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Tchaikovsky - Fantasy Overture "Romeo and Juliet"
 
“Oh, not that old warhorse again!” I hear the cry. But, I wonder, what exactly is a “warhorse”? The dictionary says it’s “a veteran soldier or politician”, or “a reliable but mediocre writer”. However, it seems to me that musical “warhorses” are rather different animals, being pieces whose very popularity with the common public (that’s us!) has severely diminished their proper impact. In cosy complacency, we tend to lose sight of what fine music they really are (unless, that is, they really aren’t).
 
Several Tchaikovsky pieces fall into this at once enviable and unenviable category. Romeo and Juliet is a classic example, so maybe we should reconsider some of its finer points, to try to get ourselves back on the edges of our seats.
 
Formally, it’s a very straightforward ternary form: Introduction-A-B-A’-B’-A’’-Coda (the ‘ and ‘‘ indicating progressive developments of the materials). The sections are distinct episodes separated mostly by simple pauses or sustained notes, and the A and B episodes seem to stick firmly with their own separate materials. So far, fairly “hack”?
 
However, to be fair, a symphony this is not. This episodic segregation, in a work embracing one of the most impressive musical interpretations of a literary work, purposefully emphasises and underlines the basic dichotomy of Shakespeare’s play: A represents the “feuding families”, while B depicts the “star-cross’d lovers”.
 
Should we question the received wisdom that the Introduction represents the saintly Friar Lawrence? Apart from a vague odour of Russian Orthodoxy, there is nothing at all to suggest the security of religious faith. Instead, the music positively drips tense expectancy. If we listen attentively, aren’t its materials simply those of A, slowed right down? So, isn’t this really a harbinger of the impending conflict?
 
Then again, what about that Coda, where the tragic fate of the lovers is magically caught by a noble but doom-laden transformation of B (a nice symmetry)? Why, I wonder, did Tchaikovsky seemingly sabotage it with that fff drum-roll and parade of loud, sustained or staccato chords? Doesn’t it remind you of the similarly incongruous conclusion of Mahler’s Third?
 
Finally, I suspect that there actually is a relationship between the A and B episodes. Romeo, after all, is the common factor, so it would be very appropriate to the musical drama if Tchaikovsky had sown in the feuding music of A the origins of the love-theme of B. Get onto the edge of your seat and listen hard: what do you think?
 
© Paul Serotsky 1999, 2007


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


 

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