Romeo and Juliet!
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, bringing thoughts of love and warmth to our cold winter. I can still remember a very special Valentine’s Day several years ago when a handsome guy took me on a helicopter ride and asked me to be his wife. I said yes, of course!
However, the love story we are looking at today is not quite such a happy one, although its longevity has stood the test of time. Romeo and Juliet is arguably one of the most famous plays ever written. William Shakespeare wrote the work at the end of the sixteenth century, and it has continued to fascinate artistic aficionados centuries later.
Artists including Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) and Frank Dicksee (1853-1928) have memorialized the famous balcony scene on canvas. Eighteenth-century actor and playwright David Garrick adapted the work to better appeal to his contemporary audience. The film industry has created multiple versions of the story, including the 1936 film with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer as the star-crossed lovers. The renowned 1968 film adaptation features Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, and of course who can forget Leonarda DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the 1996 version? Only a few years ago in 2013, Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld starred in yet another remake of the epic tale.
Musically, Romeo and Juliet appealed greatly to the 19th-century Romantic sensibility, resulting in phenomenal orchestral masterpieces. Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) greatly admired the literary works of Shakespeare, as well as the musical genius of Beethoven, so when he wrote his symphonie dramatique Romeo and Juliet, he drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s epic depiction of love, as well as Beethoven’s use of vocals in a symphonic work, as evidenced in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (1824). Berlioz first saw David Garrick’s version of Romeo and Juliet in 1827, which inspired him to compose a symphony on the story. A little over a decade later, in 1839, he wrote the symphonie dramatique. Although the work employs vocals, Berlioz admiringly gave the lead characters of Romeo and Juliet to the orchestra, who play the “scène d’amour.”
Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Overture-Fantasy of Romeo and Juliet was first performed in 1870, but underwent much editing for a decade until the Tchaikovsky finished the version we know today. Unlike Berlioz’s colossal work (the entire symphonie dramatique takes about an hour and a half to perform), Tchaikovsky’s is more succinct, only about twenty minutes in length. However, the beauty and power of the work is no less breathtaking. The 1936 movie Romeo and Juliet even incorporates Tchaikovsky’s music into the film.
Composers’ fascination with Romeo and Juliet continued in the twentieth century, with Sergei Prokofiev’s (1891-1953) stunning ballet, premiering in 1935. He derived three orchestral suites from the original ballet, the 2nd of which contains the famous scene between the Montagues and the Capulets, featuring the majestic dotted motif.
In 1957 the musical theater production of West Side Story captured the American audience through its retelling of Romeo and Juliet with relatable themes and a contemporary setting in New York City. The musical was a collaborative effort by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins featuring the volatile relationship between rival gangs the Jets (Montagues) and the Sharks (Capulets). American-born Tony, the contemporary Romeo, and Puerto-Rican Maria, Juliet, fall in love, but the story ends tragically with the death of Tony and a reprimand by Maria to the rival gangs in which she claims that hate killed him. The songs “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “Somewhere” beautifully describe the love of the young couple. The musical was memorialized in the 1961 film. Our own Uptown Violins member Allison Peterson even starred as Maria in a production of the musical!
This Valentine’s Day, take some time to relive your favorite renditions of this tragic love story, whether that be rereading Shakespeare’s original play, listening to Berlioz’ symphonie dramatique, soaking in Tchaikovsky’s Overture-Fantasy, watching Prokofiev’s ballet, or reliving your favorite film adaptation!
Berlioz: “Scène d’amour”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aenKKIgXP0I
Tchaikovsky: Love theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upyQMC-ioKE
Prokofiev: Balcony scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a04IcHI1fFQ
West Side Story: “Tonight”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7xTvb-FAhQ