Where Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet

There are at least two conflicting theories on the context in which Tchaikovsky penned one of his most iconic works: a love for one young Eduard Zak, who later took his own life, or the soprano Désirée Artôt, who ended their relationship to marry someone else. In either case, we have a canvas of a romantic tragedy – the same palette with which Shakespeare painted the tale of Romeo and Juliet. Many composers have been inspired by the play, including Berlioz and Prokofiev, and in Tchaikovsky’s musical retelling we have a love theme that has imprinted itself regally on the classical world and beyond.

Tchaikovsky revised the work twice, with the third version known best to audiences and performers today. The subtitle “Overture-Fantasia” was added only in this final version. Dedicatee Mily Balakirev, a fellow Russian colleague, played a considerable role in these revisions – removing fugal music that was likely inspired by Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet symphony, with the revisions linked to Balakirev’s King Lear overture instead.

There are contrasting views as to whether the opening of the work is simply a lengthy introduction, or whether it features Friar Laurence, advisor to Romeo and Juliet. While the musical material is largely independent, the end fragment of the chorale-like opening appears later on, weaved in as an afterimage within Tchaikovsky’s second depiction of the warring families.

Following this opening are contests between strings and winds, while sharp cymbal crashes, cast cleverly on off-beats, evoke clashes of swords between the Montagues and Capulets. A turbulent flurry of notes from the strings culminates in brilliantly punctuated rhythmic arrests.

These subside as silky strings evoke an aura of romance, and the love theme emerges on a canvas of heartbeats from the horns – an approach of orchestration that seems to be emulated in John Williams’s love theme from the original Superman film. There are no superheroes in this Shakespearean tale, however, and no happy ending either, as the families battle once again.

At the end, the love theme is recast in a minor key, mirroring the play’s tragic end – but Tchaikovsky provides us some hope, in what has been suggested as the two star-crossed lovers uniting in the afterlife, answering Juliet’s immortal question: O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

 – Andrew Filmer

References: programme notes by John Mangum for the LA Philharmonic, Michael Steinberg for the San Francisco Symphony, and Classic FM.

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