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Program Notes

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

BORN: May 7, 1840. Kamsko-Votkinsk, Province of Viatka, Russia

DIED: November 6, 1893. Saint Petersburg

COMPOSED: October 7 to November 27, 1869

WORLD PREMIERE: March 16, 1870. Nicolai Rubinstein conducted in Moscow. Tchaikovsky twice revised the work, and the third version, of 1880, has become standard.

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 21 mins

In the winter of 1868–69, Tchaikovsky was, for the only time in his life, intensely smitten with a woman, Désirée Artôt, a Belgian soprano. Tchaikovsky's intentions were serious, but Artôt suddenly brought their relationship to an end by marrying a baritone colleague of hers. When Tchaikovsky next saw her on the stage he wept all evening.

Tchaikovsky was ready to have the composer Mily Alexeievich Balakirev tell him to write a work based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which is indeed what Balakirev did, going so far as to tell Tchaikovsky how to do it, proposing a key scheme and even writing out four measures of music to show how he would begin such a piece. Balakirev was not always pleased with the way Tchaikovsky worked out "his" ideas. At first, only the broad love theme aroused his enthusiasm. It is "simply delightful," he wrote. "There's just one thing I'll say against this theme, and that is that there's little in it of inner, spiritual love, only a passionate physical languor (with even a slightly Italian hue), whereas Romeo and Juliet are decidedly not Persian lovers but European." Balakirev continued to comment, suggest, blame, and praise, and Tchaikovsky continued to compose—buoyed by the praise, stimulated by the blame, and becoming more confident in his themes and more imaginative in his reading of the play.

He listened carefully at the premiere, which was an indifferent success. That summer he subjected his overture to drastic revisions, finding the present evocative beginning, devising a stronger close, articulating more vividly what came between. Ten years later he returned to Romeo and Juliet, and it was then that he found the superb coda. Again, he put strong ideas in place of weak, he integrated, he refined. And he produced a masterpiece.—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(September 2019)