Romeo and Juliet

Tchaikovsky Research

Romeo and Juliet (Ромео и Джульетта) is an overture-fantasia [1] in B minor after Shakespeare's tragedy (TH 42 ; ČW 39), written by Tchaikovsky in October and November 1869, and extensively revised between July and September 1870. The final, definitive version of the score dates from August 1880.


There is one movement:

  • 1st version: Andante non troppo—Allegro giusto (B minor, 448 bars)
  • 2nd version: Andante non tanto quasi Moderato—Allegro giusto (B minor, 539 bars)
  • 3rd version: Andante non tanto quasi Moderato—Allegro giusto (B minor, 522 bars).

The 2nd and 3rd version last around 20 minutes in performance, and the 1st version around 15 to 17 minutes.


The overture is scored for an orchestra comprising piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (in A), 2 bassoons + 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in E), 3 trombones, tuba + 3 timpani, cymbals, bass drum + harp, violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses.


The overture-fantasia is based on characters and incidents from William Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet (ca. 1594).


First Version (1869)

The subject was suggested to Tchaikovsky by Mily Balakirev during the summer of 1869, when the two composers met in Moscow [2].

By October 1869 Tchaikovsky had still not begun to compose the overture. On 2/14 October he wrote to Balakirev: "I did not want to write to you until I had jotted down at least something of the overture. But just imagine: I am played out completely, and not a single tolerable little musical idea will creep into my head" [3].

A letter to Anatoly Tchaikovsky of 7/19 October 1869 refers to "abusive letters" he had received from Balakirev, due to Tchaikovsky's lack of interest in working on the overture [4]. Only on 12/24 October, in a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky, did he announce that he was writing an overture to Romeo and Juliet" [5].

Modest replied that he too had been considering the idea of an overture on the same subject, and offered his own suggestions: "I was extremely surprised to learn that you are writing an overture to Romeo and Juliet, firstly, because I myself, after recently reading this play, composed an overture on it, and secondly, because you, without suspecting it, have fulfilled one of my most cherished wishes [...] Here is the programme of my overture: starting with the conflict between the two families, depicted ff and presto, then little by little out of all the noise and blather (depicting the feud) emerges a divine hymn of love (pp), with the trumpets and cellos depicting the love and character of Romeo, and the violins and flutes—Juliet. Finally, this hymn becomes terrifyingly passionate, and acquires an ominous character as it's interrupted all the time by the first feud theme. Suddenly, all at once, after a terrible ff, there comes a pause and then a sombre phrase which resolves itself into gentle arpeggiated chords" [6]

In a letter to Mily Balakirev of 28 October/9 November 1869, the composer wrote:

My overture is coming along quite quickly; the greater part is already composed in outline and, if nothing happens to hinder me, I am hopeful that within a month and a half it will be ready. When it has emerged from my womb, you will see that, whatever else it may be, a great deal of it has been carried out in accordance with your instructions. In the first place, the overall scheme is yours: an introduction representing the friar; the struggle — Allegro, and love — second theme; and secondly, the modulations are yours: the introduction is in E major [7], the Allegro in B minor, and the second theme in D-flat major [8]. I am absolutely unable to tell you which parts in it are decent, and which are worse.

On 30 October/11 November the composer told Anatoly Tchaikovsky that he had nearly finished the rough draft of the overture [9]. By 18/30 November he reported to Modest that "... the overture you commissioned to "Romeo and Juliet" has been successfully finished, and it will be performed in one of the forthcoming concerts" [10]. The date of the premiere was set for the following March, when Tchaikovsky told his brother that: "The day after tomorrow my overture to "Romeo" is being performed, the composition of which I owe so much to you. There's already been one rehearsal; I don't think the thing's turned out too badly, but then, Lord knows" [11].

Soon after completing the overture-fantasia, Tchaikovsky sent its main themes to Mily Balakirev in a letter of 17/29 November 1869 [12]. In reply, he received a number of critical comments. Balakirev wrote:

The first theme is not at all to my taste. Perhaps when it's worked out it attains some degree of beauty, but when noted down plainly as you've sent it to me, it conveys neither beauty nor strength, and it does not even depict the character of Father Lawrence in the way required. Here there should be a sort of Lisztian chorale in an old Catholic style, similar to the Orthodox [church music] [...] As for the B minor theme you've written out, this is not a theme, but a very beautiful introduction to a theme, and after the C major rushing about there ought to be a strong, energetic melodic idea [...] The first D-flat major theme is beautiful, although somewhat overripe, but the second D-flat tune is simply delightful" [13].

It seems that when they met face to face in early/mid-January or May 1870, Balakirev urged Tchaikovsky to revise the overture in line with his suggestions [14], even though it had not yet been performed.

Second Version (1870)

While staying in Switzerland in the summer of 1870, Tchaikovsky fundamentally revised the overture, as he outlined in a letter to Mily Balakirev, written on 6/18 September 1870 after he had returned to Moscow: "I don't know whether you will be satisfied, but I really cannot make it any better. In my opinion the ending is now respectable; the introduction is new; the middle section almost entirely new, and the recapitulation of the second theme (in D major) has been completely reorchestrated" [15].

In another, undated letter, written between 20 October/1 November and 23 October/4 November 1870, Tchaikovsky wrote: "You wanted an introduction along the lines of the religious passage from "Faust". This hasn't happened, as I wanted in the introduction to represent the soul alone, mentally striving heavenward. Have I succeeded? — I don't know! Perhaps the ending does not fully correspond to your demands, but in any case it is better than before. May God grant that you are satisfied with it. I" [16]. The revised passages had already been orchestrated by Tchaikovsky in Moscow in September 1870.

Balakirev was still not wholly satisfied with the new version. He wrote to Tchaikovsky on 19/31 May 1871: "Although the new introduction is much better, I feel strongly that you need to make further revisions to the overture, and not just to wave your hand at it, and hope for the best in your future compositions" [17].

Tchaikovsky wrote in reply: "I would be glad to revise some more things, but, firstly, it wouldn't make any sense now that these arrangements have been made and the overture has been printed; and, secondly, I really do not have the energy to undertake such revisions. I have now committed myself with all my soul to the composition of my opera "The Oprichniks" and I would not be able to divert my attention from this project for the sake of a work which I have already grown used to regarding as finished" [18].

Third Version (1880)

Tchaikovsky returned once more to his fantasy-overture at Kamenka in August 1880. He introduced further alterations, about which he wrote in letters to Pyotr Jurgenson and Nadezhda von Meck [19]. The changes were confined to only the last 80 bars of the work, of which 34 bars were completely new: the end of the Moderato assai was written afresh (24 bars in the third version) and the coda was completely restructured, to exclude the E-flat major episode.

His reasons for preparing a new version of the symphony were not solely motivated by artistic concerns, since he had long been frustrated that the original German publishers Bote and Bock used Vasily Bessel as their Russian agent, rather than Jurgenson. Tchaikovsky's relations with Bessel had steadily deteriorated over the last few years, due to Bessel's reluctance to publish the full score of his Symphony No. 2 — to the point that Tchaikovsky had recently revised that work as well, in order to ensure its publication.

In 1884, as one of a number of the best works in Russian classical music, the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet was awarded a prize amounting to 500 rubles [20].


In 1880, Tchaikovsky revised the arrangement for piano 4 hands by Nadezhda Rimskaya-Korsakova to incorporate the new ending of the work, although this was only attributed to Nadezhda Rimskaya-Korsakova in the published score [21].


The first version of the overture was performed for the first time in Moscow, on 4/16 March 1870 at the eighth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein. "My overture had no success whatever here, and went completely unnoticed", Tchaikovsky wrote to Ivan Klimenko on 1/13 May 1870 [22]. The audience's attention to the overture on this occasion appears to have been distracted by a legal case involving the conductor [23].

However, Tchaikovsky's new work received strong approval from the composers of the Saint Petersburg Kuchka[24]: "We have been looking over the score of your Romeo and constantly playing it through since the time of our gathering, and all of us are delighted. Stasov is particularly impressed, and said that now our numbers are increased. With regard to its deficiencies, namely its form, the overture still needs revising" [25]. In another, much earlier, letter, Mily Balakirev wrote to Tchaikovsky: "How delighted everyone is with your D-flat major [themes], including V. Stasov, who says: 'You were five, and now there are six'" [26]. However, it was apparently never performed again in this version during Tchaikovsky's lifetime.

The second version of the overture was performed for the first time on 5/17 February 1872 in Saint Petersburg, at the fourth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, conducted by Eduard Nápravník; and in Moscow on 18 February/1 March 1872 at the ninth RMS symphony concert, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein. Other notable performances were:

  • New York, Steinway Hall, 5/17 April 1876, Theodore Thomas Orchestra, conducted by Hans von Bülow
  • London, Crystal Palace, 23 October/4 November 1876, conducted by August Manns
  • Vienna, 2nd Philharmonic Society concert, 14/26 November 1876, conducted by Hans Richter
  • Paris, Concert populaire, 28 November/10 December 1876, conducted by Jules Pasdeloup
  • Pavlovsk, 25 June/7 July 1877, conducted by Julius Langerbach
  • Mannheim, 2nd Academie-Concert, 20 October/11 November 1880, conducted by Emil Pauer

The first known performance of the overture in its third version was on 19 April/1 May 1886, conducted by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, at a special Russian Musical Society concert given in honour of Tchaikovsky during his visit to Tiflis [27]. Other performances of this version include:

  • Saint Petersburg, charity concert, 28 February 1887, conducted by Eduard Nápravník
  • Hamburg, Ludwigsgarten, 8/20 January 1888
  • Berlin, Philharmonic Society concert, 27 January/8 February 1888, conducted by Tchaikovsky
  • Prague, Rudolfinum, 7/19 February 1888, conducted by Tchaikovsky
  • London, St James's Hall, 20 May/1 June 1889, conducted by Pablo de Sarasate
  • Boston, Music Hall, 26 January/7 February 1890, conducted by Arthur Nikisch
  • Pavlovsk, 1st symphony concert, 11/23 May 1890, conducted by Julius Laube
  • Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, subscription concert, 12/24 July 1890, conducted by Frans Wedemeijer
  • Kiev, 5th RMS symphony concert, 8/20 April 1891, conducted by Aleksandr Vinogradsky
  • Saint Petersburg, 9th RMS symphony concert, 7 March 1892, conducted by Tchaikovsky
  • Moscow, Electrical Exhibition concert, 30 October 1892, conducted by Rudolf Bullerian
  • Kharkov, 2nd RMS symphony concert, 14 November 1893, conducted by Ilya Slatin
  • Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, subscription concert, 3/15 March 1896, conducted by Willem Mengelberg
  • Vienna, 5th Philharmonic Society subscription concert, 12/24 January 1897, conducted by Hans Richter


On Nikolay Rubinstein's recommendation, in May 1870 the first version of the overture was sent to Berlin to be printed by Bote & Bock [28]. After receiving the first proofs in autumn 1870, Tchaikovsky acted to postpone its publication, sending the publishers all the revisions he had recently made [29].

Therefore the full score of the overture printed for the first time in 1871 by Bote & Bock was the second version. This new version of the overture was then arranged by Nadezhda Purgold for piano duet (the overture's introduction and exposition were arranged in collaboration with Mily Balakirev) [30]. Also in 1871, Karl Klindworth arranged the overture for two pianos and four hands. Both arrangements were published by Vasily Bessel in Saint Petersburg and had appeared in print by 8/20 October 1872.

After completing the third version in 1880, Tchaikovsky asked Pyotr Jurgenson on 29 August/10 September 1880 to send the amended full score and piano duet arrangement to the Berlin publishers: "Kindly send both to Bote and Bock and ask them to do a new, corrected edition of the overture, both in the form of a full score and parts, and in the form of the arrangement. Of course, I could write to him myself; but, firstly, in view of the fact that Bessel's rights have not been sufficiently clarified, I really don't understand the extent of Bessel's relations with me and Bock, and secondly I should like you to tell Bock that as a consequence of the changes and the shortening at the end, the overture has gained a great deal, and has now become a genuine chef d'oeuvre (how boastful!); I find it awkward to say this myself. Let Bock have the exclusive rights to the new form of the overture, both for Russia and for abroad. I hope that by clarifying Bessel's rights, or more accurately, wrongs, you can enter into an agreement with Bock and become the proprietor of "Romeo" for Russia. Be that as it may, I fervently wish that the overture in its old form, as well as the 4-handed arrangement, published abominably by Bessel, would disappear, and be replaced by the new, perfected overture." [31].

The full score and arrangement for piano duet of the third version of the overture-fantasia Romeo and Juliet were published by Bote & Bock in Berlin in 1881.

The orchestral scores of the first and third versions, together with an appendix containing the conclusion of the second version (bars 460-539), were published in volume 23 of Tchaikovsky's Complete Collected Works (1950), edited by Anatoly Drozdov and Igor Belza.


Tchaikovsky's handwritten score of the original version is now preserved in the Russian National Museum of Music in Moscow (ф. 88, No. 65) [view]. The same museum also holds Tchaikovsky's autograph revisions for the 1870 version: the introduction (bars 1-101) and development section (bars 273-353) — (ф. 88, No. 66) [view], and the conclusion (from bar 346) — (ф. 88, No. 67) [view].

No autograph has come to light for Tchaikovsky's revisions in 1880, concerning the ending of the third version.


See: Discography


The work is dedicated to Mily Balakirev, although the inscription was unintentionally omitted from the first editions of the score published by Bote & Bock [32].

Related Works

See Romeo and Juliet (projected opera).

Between 1878 and 1881, Tchaikovsky sketched part of a duet scene for an opera on the subject of Romeo and Juliet, using themes from the overture-fantasia.

External Links

Notes and References

  1. The second version was published as Ouverture á la tragedie de Shakespeare "Romeo et Juliette".
  2. For more on the meetings between Tchaikovsky and Balakirev, see letters 143, 145 and 146 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 3/15 August, 11/23 August and 19/31 August 1869.
  3. Letter 151 to Mily Balakirev, 2/14 October 1869.
  4. Letter 153 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 7/19 October 1869.
  5. Letter 155 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 7/19 October 1869.
  6. Klin House-Museum Archive (a4, No. 5047).
  7. In the second and third versions, the introduction was set in F-sharp minor.
  8. Letter 156 to Mily Balakirev, 28 October/9 November 1869.
  9. Letter 157 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 30 October/11 November 1869. See also Letter 158 to Aleksandra Davydova, 15/27 November 1869.
  10. Letter 161 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 18/30 November 1869.
  11. Letter 183 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 2/14–3/15 March 1870).
  12. Letter 159 to Mily Balakirev, 17/29 November 1869.
  13. Letter from Mily Balakirev to Tchaikovsky, 1/13 December 1869 — Saint Petersburg Public Library. In Letter 159 to Mily Balakirev, 17/29 November 1869, in which Tchaikovsky quoted his main themes, the original E major theme of the introduction was later replaced with a new one in F-sharp minor, which was used in the second and third versions. The B minor theme was the first subject of the overture. The "first D-flat theme" was the "rocking" theme of the second subject, and the second was the main "love theme".
  14. See Letter 205 to Mily Balakirev, 6/18 September 1870.
  15. Letter 205 to Mily Balakirev, 6/18 September 1870.
  16. Letter 212 to Mily Balakirev, late October/early November 1870. Tchaikovsky was referring to Franz Liszt's Faust Symphony (1854), S.108.
  17. Letter from Mily Balakirev to Tchaikovsky, 19/31 May 1871 — Saint Petersburg Public Library.
  18. Letter 235 to Mily Balakirev, 29 May/10 June 1871.
  19. See Letters 1566 and 1573 to Pyotr Jurgenson, mid/late August 1880 and 29 August/10 September 1880; Letter 1571 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 August/5 September 1880.
  20. The prize was founded by the publisher and impresario Mitrofan Belyayev in 1884, and awarded on behalf of an 'anonymous benefactor'.
  21. Letter 1573 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 29 August/10 September 1880.
  22. Letter 190 to Ivan Klimenko, 1/13–4/16 May 1870.
  23. "Nikolay Rubinstein had been involved in a lawsuit over the expulsion of a student from the Conservatory. Though he won the case, the decision was reversed on appeal. This revised verdict was pronounced only two days before this concert, and the strong feeling of sympathy for Rubinstein found expression on this occasion. The demonstration of support for the conductor probably distracted attention from the works being performed" — David Brown, Tchaikovsky. A biographical and critical study, vol. 1 (1978), p. 185.
  24. The term Moguchaia kuchka (Могучая кучка) or Mighty Handful, was coined by Vladimir Stasov for the group of five nationalist composers comprising Mily Balakirev, Aleksandr Borodin, César Cui, Modest Musorgsky, and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.
  25. Letter from Mily Balakirev to Tchaikovsky, 9/21 May 1870 — Saint Petersburg Public Library.
  26. Letter from Mily Balakirev to Tchaikovsky, 16/28 March 1870 — Saint Petersburg Public Library. This letter was unfinished and apparently unsent, so Tchaikovsky would have been unaware of its content.
  27. It is possible that there were other earlier performances of the third version before 1886, given that the full score appeared in 1881.
  28. See Letter 235 to Mily Balakirev, 29 May/10 June 1871.
  29. See Letter 235 to Mily Balakirev, 29 May/10 June 1871.
  30. See letter from Mily Balakirev to Tchaikovsky, 22 January/3 February 1871 — Saint Petersburg Public Library.
  31. Letter 1573 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 29 August/10 September 1880.
  32. See Letter 233 to Mily Balakirev, 15/27 May 1871, and Letter 1573 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 29 August/10 September 1880.