Romeo and Juliet (projected opera)

Tchaikovsky Research

Tchaikovsky first had the idea for an opera on the subject of Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet (Ромео и Джульетта) in May 1878, and although he returned to the subject throughout his later life, he never fulfilled this ambition. On one of these occasions he did go so far as to sketch music for a scene between the two lovers (TH 215 ; ČW 442), which uses themes from his earlier overture-fantasia on the same subject. This was found among his papers after his death, and it was completed and orchestrated by Sergey Taneyev in 1894.


From the play Romeo and Juliet (ca. 1594) by William Shakespeare (1564–1616), in a Russian translation by Aleksandr Sokolovsky (1837–1915).


In 1869, Tchaikovsky wrote an overture-fantasia to Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. Almost a decade later, he first considered the tragedy as the basis for an opera. "You know that I am presently engaged on something which I have thought about for a long time", Tchaikovsky 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" [1].

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 odd 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" [2].

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" [3].

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" [4].

It was probably at this time that Tchaikovsky made sketches for a duet scene with Romeo and Juliet in the garden (Act III, Scene 5 of the play), using the love-theme from his earlier overture-fantasia.

In a letter to Herman Laroche of 9/21 September 1894, Modest Tchaikovsky wrote: "Petya 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" [5].

The notes in the book referred to by Modest Tchaikovsky provide the only evidence for Tchaikovsky's preliminary work on the opera. They appear in Volume III of the composer's set 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 [6].


Taneyev's completion has one movement (the first 56 bars of which are an introduction of his own devising): Andante non tanto quasi Moderato (A minor)—Andante (F major)—Allegro giusto (D-flat major, 277 bars), lasting around 15 minutes in performance.


Taneyev's completion is scored for soloists Juliet (Джульетта) — soprano, Romeo (Ромео) — tenor, and Nurse (Няня) — mezzo-soprano, with an orchestra comprising piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (A), 2 bassoons + 4 horns (F), 2 trumpets (B-flat), timpani + harp, violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses.


The first performance of the duet scene, in Sergey Taneyev's completion, took place in October 1894 at the first Russian Symphony Concert in Saint Petersburg, conducted by Yury Bleikhman.

In London, the duet was premiered at a concert in the Queen's Hall on 16/28 October 1899, conducted by Henry Wood, with soloists Lillian Blauvelt, May Williamson, and Ellison van Hoose.


In 1895 Pyotr Jurgenson published Sergey Taneyev's completion, in full score and vocal-piano reduction [7], and both versions were included in volume 62 of Tchaikovsky's Complete Collected Works (1948), edited by Ivan Shishov.


Tchaikovsky's sketches are preserved in the Klin House-Museum Archive (a1, No. 118). The manuscript of Sergey Taneyev's completion is held by the Russian National Museum of Music in Moscow (ф. 85, No. 37).


See: Discography

Related Works

See also the overture-fantasia Romeo and Juliet.

Notes and References

  1. Letter 840 to Nadezhda von Meck, 23 May/4 June 1878.
  2. Letter 842 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 25 May/6 June 1878.
  3. Letter 871 to Nadezhda von Meck, 13/25 July 1878.
  4. Letter 1860 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 2/14–3/15 October 1878.
  5. Letter from Modest Tchaikovsky to Herman Laroche, 9/21 September 1894 — Klin House-Museum Archive.
  6. However, Tchaikovsky seems to have discussed his plans to write an opera on this subject with the pianist Adele Aus der Ohe just days before his death in 1893. See Tchaikovsky and Carnegie Hall (2012), p. 95.
  7. Passed by the censor on 24 November/6 December 1894.