Shakespeare400: Romeo and Juliet in Classical Music

Shakespeare’s famous story of a pair of star-cross’d lovers has sparked countless retellings on stage, on screen, and in the concert hall. Ahead of our performance of excerpts from Prokofiev’s musical version on Friday 15 April as part of our Shakespeare400 celebrations, we have had a look at some of the pieces of classical music that has been inspired by Shakespeare’s tragic romance, Romeo and Juliet.

 

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Berlioz, Roméo et Juliette - Symphony

The 19th century saw an increased interest in Shakespeare’s plays and this in turn made its way into musical performance. Composers soon became fascinated by the idea of adapting Shakespeare’s work into musical idioms. Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette was first performed in 1839 and used a mixture of symphonic structure and opera to portray the story. Berlioz had been inspired to compose the piece after attending a performance of the play in London. Harriet Smithson, who was playing the part of Juliet, moved the composer so much that he instantly fell in love and married her (despite not speaking much English) – a real pair of star crossed lovers!

Romeo and Juliet Berlioz Love Scene

Gounod, Roméo et Juliette - Opera

Gounod’s opera, Roméo et Juliette, was first performed in 1867 and was so popular that a parody was performed soon after, entitled Rhum et eau en Julliet (Rum and Water in July). Juliet’s tuneful aria, ‘Je Veux Vivre’ remains a popular pick for sopranos today.

Romeo and Juliet Gounod Je Veux Vivre

Tchaikovsky, Romeo i Dzihuletta - Fantasy Overture

Having already composed pieces based on Hamlet and The Tempest, Tchaikovsky’s version of Romeo and Juliet was composed as a single orchestral movement and used themes to represent the distinct characters. Friar Laurence is introduced in a chorale-like passage, followed by agitated strings representing the warring Montague and Capulet families, then finally we can hear the infamous love theme of Romeo and Juliet that has become a popular trope used in films and TV programmes: from The Jazz Singer to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – even to Sesame Street!

Romeo and Juliet Tchaikovsky Love Theme

Prokofiev, Romeo i Dzihuletta - Ballet

Initially intended for the Kirov Ballet, Prokofiev’s version of Romeo and Juliet was first conceived in 1935, but wasn’t performed until 1940. Nowadays, Prokofiev’s ‘Dance of the Knights’ may be more widely known as the theme from The Apprentice. Prokofiev’s score is filled with rage and drama - interesting since Prokofiev originally intended for the ballet to have a happy ending!

Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev Dance of the Knights

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Listen to our Romeo and Juliet in Music spotify playlist.

Don’t miss our performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet on Friday 15 April, following our performance of de Falla’s The Three-cornered Hat and Rodrigo’s Fantasía para un gentilhombre, conducted by Jaime Martín.

Also on the day: At 6.00pm at our free pre-concert talk, Gordon McMullan and colleagues set out to dispel the infamous myths of Romeo and Juliet.