playing in unison once more, the ensemble play a semiquaver-tremolo pattern which is very quick. This movement is technically very demanding and it requires the utmost concentration from the players due to the varying call and response features and quick-paced scalic movements Vivaldi has written. The contrast from fully orchestrated sections to the soloist on their own has such a large impact on the timbre of the piece, which is why I find it so exciting to listen to.

Autumn or L’autunno is the third installment within this set of music and it starts off with a chirpy allegro motif, based around a simple quaver theme. This movement seems to build up to a more virtuosic part being played by the soloist, with fast scalic demisemiquaver movement and semiquaver triplet rhythms being played. A larghetto section is heard nearer the end of this movement, which offers a nice contrast to the previous allegro tempo. The movement ends though in another allegro burst and then subsequently ending on a strong F major chord at the end. The second movement is an incredibly delicate work that offers an even greater contrast from the previous movement. With all parts muted, the delicate stretto entries at the beginning layer up the texture which creates an exquisite and frankly lovely sound for the listener. The main moving part is the solo part, but the other parts play long notes, merely adding to the texture and timbre of the movement. Before you know it, the movement is over and the third movement prevails with a disjunct melody, based around dotted semiquaver movement. This movement is another prime example of Vivaldi’s use of fast-paced melodic lines and the theme of unifying the instruments by writing them in unison. The main theme is repeated in different ways once more, and then this concerto ends on a solid F major chord, which provides a suitable stability for the end of this work.

Winter or L’inverno is the fourth and final concerto within The Four Seasons and it certainly is an exciting set to end on! Starting with a timid repeated quaver pattern, which sets up a fairly thick texture. Then interjections from the soloist appear, which really contrasts with the laid back ensemble effort beforehand. This loose call and response theme happens for the first section of this movement and then Vivaldi moves into a more unified way of writing (surprise surprise!). A then very familiar theme is played by the whole ensemble, which is the famous semiquaver motif. Vivaldi uses tremolos a lot in this movement to heighten tension which subsequently make the movement as a whole a lot more exciting! The second movement, marked largo, follows suit of Vivaldi’s other slow movements in this set, as it puts emphasis on the soloist melody line. Accompanied by slurred semiquaver movement, the solo line is an extended melody that is truly a treat to listen to. Once again this movement is very short so we have finally made it to the last movement of Winter. This last movement starts with the soloist playing a repeated semiquaver motif, which leads into a tutti section which is full and stable to listen to. I do find that this movement has the most virtuosic lines for the soloist, which is an exciting prospect in itself! The movement ends with all the parts of the ensemble playing in unison until the end chord, which really emphasises the strong writing skill of Vivaldi.

The Four Seasons are a great collection of short concertos that are still incredibly famous even today. They are a staple of baroque and chamber music, and I am sure they will be enjoyed for many centuries to come!

Recommended Recordings –

This has always been my favourite interpretation of The Four Seasons. Nigel Kennedy is the soloist – enjoy!