THE STORY BEHIND: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet

On February 14 & 15, cellist Johannes Moser will join Tania Miller, the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra for a romantic Valentine’s Weekend program.

THE STORY BEHIND: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet

Title: Romeo and Juliet: Overture-Fantasy

Composer: Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

Last time performed by the Rhode Island Philharmonic: December 7, 1991, with Marin Alsop conducting

Orchestration: The piece is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, four bassoons, two horns, three trumpets, tuba, harp, timpani, percussion and strings.

The Story: 


Peter I. Tchaikovsky


During the Romantic era, Shakespearean plays captured the imagination of several major composers. This tendency was felt not only in the opera house, but also in the concert hall. In the late 1830s, Berlioz had composed a “dramatic symphony” based on Romeo and Juliet, and in 1869, Peter I. Tchaikovsky turned his hand masterfully to a programmatic orchestral piece based on that famous tragedy.

The subject was suggested to Tchaikovsky by his friend and sometime mentor, Mily


Mily Balakirev

Balakirev, who had composed an overture to King Lear some years earlier. After the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture in March 1870, the composer revised the work, incorporating some further advice from Balakirev. He replaced the original rather dull “Friar Lawrence” theme with a hymn-like passage “having an ancient Catholic character.” In 1880, the composer again made some revisions, notably a complete replacement of the ending.

Tchaikovsky’s music does not depict the events of the play. Rather, the main themes represent the principal characters and ideas. In order of appearance, these are Friar Lawrence, the feud of the Capulets and the Montagues, and the love of Romeo and Juliet.


Friar Lawrence at Capulet by James Northcote

After a lengthy introduction based on the Friar Lawrence theme, the main Allegro giusto introduces the fiery, rhythmic thematic complex symbolizing the feud. Ultimately, this gives way to the long-breathed love theme, sensuously presented by English horn and muted violas. A second love theme, carved out of even notes, is then heard in the strings. Out of this theme derives a steady, panting motive with which the horn accompanies the second presentation of the main love theme.

An extensive development section, dominated by the feud motives, incorporates also snippets of the Lawrence and love themes. In the recapitulation, the main love theme receives an extensive treatment, finally reaching heights of exaltation, only to be broken off by the feud theme. Fragments of the Lawrence theme and the panting motive struggle against this intrusion until at last they are overpowered.

The quiet coda is an elegiac cortège. A transformed fragment of the lovers’ theme is sounded above the timpani’s dirge rhythm. Just before the full orchestra’s final somber fanfare, an upward-reaching motive from the love theme plays repeatedly, perhaps implying that though Romeo and Juliet are gone, theirs was a love that transcends death.

Program Notes by Dr. Michael Fink © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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