Six of the best: musical settings of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

We mark Shakespeare's birthday with our choice of six of the best musical settings of Romeo and Juliet

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23 April 2014 is the 450th anniversary of the birth of England’s most famous playwright. To celebrate the Bard’s birthday, we take a look at six settings of his most famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.

 

Galina Ulanova and Yury Zhdanov in Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet

 

1. Prokofiev

While the ‘Dance of the Knights’ may be more widely known as the theme from The Apprentice these days, there’s significantly more to Prokofiev’s 1936 ballet than Alan Sugar. Romeo i Dzhuletta is a dramatic score that strips all sentimentality from Shakespeare’s tale of young love - odd for a piece that was originally intended to have a happy ending. In the end, Prokofiev - with a small amount of guidance from Communist party officials - decided that such plot meddling was an insult to Shakespeare and stuck with the miserable ending instead. 

 

2. Berlioz

Hector Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette was completed in 1839. A combination of symphony and opera, the piece remains essentially symphonic in construction - the orchestra deals with the drama of the plot, while the vocal parts are used comparatively sparingly until the finale, when they come out in force.

Berlioz was first moved to compose the piece in 1827 after attending a performance of Garrick’s Romeo and Juliet in London. Juliet was played by the actress Harriet Smithson, with whom Berlioz (who spoke barely any English) fell instantly and deeply in love - a pair of star cross'd lover indeed. They married in 1833 (until Berlioz started an affair and the marriage broke up).

Charles Kemble and Harriet Smithson as Romeo and Juliet

 

3. Tchaikovsky

The love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture is one of the most recognisable and often borrowed ever, featuring in everything from The Jazz Singer to SpongeBob SquarePants. Yet the work received a decidedly lukewarm reception when it first premiered in 1870. A Viennese performance of 1876 was actually hissed by the audience. Ever passionate, Tchaikovsky reworked the overture three times. A third and final version dating from 1880 is the one that is used today.

 

4. Gounod

Despite a few teething problems (difficulties in sourcing an appropriate Romeo, and the composer’s last-minute re-composition of the entire final act), Roméo et Juliette proved to be one of Gounod’s most successful operas. The opera remains largely true to the plot of the original, apart from the final scene in the tomb: in Gounod’s version, the doomed couple share a moment of consciousness long enough for a final duet, before Romeo succumbs to his poison and Juliet stabs herself. Cheery stuff. 

 

5. Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story is one of the most well-known modern musical reworkings of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Librettist Stephen Sondheim transposed the action to a poor neighbourhood of 1950s New York, with the Polish-American Jets (Montagues) pitted against the Puerto Rican Sharks (Capulets) in a gritty emulation of real-life gang violence. Dancing aside, the production’s commitment to realism was admirable: in the original 1957 Broadway production, the performers playing Jets and Sharks were kept apart backstage so they’d have no chance to socialise. 

 

6. Rota

The soundtrack for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet received nearly as much critical praise as the film itself, receiving nominations for BAFTA and Golden Globe awards in 1968-9. Although it incorporates a number of musical forms - songs, anthems, dances, and even a piece for a strolling trombone player - the most well-known element is undoubtedly the Love Theme (AKA ‘What Is a Youth’, AKA ‘A Time For Us’, AKA ‘Ai Giochi Addio’). It’s a tune that has been variously described by critics as ‘brilliant’, ‘moving’, and ‘lush’ - and by the BBC Music Magazine team as ‘heart-rending’, ‘poignant’ and ‘saccharine’. Love it or hate it - it’s one hell of an earworm.

 

 

Christina Kenny

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