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Composed: 1869, revised 1871 and 1880
Length: 22 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 18, 1921, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

Russian composers in the 19th century showed a remarkable aptitude for collaboration, which was the obverse to their equally remarkable capacity for forming cliques and factions. The famous “Five” were bonded by a shared determination to create a new and original style of music that would be manifestly Russian in character, and they acknowledged the leadership of Balakirev, even though he was neither the oldest nor the most experienced of the group.

Tchaikovsky maintained a profitable relationship with the group of Five, although he was never part of it. Unlike them, he was prepared to acknowledge the richness of foreign music, especially that coming from Italy and France. At the same time he was, at least in his early years, under the spell of Balakirev’s guiding spirit. It was Balakirev who suggested to Tchaikovsky, in the fall of 1869, that he should write a tone poem on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and he went so far as to suggest a couple of themes and an overall plan for the piece which Tchaikovsky was happy to use. “A large portion of what you advised me to do has been carried out as you instructed,” he wrote. “In the first place, the scheme is yours: the introduction depicting the friar, the struggle (allegro), and love (second subject). The modulations are yours too.”

The overture is in B minor, Balakirev’s favorite key, and although it cannot be interpreted as a sequential narrative to match the action of the play, the three main elements which Tchaikovsky mentions are easily recognized, building in a symphonic development section to a reprise of the main themes and the tragic dénouement. There is no hint of the Capulets’ ball or of the chattering nurse, but the turn to the major key for the final chords does suggest the reconciliation of the Verona families with which the play also ends.

With or without Balakirev’s help, Tchaikovsky here revealed his full genius in the domain of expressive orchestral writing. No composer had ever offered such gorgeous harmonic sequences as those that connect the first and second statements of the love theme, scored for muted divided strings, nor could anyone miss the pathos of the solo horn’s plaintive falling phrases against the love theme in the winds.

Tchaikovsky later wrote tone poems on two other Shakespeare plays, Hamlet and The Tempest, but neither of them achieved the sweep and drama, not to mention the popularity, of Romeo and Juliet.

- Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.