When listening to Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture,” during this weekend’s Legendary Love Stories concert, it will help to understand the plot, because the music refers to the various scenes of the story.
Everyone remembers reading Romeo and Juliet in high school (or not reading it, as the case may be!). In case you’ve forgotten the plot, here’s a quick summary from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, with a few edits from a former English major:
An age-old vendetta between two powerful families, the Montagues and Capulets, erupts into bloodshed. A group of masked Montagues risks further conflict by gatecrashing a Capulet party. Young Romeo Montague meets and falls instantly in love with Juliet Capulet, who is due to marry her father’s choice of suitor, the Count Paris. Romeo later stands outside Juliet’s balcony window and the two have one of the most famous love scenes of all time. With the help of Juliet’s nurse, the couple arrange to marry the next day, but Romeo’s attempt to halt a street fight leads to the death of Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, and Romeo is banished. In a desperate attempt to be reunited with Romeo, Juliet follows their friend the Friar’s suggested plan and fakes her own death. The Friar sends Romeo a message explaining the plan, but the message fails to reach Romeo. Romeo finds an unconscious Juliet and believing her to be dead, he takes his life. Juliet wakes to find Romeo’s corpse beside her and kills herself. The grieving families agree to end their feud.
Romeo and Juliet was completed around 1595, relatively early in Shakespeare’s career. The plot comes from an Italian tragic romance, which in turn took elements from ancient tales like the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In that story, Pyramus mistakenly thinks his love Thisbe is dead, and kills himself. When Thisbe finds him dead, she kills herself too. So this tragic story was already a classic when Shakespeare took it up nearly 600 years later.
In 1476, the story “Mariotto and Gianozza” was published, featuring many of the elements that Shakespeare would later use, including the secret marriage of the young couple, the Friar who tries to help, and the fight between the families. “Mariotto and Gianozza” also adds two key plot twists: the potion that makes it seem that Gianozza is dead, when she’s just unconscious, and the Friar’s message about the plan that Mariotto never receives.
Next, Luigi da Porto adapts the story, now called “Romeo and Juliet” for the first time. Interestingly, his adaption was based partly on personal experience. A soldier, he was at a ball after a peace treaty between two warring clans, the Savorgnans and the Strumieri, when he met and fell in love with a young woman, Lucina. The next day, the peace treaty fell apart when one clan attacked and killed many of the other. This gave da Porto inspiration for the two warring families. Published in 1531, the book was dedicated to Lucina.
In Tchaikovsky’s musical version of the story, his “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture,” you’ll hear the fighting between the Montagues and Capulets, the passionate love theme that repeats at various points, and ominous sounds of anxiety and doom throughout; this is, after all, a tragedy.