William Shakespeare has been regarded as England’s leading poet and dramatist since the latter part of the 17th century, first in England, and by the end of the 18th century all over Europe.
No single work has inspired as many adaptations as Romeo and Juliet, including parodies, prose and verse adaptations, films, television shows, paintings, and music.
In classical music alone, Romeo and Juliet has inspired a couple of dozen operas, some ballets, and considerable orchestral and choral music.
This post will examine four acknowledged masterpieces, but first, let’s look at some of the earliest of the Romeo and Juliet operas.
Georg Benda’s Singspiel Romeo und Julie (1776) is the earliest of the operas. Like several subsequent operas, it omits most of the characters, even most of the plot, and has a happy ending.
In France, settings by Nicolas Dalayrac (1792) and Daniel Steibelt (1793) enjoyed considerable success, but they did not remain long in the repertoire. Hector Berlioz appreciated Steibelt’s, but of Dalayrac’s he wrote
The other French score bearing the title Roméo et Juliette is almost forgotten today. It was composed—unfortunately for our national self-esteem, by Dalayrac; the author of the execrable libretto had just enough sense not to give his name. It is appallingly flat and stupid throughout and in every way. It seems the work of two idiots who know neither passion, nor sentiment, nor common sense, nor French, nor music.
Two Italian operas, Nicola Antonio Zingarelli’s Giulietta e Romeo (1796) and Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (1830) remained in the repertoire longer, but both are based on Italian sources and not Shakespeare.
Roméo et Juliette by Berlioz
Berlioz first encountered Shakespeare in 1827, when he saw a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Odéon Theater in Paris.
Although he did not understand English, he grasped the outlines of the story and its poetry and drama.
He also became infatuated with the actress who portrayed Juliet, Harriet Smithson. His obsession with her had three important results.
- He began to compose some instrumental music based on the play, which he later incorporated into other music.
- He composed Symphonie fantastique in 1830, which tells the story of his unrequited love for Smithson.
- Later, he met and married Smithson much to the eventual regret of both.
Also in 1830, he saw a performance of Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, which he despised. He began to sketch his own ideas for an opera on Romeo and Juliet, and they remained in the back of his mind for several years.
When the opportunity came to start composing, he decided instead to compose a choral symphony. Besides a large orchestra, Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette uses two choruses to represent the warring families and three soloists to represent minor characters in the play.
Because he thought that only music, not words, could convey the star-crossed couple’s love, the orchestra alone portrays Romeo and Juliet themselves. He especially decided not to set the balcony scene as a love duet.
After all, operatic love duets were commonplace, but no one had yet attempted to portray love with programmatic symphonic music.
The symphony is based on Shakespeare’s play, but Berlioz set texts by Émile Deschamps, another French Shakespeare enthusiast. Still married to Smithson, he relied on her insights into the play as well as the still-vivid memory of her portrayal. Smithson, by the way, had not performed Shakespeare’s original text, but David Garrick’s 18th-century version.
Roméo et Juliette by Gounod
Like Berlioz, Charles Gounod won the Prix de Rome, which gave him the opportunity to study in Italy.
Unlike Berlioz, he enjoyed his time there and came to love the music of the Italian Renaissance. Also unlike Berlioz, he became attracted to Rome’s Catholic traditions and immersed himself in sacred music.
But like Berlioz, he eagerly devoured the literary works of Goethe and Shakespeare and produced music inspired both of them.
Although Gounod’s Faust notoriously plays fast and loose with Goethe’s masterpiece, his Roméo et Juliette (1867) follows Shakespeare’s much more closely.
It is difficult for modern audiences to appreciate the revolutionary nature of Gounod’s operas. He rejected the Wagnerian concept of opera as a means of telling a story in favor of the older conception of opera as a vehicle for singers. That fact would seem to disqualify him as a modern.
But opera, and French opera in particular, had always treated love as noble sentiment. Polite French society spoke of romantic relationships as involving a man, a woman, and the devil, who encouraged the woman to fall from proper behavior into unacceptable physicality. What they considered diabolical we call erotic.
Gounod and his librettist Jules Barbier wrote a scene in Faust that portrays this diabolical threesome. It would have caused almost any French opera theater to refuse to present it. In fact, almost any French opera theater at the time would have rejected almost any of the works that have come to define the French operatic repertoire.
There was one exception. An impresario named Leon Carvalho and his wife Marie, one of the most successful operatic singers of the day, felt too constrained by the conservative conventions of French opera. When he took over management of the Théâtre Lyrique with his wife as the prima donna, Leon Carvalho attracted like-minded composers, including Berlioz, Gounod and Bizet.
Gounod’s Faust became one of the Théâtre Lyrique’s greatest hits. Gounod and Barbier followed Faust, which has only one unabashedly erotic scene, with Roméo et Juliette, which they built around five different amorous encounters between the two.
One of the trysts represents the opera’s most important digression from Shakespeare’s play: they invented a new wedding scene. This structure results in perhaps the most extensive collection of love duets in any single opera.
Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture by Tchaikovsky
Peter Tchaikovsky wrote his Romeo and Juliet at the suggestion of Mily Balakirev in October- November 1869. He had a special attraction to stories of doomed love, perhaps because of his own tormented personal life.
He was in love with one of his student’s cousins, Eduard Zak, a 15-year-old boy.
At the same time, he was attracted to a woman for the only time in his life. She was a Belgian soprano named Désirée Artôt. When she decided to marry someone else instead, Tchaikovsky was crushed.
Balakirev hovered over Tchaikovsky, micro-managing the composition of Romeo and Juliet. He even proposed a key scheme and provided some music to demonstrate how he would write the piece himself. His comments combined praise with criticism.
For example, he pronounced the love theme “simply delightful,” but then complained that it portrayed “only a passionate physical languor” instead of a more spiritual love.
Tchaikovsky enjoyed the praise thoroughly enough to be more stimulated by the criticism than irritated. As he worked, he became both more imaginative in his conception of the play and more confident in his thematic material.
The audience greeted the first performance of Romeo and Juliet in 1870 with indifference. During the summer, Tchaikovsky revised it drastically. He cut some passages that had been inspired by Berlioz’ music and rewrote the introduction.
These revisions resulted in most of the present structure. After the introduction, the main theme represents the warring families, and the second rapturously depicts the love between the two young people.
Unlike a well-behaved sonata form, the second theme is not allowed to finish the structure. It is rudely interrupted by the family feud.
Tchaikovsky composed the present coda, with the love theme presented somberly in a minor key before its triumphant ending, ten years later. This third version is the masterpiece we know today.
Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev fled Russia after the October. He spent time in France, England, and the United States before returning to the Soviet Union in 1936.
During his exile he had two opportunities to work with with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and choreographers Léonide Massine and George Balanchine.
Although he composed only a few one-act ballets, the collaboration gave Prokofiev a thorough understanding of dance music.
And so when he decided to write music based on Romeo and Juliet, he became the first composer to attempt a ballet.
Prokofiev developed the scenario with the help of Sergei Radlov, director of the Kirov Ballet and an experienced director of Shakespeare plays. They decided to have Romeo arrive at the end early enough to find Juliet alive.
Why did they decide to provide a happy ending for such a well-loved tragic play? Prokofiev later wrote, “The reasons for this bit of barbarism were purely choreographic: living people can dance, the dying cannot.”
Prokofiev completed most of the music in 1935, before he moved back to the Soviet Union. No sooner was the music finished than the complications began. Radlov abruptly resigned from the Kirov, which promptly reneged on its contract to produce Romeo and Juliet. The Bolshoi Ballet agreed to produce it, but quickly backed out.
The Bolshoi complained that it was impossible to dance to Prokofiev’s music. It also objected to the happy ending. Prokofiev conferred with choreographers and discovered a way to express the tragic ending with dance.
It is no coincidence that the Bolshoi’s rejection of Romeo and Juliet coincided with the proclamation of the Zhdanov Doctrine. Soviet ideology demanded folk elements and happy endings, which the original version had.
It also forbade any elements of Western European “formalism,” which the music of Prokofiev and nearly every competent Soviet composer had in abundance. The government subjected Prokofiev, along with Shostakovich and Khatchaturian, to sustained humiliation.
After changing the ending, Prokofiev still couldn’t arrange to have the ballet performed in Russia. The premiere took place in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1938. During the time it appeared that he could never achieve a performance of the ballet, he derived ten piano pieces and two orchestral suites of seven numbers each from the ballet’s 52 different numbers.
Prokofiev did not arrange the suites in the order in which the pieces occur in the ballet. He selected movements for an entirely musical logic of coherence and contrast. The suites quickly became staples of Russian concert orchestras. The Kirov eventually presented the entire ballet in 1940. Prokofiev later compiled a third suite for orchestra.
In one form or another, Romeo and Juliet quickly became Prokofiev’s most loved music.
Berlioz, Hector. The Art of Music and other essays = A traverse chants, translated by Elizabeth Csicsery-Rónay. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994.
Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet / Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra program notes.
Sweet Melody: Gounod’s “Faust,” ” Romeo and Juliet” and the Théâtre Lyrique / Opera Warhorses
Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy / Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra program notes.
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture / Michael Steinberg, San Francisco Symphony program notes.
Program notes: Sergei Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet / New Mexico Philharmonic
All images are public domain.