Tchaikovsky: “Romeo and Juliet” Overture
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”
November 2020 at 7:30 p.m
Program Note: “Night of Tchaikovsky”
“Romeo and Juliet” Overture
Romeo and Juliet, TH 42, ČW 39, is an orchestral work composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It is styled an Overture-Fantasy and is based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Like other composers such as Berlioz and Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky was deeply inspired by Shakespeare and wrote works based on The Tempest and Hamlet as well.
Although styled an ‘Overture-Fantasy’ by the composer, the overall design is a symphonic poem in sonata form with an introduction and an epilogue. The work is based on three main strands of the Shakespeare story. The first strand, written in F-sharp minor, following Mily Balakirev’s suggestion, is the introduction representing the saintly Friar Laurence. Here there is a foreboding of doom from the lower strings. The Friar Laurence theme is heard in F minor, with plucked strings, before ending up in E minor. The introduction is chorale-like.
A 1870 oil painting by Ford Madox Brown depicting Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony scene
Eventually, a single first inversion B minor chord is passed back and forth between strings and woodwinds grows into the second strand in B minor, the agitated theme of the warring Capulets and Montagues, including a reference to the sword fight, depicted by crashing cymbals. There are agitated, quick sixteenth notes. The forceful irregular rhythms of the street music point ahead to Igor Stravinsky and beyond. The action suddenly slows, the key changing from B minor to D-flat (as suggested by Balakirev) and we hear the opening bars of the “love theme”, the third strand, passionate and yearning in character but always with an underlying current of anxiety.
The love theme signifies the couple first meeting and the scene at Juliet’s balcony. The English horn represents Romeo, while the flutes represent Juliet. Then the battling strand returns, this time with more intensity and build-up, with the Friar Laurence Theme heard with agitation. The strings enter with a lush, hovering melody over which the flute and oboe eventually soar with the love theme once again, this time loud and in D major, signaling the development section and their consummated marriage, and finally heard in E major, and two large orchestra hits with cymbal crashes signal the suicide of the two lovers. A final battle theme is played, then a soft, slow dirge in B major ensues, with timpani playing a repeated triplet pattern, and tuba holding a B natural for 16 bars. The woodwinds play a sweet homage to the lovers, and a final allusion to the love theme brings in the climax, beginning with a huge crescendo B natural roll of the timpani, and the orchestra plays homophonic shouts of a B major chord before the final bar, with full orchestra belting out a powerful B natural to close the overture.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”
The Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s final completed symphony, written between February and the end of August 1893. The composer entitled the work “The Passionate Symphony”, employing a Russian word, Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), meaning “passionate” or “emotional”, that was then mistranslated into French as pathétique, “evoking pity”, yet the mistranslation survived subsequent productions in every country but Russia. The composer led the first performance in Saint Petersburg on 16/28 October of that year, nine days before his death. The second performance, conducted by Eduard Nápravník, took place 21 days later, at a memorial concert on 6/18 November. It included some minor corrections that Tchaikovsky had made after the premiere, and was thus the first performance of the work in the exact form in which it is known today. The first performance in Moscow was on 4/16 December, conducted by Vasily Safonov. It was the last of Tchaikovsky’s compositions premiered in his lifetime; his last composition of all, the single-movement 3rd Piano Concerto, Op. 75, which was completed in October 1893, a short time before his death, received a posthumous premiere.
After completing his 5th Symphony in 1888, Tchaikovsky did not start thinking about his next symphony until April 1891, on his way to the United States. The first drafts of a new symphony were started in the spring of 1891. However, some or all of the symphony was not pleasing to Tchaikovsky, who tore up the manuscript “in one of his frequent moods of depression and doubt over his alleged inability to create.” In 1892, Tchaikovsky wrote the following to his nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davydov:
The symphony is only a work written by dint of sheer will on the part of the composer; it contains nothing that is interesting or sympathetic. It should be cast aside and forgotten. This determination on my part is admirable and irrevocable.
This work was the Symphony in E-flat, the first movement of which Tchaikovsky later converted into the one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto (his final composition), and the latter two movements of which Sergei Taneyev reworked after Tchaikovsky’s death as the Andante and Finale.
In 1893, Tchaikovsky mentions an entirely new symphonic work in a letter to his brother:
I am now wholly occupied with the new work … and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it comes into being as the best of my works. I must finish it as soon as possible, for I have to wind up a lot of affairs and I must soon go to London. I told you that I had completed a Symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.
The symphony was written in a small house in Klin and completed by August 1893. Tchaikovsky left Klin on 19 October for the first performance in St. Petersburg, arriving “in excellent spirits.” However, the composer began to feel apprehension over his symphony, when, at rehearsals, the orchestra players did not exhibit any great admiration for the new work. Nevertheless, the premiere was met with great appreciation. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest wrote, “There was applause and the composer was recalled, but with more enthusiasm than on previous occasions. There was not the mighty, overpowering impression made by the work when it was conducted by Eduard Nápravník, on November 18, 1893, and later, wherever it was played.”