Romeo and Juliet
(Ромео и Джульетта)
Duet scene for a projected opera based on Shakespeare's drama (?1878–81).
In 1878 Tchaikovsky had an idea for an opera based on Shakespeare's tragedy. "You know that I am presently engaged on something which I have thought about for a long time", he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck on 23 May/4 June 1878. "'This evening in Kiev, while my sister and Modest were being introduced to Rossi, I was left to look after the children, and I read to them from Romeo and Juliet, which they saw at the theatre. Suddenly. the idea came into my head to write an opera on this subject... I am not put off by the operas by Bellini and Gounod. In these Shakespeare is corrupted and distorted beyond recognition. Don't you find that this magnificent, archetypal drama is admirably suited to music? I have already talked about this with Modest. He is worried by the magnitude of the task... The scenario to this opera will require much thought, and I would have to dedicate all my efforts to this" .
On 25 May/6 June 1878, in a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer set out a detailed description of the characters in his future opera : "I will be writing Romeo and Juliet. All your objections evaporate before the enthusiasm with which this subject seizes me. This shall be my definitive work. It’s funny how until now I hadn't seen how I was truly destined to set this drama to music. Nothing could be better suited to my musical character. No kings, no marches, and none of the encumbrances of grand opera—just love, love, love And how delightful the secondary characters are: the nurse, Lorenzo, Tybalt, Mercutio. Please don't fear monotony. The first love duet will be completely different from the second. In the first all will be bright and clear: love. unstoppable love. In the second—tragedy. From being children full of innocent love, Romeo and Juliet have become people, loving and suffering, caught up in tragic, desperate love. I want to set about this as soon as possible" .
Tchaikovsky also wrote about this infinitely rich Shakespearian tragedy to Nadezhda von Meck on 13/25 July 1878, again stressing his enthusiasm for it as an opera subject and wanting to preserve "the development of the action as Shakespeare has it, without all the deviations and additions made by Berlioz and Gounod." .
In 1878 Tchaikovsky, busy with other work, did not manage to realize the opera, and he did not refer to the subject for some time. But in the autumn of 1881 the idea of an opera on the subject of Romeo and Juliet once again appears in Tchaikovsky's letters. On 3/15 October the composer wrote to Anatoly Tchaikovsky: "Doubts about the fate of The Maid of Orleans have been like a sharp knife for me during last days in Moscow. But the best way to rid oneself of one task is to embark upon another. and I have been pondering what subject I should choose for a new opera (Mazepa does not please or attract me). After much consideration, I think that my talents would be best suited to that old but always fresh subject—Romeo and Juliet. And so my decision is final: I shall write an opera on this subject. I feel that if I’m painstaking enough it will turn out well, and this will enable me to put The Maid completely out of my mind" .
It was probably at this time Tchaikovsky that made sketches for a scene between Romeo and Juliet, which were found amongst the composer's manuscripts after his death, and published by Sergey Taneyev as a duet for Romeo and Juliet (published by P. I. Jurgenson in 1895). In a letter to Herman Laroche of 9/21 September 1894, Modest Tchaikovsky wrote: "Petia reworked Romeo and Juliet himself, basing it on Sokolovsky's translation (he made pencil notes by the relevant passage in the book), but it had no proper ending so I provided one myself. Moreover I had a say in the final form of the music; though only in trying to preserve the character of the scene, which does not always come over in the translation" .
The notes in the book referred to by Modest Tchaikovsky provide the only evidence for Tchaikovsky's preliminary work on the opera. The notes were made by the composer in Volume III of the complete works of Shakespeare (the 5th scene from Act IIII of Romeo and Juliet). These notes clearly show that Tchaikovsky envisaged not a duet, but a whole scene, since besides Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s nurse also appears. The reasons why Tchaikovsky did not write an opera on Romeo and Juliet in 1881 remain unclear. It is only known that in the autumn of that year Tchaikovsky considered the subject of Luka Antropov's piece Vanka the Steward, based on Dmitry Averkiev's novel Drunken Night, and that initially he had only a little interest of the subject of Mazepa, on which he worked throughout most of 1882 and 1883.
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 129–132
This page was last updated on 14 February 2013