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Sweet Sorrow - Sweet Music

Experiences strike sparks in our minds. The more exciting the experiences, the stronger the sparks. For a composer, where those sparks touch tinder, they ignite music - so devastating dramas will cause compositional conflagrations, one good reason why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has inspired, not just much music, but much outstanding music. 

In Prokofiev’s case, “much” is the operative word yet, at around 2½ hours, his brilliant ballet, bristling with musical characterisation, isn’t one second too long. The Dance of the Knights, which sets the Act One “ball” rolling, is far more than a set-piece - it dishes the dirt on the Capulet family, and a rum lot they are! Pompous, grim and aggressive: it’s all there in the booming bass beat and the slashing strings. At the centre, the tremulous flute is Juliet: fragile, vulnerable, isolated - and bullied. 

Berlioz’s “much” was “much time” - from first spark to conflagration took about 20 years, during which time - unusually for him - his initial inclination towards opera contracted to a “mere” dramatic symphony with soli and chorus. As this suggests, it’s a series of “vignettes”, cherry-picking the dramatic highlights. Berlioz brings all his unprecedented expressive powers to bear on the Love Scene, in which the orchestra alone practically tells the tale. Provided, of course, you’re forearmed with the synopsis, you can’t miss the still of the night, Romeo’s fumblings in the undergrowth, light breaking at yonder window, his entreaties, her timidity, their rising passion . . . at which point I’ll discreetly withdraw! 

For Tchaikovsky, the “much” was “much less specific” - and more formal. His Fantasy-Overture weaves the dramatic dichotomy of feuding families (“A”) and star-cross'd lovers (“B”), and their developments, into a loose ternary structure (Introduction-A-B-A-B-A-Coda). Forget the idea that the beginning “suggests” Friar Lawrence. Vague odours of Russian Orthodoxy apart, there’s nothing of the security of religious faith - the music positively drips edgy expectancy. The theme? Simply “A” slowed right down - surely portentous of conflict? If so, it’s a neat symmetry that the coda magically catches the lovers’ tragic fate through its noble, doom-laden transformation of “B”! I even feel that “A” and “B” are actually related. With them having Romeo in common, sowing the thematic origins of the amorous “B” in the feuding “A” would indeed be the musical icing on the dramatic cake. What do you reckon? 

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 2 April 2005

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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