How Does an Orchestra Talk About Love?
Well, it's difficult. Unless it's about Romeo and Juliet.
One can understand it: When composers want to tell a love story, they usually write an opera. On stage, they let flirt and suffer, marry and die all kinds of couples. Orpheus and Eurydice, Nero and Poppea, Jupiter and Calisto, Elizabeth I and Roberto Devereux, Tosca and Cavaradossi, Violetta and Alfredo, Tristan and Isolde, Mimì and Rodolfo, Pelléas and Mélisande ... and yes, of course: Romeo and Juliet.
The most famous of all lovers has had quite a varied stage career. The most famous versions are those by Bellini and Gounod – and of course Leonard Bernstein's musical «West Side Story», in which the two are transferred from Verona to New York. Largely forgotten, on the other hand, is the earlier Romeo and Juliet opera by Georg Anton Benda (though it had a happy ending!). And the operas by Riccardo Zandonai, Heinrich Sutermeister and Boris Blacher are also very rarely performed.
If love, then Shakespeare
What distinguishes Romeo and Juliet from the other lovers, however, is not their stage presence – but the fact that they appear again and again in symphonic programs. Not that they have been honored dozens of times with orchestral works; love is celebrated in concert halls primarily in the form of hidden love messages. But when symphonists officially turned to amorous subjects: Then it was very often about Shakespeare's couple.
Hector Berlioz, for example. He once saw Shakespeare's play at the Odéon Theater in Paris, fell in love with Juliet (or rather with her actress Harriet Smithson) and composed his Symphonie dramatique «Roméo et Juliette,» a highly individual orchestral work with chorus and three solo vocal parts. Although he did not want to treat this theme as an opera, he could not do without singing.
Prokofiev's «Romeo and Juliet» is not a purely instrumental work either; it was created as a ballet. But nevertheless, the music is played with the greatest regularity in symphonic programs (and the «Dance of the Knights» additionally in every second request concert). This is also the case in the New Year's Eve concert of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, in which three suites from Prokofiev's ballet are combined with another Romeo and Juliet work: Tchaikovsky's fantasy overture «Romeo and Juliet».
Percussion brawl and folkloristic echoes
This is indeed a purely orchestral work, without text, without dance; love and death are exclusively in tones – whereby Tchaikovsky builds up concrete sceneries with chorale-like passages, a percussion brawl, folkloristic echoes and a funeral march.
Initially, Tchaikovsky had thought of writing a Romeo and Juliet opera. That fact that this never happened is perhaps the finest plea for purely instrumental love stories: If a gifted opera composer like Tchaikovsky prefers to pay tribute to Shakespeare's couple orchestrally – then that says a lot about what can be expressed with sounds alone.
Translated with DeepL