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Charles Hazlewood on... Romeo and Juliet

Updated Tuesday, 23rd January 2007

The conductor Charles Hazlewood introduces Romeo and Juliet as part of the BBC/OU Discovering Tchaikovsky series.

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Copyright The Open University
Copyright The Open University

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is, I think no-one could argue with this, his great early masterpiece. He wrote a first version of it in 1869 when he was just twenty-nine. Now, I say just twenty-nine because actually he was quite a late starter compared to Mozart, say, who was writing symphonies at the age of eight. Tchaikovsky was a good middle class boy with aspirations, wanting to grow and develop his craft in the early years of his life before he was ready to share it with the outside world. So, Romeo and Juliet is a kind of, a serious watermark, it’s a serious hallmark, it’s a serious watershed, I can’t think of the right word, by which he says here I am.

So, the first version in 1869, a slightly flawed piece to be honest, and it exists, it’s fully published, we delve into it during our workshop just briefly, in order to show how he grew the piece further and developed the ideas further and was able to put some of that at least behind him. He then revised it during the 1870s, and then again in the 1880s, by which time he was in his early forties, then making the final version which is the one that we’re exploring and the one that everyone knows.

Now, when he was starting out with Romeo and Juliet, he was very concerned, he didn’t really know how to get stuck in. It’s such a monumental story of, you know, the tragic consequences of the wrong people, as it were, two people from the wrong sides of the tracks falling in love with each other. How to best sum that up in music, how to create a world of sort of sonorous possibility which, to some extent, identifies with and articulates this particular wondrous story. And in the end, Tchaikovsky being Tchaikovsky and a very brilliant man of theatre I would say, decided to stand back slightly so he’s not reflecting all the details of the plot as it unfolds in Shakespeare’s great masterpiece. He’s rather looking at three fundamental building blocks essentially, and using those as material for exploration and revelation.

So, firstly you’ve got the theme of Friar Lawrence, which is this sort of quasi-monastic, quasi-medieval music, just very simply told in the opening bars of the piece with the clarinets and the bassoons, three simple phrases. And it’s like Tchaikovsky’s looking back at this man that he saw as, I think, something approaching a mystic in a way and, if you remember from Romeo and Juliet, Friar Lawrence is like the interlocutor. He is to some extent, or he attempts to be the healing balm, the kind of join point between the two young lovers and their poisoned families. So very, very simple music to begin with. Again, as I say, quasi-medieval, it’s like Tchaikovsky’s looking back at a very holy man of the very distant past through somewhat romanced 19th century spectacles.

Then the second big building block is the war-like music of the two factions. The Montagues on one side, the Capulets on the other, incredibly pugnacious music; dah-dagada-dah-dah-dah-da-dah. Very, very kind of jagged, disjointed, lots of dissonances in it and some extraordinary kind of Coup de Theatre type moments of orchestration where he just, suddenly he’ll set something up and then he’ll turn it on its head either by giving it a completely differently family within the orchestra or just sort of pitting things against each other. And that’s the brilliant thing that he does later on where he’s got the war-like music and he pits it against Friar Lawrence’s music, so you’ve got this kind of healing balm music, as it were, trying to create some kind of order out of chaos, which is the war-like music.

And then the third and final building block, of course, is the great love theme, and I would say it’s arguably the greatest, the greatest single theme, the greatest single melody Tchaikovsky ever wrote, which is quite a claim given he was one of the supreme melodists of western music. It’s just one of those themes which is so erotic, it’s almost rude, the way it rises up and then it’s knocked back, and rises up again and then it’s knocked back, and again rises up and it’s knocked back. A sense of the kind of huge, totally kind of single-minded optimism and hope of young love constantly being pushed down by the kind of grim reality of the world but rising again and being pushed down, and rising again and being pushed down. It’s the most wonderfully graphic depiction of adolescent love that I can think of in music.

So, you put all these elements together and then just bathe in Tchaikovsky’s genius at variation, a very Russian quality, taking one little tiny bit of the DNA of one idea, one thematic idea, and putting it in a variety of different kind of contexts, sort of re-clothing it, and then sort of infecting another major idea with elements of one of the other ideas, again, like I said of Friar Lawrence and the war-like music, you know, seemingly music at odds within, you know, within itself somehow coming together and working in a strange way either to create discord, a sense of discord, or to create a sense of unity. It is a totally beguiling piece of music.





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