"Famous Lovers: Romeo & Juliet"
MUSIC: Tchaikovsky: theme from Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture performed by the Oregon Symphony conducted by James DePreist [Delos DE 3369, track 3] [under the following]
To me, this is one of the most beautiful, one of the most romantic, one of the most emotional themes ever written by any composer. It is from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. And it reflects the tragic emotions of arguably the most famous love story ever written: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Hello and welcome to Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman, and I’m going to devote the next hour to three pieces inspired by Shakespeare’s tale: those by Berlioz, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. This is the first of two hours I’m dedicating to famous lovers. The second hour will feature music from Tristan and Isolde by Wagner, Orpheus and Euridyces by Gluck, Pelléas and Mélisande by Fauré and Daphnis and Chloé by Ravel.
With these two programs I think I’ll be able to boast that Compact Discoveries has presented more tragic lovers per minute than any other radio series. So get out your handkerchiefs or boxes of tissues, and let’s begin.
MUSIC: fades out
According to the excellent program notes by Harry J. Pack accompanying the Delos CD we are about to sample, Berlioz composed Romeo et Juliette during a period in his career when he was so completely under the spell of the source material, particularly the love scene we are about to hear, that he was barely able to get his tumultuous inspirations onto paper.
The very first impetus for this music, Pack writes, was an 1827 performance of Shakespeare’s play in Paris. Berlioz received a sudden and unexpected revelation which overwhelmed him. Only 24 years old at the time, he found in Shakespeare a kindred soul whose passion, freedom and flexibility of expression matched his own. For him Shakespeare became (quote) “the closest thing to a god that existed.”
Berlioz also became fixated on the attractive Irish actress who played Juliet. This resulted in a long and, for a time, fruitless courtship which produced, together with lots of angst, the Symphonie Fantastique. But the two did finally marry, which turned out not to have been such a great idea after all. According to Berlioz, his wife became (quote) “a jealous untamable shrew” who took to drinking as their marriage fell apart.
Nevertheless, Berlioz remained interested in the story of Romeo and Juliet and finally began serious work on his dramatic symphony five years after his marriage failed. He produced a vast work for orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists.
Let’s listen to the famous love scene now as performed by the Oregon Symphony conducted by James DePreist.
MUSIC: Berlioz: Love Scene from Romeo et Juliette performed by the Oregon Symphony conducted by James DePreist [Delos DE 3369, track 2]
The “Love Scene” from Romeo et Juliette by Hector Berlioz. The Oregon Symphony was conducted by James DePreist.
While Shakespeare’s play inspired a dramatic symphony from Berlioz, Prokofiev responded to the same source material with a ballet. Guess what he called it?
But, according to program notes writer Jonathan Kramer, it wasn’t his idea to compose a ballet based on this tragedy. In fact, when he was first asked to do this, he hesitated. He wasn’t sure that the complex psychological content of the drama could be translated into a wordless medium. In addition, he was concerned because Romeo and Juliet had already been made into operas by 14 different composers, and it had served as the basis for Tchaikovsky’s overture and Berlioz’s symphony.
Yet he decided to go ahead. But when the ballet directors studied the music, they pronounced it impossible to dance, and they canceled their contract with Prokofiev. They also objected to one of the many changes Prokofiev had made in the story: He gave it a happy ending! In his defense, the composer later explained, and I quote:
“In the last act Romeo comes a minute too soon and finds Juliet alive. The reason for taking such barbarous liberty with Shakespeare’s play was purely choreographic,” Prokofiev wrote. “Live people can dance, but the dying can hardly be expected to dance in bed!”
Well, Prokofiev discussed this problem with choreographers and found a way of ending the ballet according to the original play, and he rewrote the music.
Let’s listen to two excerpts from the three suites Prokofiev made from the ballet for concert performance: First a piece called “Romeo and Juliet” from the Suite No. 1; then “Romeo at the Grave of Juliet” from Suite No. 2. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Paavo Järvi on this Telarc compact disc recording.
MUSIC: Prokofiev: “Romeo and Juliet” from Suite No. 1 of Romeo and Juliet performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi [Telarc CD-80597, track 6]
MUSIC: Prokofiev: “Romeo at the Grave of Juliet” from Suite No. 2 of Romeo and Juliet performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi [Telarc CD-80597, track 14]
“Romeo and Juliet” from Suite No. 1 of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was followed by “Romeo at the Grave of Juliet” from Suite No. 2. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Paavo Järvi on this Telarc compact disc recording.
You are listening to “Famous Lovers: Romeo and Juliet” on Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide to tragic love stories, Fred Flaxman.
[optional one-minute break not included in total timing of program]
Our final selection for this hour is Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. According to program notes by Jim Svejda, it wasn’t Tchaikovsky’s idea to write this piece. It was suggested to him by his friend and mentor, Mily Balakirev. Balakirev even went so far as to outline the musical structure of the tone poem for his young admirer. The work was completed in 1869, shortly after Tchaikovsky had enjoyed a tremendous success with his first symphony.
Romeo and Juliet was not an overwhelming triumph at its premiere in St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky wrote afterwards that his piece “had no success here, and was wholly ignored. During the evening no one spoke to me a word about it.”
Now that the work has become so very famous and so widely loved, it is hard to believe this initial reaction. But, in fact, the piece that was played in St. Petersburg that evening is not at all the piece we hear played today. There were two complete revisions. Here is one of those revisions as performed, once again, by the Oregon Symphony conducted by James DePreist from a Delos CD called, appropriately, “Tragic Lovers.”
MUSIC: Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture performed by the Oregon Symphony conducted by James DePreist [Delos DE 3369, track 3]
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. The Oregon Symphony was conducted by James DePreist.
And that brings this hour of Compact Discoveries devoted to “Famous Lovers: Romeo and Juliet” to a close. I hope you enjoyed all the music, and that you’ll join me next time for “More Famous Lovers” when I’ll present music from Tristan and Isolde, Orpheus and Euridyces, Daphnis and Chloé, and Pelléas and Mélisande.
If you missed any of this hour or would like to hear it again, go to www.compactdiscoveries.com on the internet where you’ll find links to stream most Compact Discoveries programs on demand without charge. Look for program number 151. At the web site you’ll also find scripts for every Compact Discoveries program with complete information on every selection. There are some new features there as well, including my lists of recommended orchestral music, concert DVDs, and CDs and DVDs of classics for kids.
This is Fred Flaxman thanking you for listening and for supporting your local public radio station. It is that kind of support which makes the broadcast of this program possible in your community. Production of this program was made possible in part by a contribution from Marvin and Isabel Leibowitz.
ANNOUNCER [Steve Jencks]: Compact Discoveries is a production of Compact Discoveries, Incorporated, a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization located at 36 Pickens Lane in Weaverville, North Carolina, and on the web at compactdiscoveries.com. These programs are distributed to public radio stations nationwide through PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
Program Ends at 59:00
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