Monday, October 22, 2012

Classical Music Interpretations of Romeo and Juliet: Tchaikovsky, Gounod and Prokofiev

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Word Count 800

Tutor Dr. Julie Sanders

Classical Music Interpretations of Romeo and Juliet Tchaikovsky, Gounod and Prokofiev

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Acknowledgements Page

Preface Page 4

Chapter One The Masked Ball Page 6

Chapter Two The Balcony Scene Page 15

Chapter Three Friar Lawrence Page

Conclusions Page 1

Glossary Page

Bibliography Page 4


This dissertation would not have been possible without the help of many tutors and friends at Keele University. Thanks, first of all are due to Dr. Julie Sanders who stimulated and encouraged me throughout the writing of this piece. Secondly I would like to thank Matt Edmonds who let me borrow several pieces of his music collection so that this dissertation could be completed. My Mum, Dad and Phil need a special thanks for reading rough drafts, sharing my enthusiasm and for picking me up when I was in need of help.

Thank you all.


This study originated in my interest in Shakespeare and my love of music. I first had an interest in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when I did a school production at the age of twelve. Having since studied a wide range of Shakespearean material at university I decided to go back to my initial interest of Romeo and Juliet and write a dissertation. As my interest in classical music has grown over the years I felt it would be interesting to look at how different composers have interpreted the play.

The composers that I have chosen to analise the works of are Charles Gounod (181-18), Sergi Prokofiev (1840-18) and Pyotr Tchaikovsky (181-15). My reason for choosing these particular composers is that they all wrote their interpretations of Romeo and Juliet in different musical styles. Gounod has written his in the style of an opera, offering words to the audience to aid the understanding. Prokofiev decided upon a ballet to portray his ideas and with constant action added drama to the music. Tchaikovsky was used another style to the two others. He composed a fantasy overture that only last approximately sixteen minutes thirty seconds and has no words or actions leaving a vast amount of interpretation to the listener. For me this made my study more interesting and challenging as every listener has their own views and ideas so no one can be right or wrong.

Early in my study it became apparent that a thorough study of musical interpretations of Romeo and Juliet had not yet been undertaken. The first part of this discussion focuses on the masked ball and in particular the first encounter of the two protagonists. The second chapter moves swiftly on to the famous balcony scene. I chose this scene as it is one of Shakespeare’s most recognised scenes and composers have a lot to input in love scenes such as this.

The final chapter moves away from the two main characters and looks at Friar Laurence with his important input to the play. With the Friar being a mediating figure of the play and by being the main person behind Romeo and Juliet’s decisions Gounod, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky portray him differently and pick up on separate parts of his characteristics.

The study I have outlined above, will, hopefully fill a gap in research on classical music interpretations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and hopefully will persuade other listeners to put forward their own interpretations and ideas.

The Masked Ball

Act One Scene Four of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet is the masked ball that is held at the Capulet’s house. During this scene we encounter many of the characters but probably most importantly it includes the first meeting of the two main protagonists Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague. The scene begins with a few members of the Montague family gatecrashing the party.

At the beginning of Act One Scene there is discussion between Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio on whether or not to intrude on the party being held at the Capulets house. Mercutio already has an invite but Benvolio feels it would be fun to go along. In the end Romeo is persuaded and in disguise they enter the party. Capulet welcomes the maskers and watches the dance, recollecting with his cousin his own dancing days. Tybalt realises part way through the dance that one of the maskers is a Montague, and is infuriated by the intrusion

This, by his voice, should be a Montague.

Fetch me my rapier, boy.

What, dares the slave

Come hither, covered with an antic face,

To fleer and scorn at our solemnity?

Now by the stock and honour of my kin,

To strike him dead I hold it not a sin.

(Act One, Scene Four, Line 167-17).

Capulet, realising himself that the Montague is infact Romeo, orders Tybalt to control himself and let the intrusion pass. Tybalt accepts the order but vows to himself that this will not be the end of the matter.

Prokofiev’s ballet opens with Romeo and his friends Mercutio and Benvolio gate crashing the masked ball. To illustrate the dance Prokofiev has written a minuet, a common form of dance and he uses this music to portray the arrival of the guests. The music itself is similar to background music, as the emphasis is more on Capulet welcoming his guests. It begins with a prominent blast by the strings and timpani followed by a short phrase from the oboe telling the listeners that the party has begun. It then subsides into a short question and answer theme by means of the low brass and middle woodwind, which depicts Capulet welcoming his guests. The cornet then plays a solo accompanied by strings and in this you can almost hear the speech that Capulet gives after he has welcomed everybody and ordered the musicians to play

Welcome, gentlemen. Ladies that have their toes

Unplagued with corns will walk about with you.

Ah my mistresses, which of you all

Will now deny to dance? She that makes dainty,

She I’ll swear hath corns. Am I come near ye now?

Welcome, gentlemen. I have seen the day

That I have worn a visor and could tell

A whispering tale in a fair lady’s ear,

Such as would please. ’Tis gone, ’tis gone, ’tis gone.

You are welcome, gentlemen. Come, musicians, play.

Act One, Scene Four, Line 1-18

The dancing continues and the music displays this by, again, using question and answer snippets, this time to help the listener recognise the dancing and changing of partners. The next section of music Prokofiev has appropriately named ‘Masks’. It begins with simple tambourine and snare drum beats marking out the beats of the bar. The clarinet then interrupts with a small motif that winds the music up to the main outburst by the strings. The theme that the strings develop has a sneaky devious feeling to it that is created by the high pitch and gradual crescendo. The clarinet then repeats this theme with interludes between the strings. This highlights the build up to Tybalt’s outburst that comes in the next new theme of music. To finish off this section of music, Prokofiev has introduced a diminuendo in the low register of the clarinet with the double basses plucking notes with a bigger rest between the next. The next theme that Prokofiev introduces begins with very loud prominent trombones and lower strings that, to me, represent Tybalt’s anger at the intrusion


Uncle, this is a Montague, our foe;

A villain that is hither come in spite

To scorn at our solemnity this night.


Young Romeo is it?


’Tis he, that villain Romeo.

Act One, Scene Four, Line 174-177

It is a harsh sound and although the strings play a quite melodic tune it is the trombones’ blasting chords on the first and third beat of every bar that highlights the issue that is being made. The harsh sound helps to portray Tybalts language and the words that he uses such as ‘foe’, ‘villain’, ‘spite’ and ‘scorn’. They all have a bitter sound to them and are nasty words and the trombones symbolise this. When the trombones and lower brass take over the main theme there is an air of tension and urgency making the listener believe that a climax is being reached and a fight is about to start. This section of music builds up the tension throughout but then ends with two chords by all the instruments. This symbolises the time in the play when Tybalt decides to leave everything for now and when Romeo begins his approach on Juliet.

Gounod takes a different approach from Prokofiev and begins the dance with a waltz. It includes a solo by Capulet where he is introducing his guests and welcoming everyone to the ball. He is accompanied by strings with the double basses striking chords on the first beat of each bar helping to keep the movement going and to remind the listeners that it is a dance. Capulet creates the main theme of the movement and along with a running figure from the strings build up excitement. The chorus then takes over singing the main theme that Capulet has already begun and with the piccolo’s playing high pitched trills they represent the anger that is bubbling up in Tybalt. The whole orchestra eventually plays the main motif while the voices are quiet and the dancing continues. The next movement that Gounod introduces is Mercutio singing a solo that resembles his speech on Mab, Queen of Dreams

O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes

In shape no bigger than an agate stone

On the forefinger of an alderman,

Drawn with a team of little atomi

Over men’s noses as they lie asleep.

Act One, Scene Four, Line 51-56

Mercutio’s language is very descriptive as he paints a picture of Queen Mab to Romeo and the audience and this is reflected in the music. In Shakespeare’s text this actually comes before Capulet welcomes his guests but Gounod varies this. To reiterate the point of dreaming that Mercutio is making to Romeo Gounod modulates the music from minor to major throughout the middle section of the piece. It is a slow movement that, with the use of cellos and low brass, becomes expressive and romantic. Towards the end the tempo increases and the woodwind enter with short staccato notes followed by running figures that get higher in pitch until they reach their climax which symbolises the end of the piece and their involvement in the masked ball.

Tchaikovsky begins his ball with a transition from the opening theme, starting with the entrance of the timpani. The theme is then briefly developed and then the tempo starts to speed up which then leads into the theme of the party. This theme uses the full orchestra and although it is symbolising the ball it also represents the Montague-Capulet feud. After presenting it Tchaikovsky develops it slightly, first in a canonic style and then by tossing fragments between the strings and the woodwind. This can also represent Tybalt and Capulet as Tybalt becomes angry and Capulet tries to calm him down. The strings then have a fast running motif with the woodwind playing off beat chords which can symbolise Capulet saying no repeatedly to Tybalt


It fits when such a villain is a guest;

I’ll not endure him.


He shall be endured.

What, goodman boy, I say he shall, go to!

Am I the master here or you? Go to!

You’ll not endure him, God shall mend my soul,

You’ll make a mutiny among my guests!

You will set a cock-a-hoop, you’ll be the man!

TYBALT Why, uncle, ’tis a shame.


Go to, go to,

Act One, Scene Four, Line188-15

The main theme is then briefly returned to before the woodwind, alone, slow the pace of music down and at the same time lower the pitch which represents Tybalt subsiding and leaving the argument alone before Tchaikovsky takes us into the following part of the scene.

The first encounter of Romeo and Juliet during this act is one that is hidden by disguise and no knowledge of the other person yet is still instant love. This meeting initiates a series of events that both deepen and particularize their story. It is based on a shared sonnet between the two characters and each one interrupts the others imaginative world. Both Romeo and Juliet are equal throughout the sonnet with Juliet answering Romeo’s wit with her own


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;

They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayer’s sake.


Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.

Act One, Scene Four, Line 14-1

There is a lot of imagery of saints and pilgrims with Juliet becoming a saint to be kissed and Romeo’s name meaning pilgrim in Italian. The encounter is animated by the obvious attraction that Romeo and Juliet have towards each other and also by the gestures it requires in a performance. The nurse eventually interrupts the two lovers making them both drift back into the party


You kiss by th’ book.


Madam, your mother craves a word with you.


What is her mother?

NURSE Marry, bachelor

Her mother is the lady of the house,

And a good lady, and a wise and virtuous.

Act One, Scene Four, Line -7

She seems the source of knowledge at the end of this act and throughout most of the play. It is the nurse that informs Romeo that Juliet is a Capulet and she also warns Juliet that Romeo is a Montague.

Gounod and Prokofiev both use a madrigal to accompany this scene in their respective opera and ballet. The term ‘Madrigal’ was first used in the fourteenth Century and usually consisted of two voices. It found its poetic inspiration in the verse of the fourteenth century poet Petrarch. At its height in the middle and late sixteenth century the madrigal embodied imitative counterpoint with a great variety of texture, using sensitive and often intense expression of the words. The repertory of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has madrigals that cover a wide number of voices from one to eight, but generally favouring four or five.

Gounod’s madrigal sung by the lovers at their first meeting is a stylized piece with an attractive archaic flavour. It is a duet where the mannered style can be justified by Shakespeare’s wording at this stage when he has Romeo say

If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Act One, Scene Four, Line 06-0

To this Juliet replies continuing the image with subtlety, taking up his conceit and borrowing one of his rhymes � this/kiss. When the lovers meet, Gounod creates an air of inspiration. At this point the voices are flowing in answer with each other, accompanied by the string section of the orchestra. When Romeo and Juliet sing, both separately and as a duet, the strings have a running movement that helps the music to create a sense of urgency. In the interludes when the voices are quiet, the strings discontinue the running movement and, along with the lower brass, play long soft chords. With his use of strings, Gounod incorporates urgency into what is a simple love song, capturing what Shakespeare could only do by altering the actors’ tone of voice. Here the love song can continue with the accompaniment reminding the audience/listener that they are at a ball and that the two characters are both from opposite families.

Prokofiev, like Gounod, used a madrigal to portray the love scene of Romeo and Juliet’s meeting. He wrote it at a largo tempo giving all the instruments a chance to shine through. Prokofiev used only strings and woodwind for this section allowing the orchestra to produce a warm, yet full, sound. It is the flute that first plays the main the love theme followed by a variation in the high strings. Prokofiev has used the flute and clarinet to represent Romeo and Juliet with each instrument playing a solo after a string interlude. This helps to portray the conversation that Romeo and Juliet are having. It is as though the flute is asking a question, the strings are reiterating it and then the clarinet is answering. There is a brief snippet of oboe towards the end which can represent the nurse as the sound is slightly more abrasive than the flute and clarinet so it does not seem part of the love spell that is going on between Romeo and Juliet.

Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overture of Romeo and Juliet strikes a nice balance between characterisation and the improvisation called for in a development section. Unlike Gounods or Prokofiev’s versions, Tchaikovsky does not use words or actions, it is simply music. This allows listeners to interpret the music in their own way. Different listeners will have opposing opinions of the actual play and therefore a part of the music might correspond to a different part of the play for each individual listener. The love theme that Tchaikovsky has written is in two main parts. The first part is the main love theme and is played by the flute and oboe with viola accompaniment. Two woodwind instruments playing the same theme can be reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, as in Shakespeare’s text they are both equals. The phrases are long and lyrical which is characteristic of a love song. The music gradually gets louder and higher pitched making the listener feel that it is reaching the climax, to the part when they kiss. The second theme involves the violins laying continuous soft phrases which makes the music sound very romantic and this helps to tell listeners that the music has reached a love scene in the play. After the flute and oboe have finished their duet there is a brief (two bars) solo from the bassoon which, to me, represents the interruption of the nurse, separating the two.

The Balcony Scene

Act Two Scene One of Romeo and Juliet is the famous balcony scene when the two protagonists admit the love that they have for each other. The first twenty-five lines is Romeo speaking a soliloquy although it is not a true soliloquy as Juliet is listening on the balcony above. Romeo is unaware at this point that Juliet can hear everything that he is saying. It is not till line ninety-two that they begin to speak to each other. Juliet answers Romeo’s first section of admiration for her with a simple ‘Ay me’ (Line 6). Romeo, believing that he is dreaming, then speaks aside, willing her to speak again. It is at this point that Juliet speaks again, this time saying what is probably the most famous Shakespearean line ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ (Line 76). Yet Romeo still does not answer her aloud till line ninety-two when the conversation begins and even then Juliet is unsure as to whom is beneath her balcony.

As they find voices to articulate their feelings, Juliet in particular discards pointless words and conventions. She ignores Romeo’s conceits early in their garden scene, intent on learning his identity and access. ‘What man art thou?’ she asks, and Romeo elaborates

My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,

Because it is an enemy to thee.

Act Two, Scene One, Line 8-

Disregarding the metaphors, Juliet finds her answer elsewhere

I know the sound

Art though not Romeo, and a Montague?

Act Two, Scene One, Line 10-10

As in their first meeting in Act One Scene Four Juliet’s behaviour changes again, whereas she used to obey the authority of the nurse she disappears twice, twice defies authority, and then reappears

[NURSE] (within) Madam!


I come, anon! � But if thou meanest not well,

I do beseech thee-

[NURSE] (within) Madam!

JULIET By and by, I come! -

To cease thy strife and leave me to my grief

Tomorrow will I send

ROMEO So thrive my soul-

JULIET A thousand times good night. Exit

Act Two, Scene One, Line 1-00

Even after Juliet exits she still returns three lines later showing a reluctance to leave the stage and it is at this point that they finalise details of their meeting for the next day. This scene is a sign of Juliet’s emerging dependence and is crucial to understanding her decision to marry Romeo and defy her parents. The love theme that I mentioned in the last chapter moves quickly towards its climax in this scene.

Gounod begins his balcony scene with a short melody that contains no voices. It starts with long notes from the horn and oboe before the strings join in, in unison with a theme that is accompanied by the harp playing running chords to keep the music flowing. When the flute joins the strings it adds an air of romanticism and depicts the beginning of a love theme. Towards the end of this section the music slows down with a ritardando with the flute slowly rising in pitch and the final high pitch note, to me, portrays Romeo having got successfully over the wall


Can I go forward when my heart is here?

Turn back, dull earth, and find thy centre out.

[He turns back, withdrawing]

Enter Benvolio with Mercutio


Romeo, my cousin Romeo, Romeo!


He is wise and, on my life, hath stol’n him home to bed


He ran this way and leapt this orchard wall.

Call, good Mercutio

Act Two, Scene One, Line 1-7

‘Romeo’s ‘Ah! Leve-toi, soieil’ that opens the introduction of voices in Gounod’s balcony scene is a cavatina that reproduces, in finely graded steps of mounting passion, the spirit of the soliloquy ‘Arise fair sun and kill the envious moon’ . When a voice finally enters it is Romeo, singing alone with the accompaniment of the cellos and double basses. This slowly progresses to a clarinet solo with the strings joining in just before the rest of the woodwind does. Romeo then begins singing his ‘solo’ again this time with the harp accompanying him with arpeggic chords and with the french horns playing long chords very quietly. Gounod then places a string interlude in to break up the speech. When the voice joins in again it appears to be dong a different thing to the strings before they eventually come together. Towards the end of this second section the music rises to a climax with the pitch gradually getting higher and more instruments joining in so the volume becomes louder. To me this depicts the part of the scene when Romeo starts to get excited at the sight of Juliet

See how she leans her cheek upon her hand

O that I were a glove upon that hand,

That I might touch that cheek.

Act Two, Scene One, Line 66-68

With the words being monosyllabic it makes the pace of the speech speed up helping to portray Romeo’s excitement and with the repetition of the words cheek and hand we understand exactly what it is Romeo is wishing for.

In the next section of music Juliet joins Romeo in singing a question and answer scenario. The strings accompany both voices to begin with, with long notes that slowly rise depicting the animosity of the first conversation Romeo and Juliet have since they have found out about the family names of one another. During Romeo and Juliet’s conversation there are several different motifs played by many instruments. The violins have short notes that continue to rise up the scale clashing with the oboe that is playing the same melody as the tenor voice (Romeo) but in the form of a canon . The double basses and cellos play continuous plucking notes that remind the listener that Romeo is in a place he should not be and Juliet is risking getting in trouble by conversing with him. After a short string interlude the nurse joins in with her calling for Juliet. After the nurse’s departure Romeo and Juliet’s voices come together singing an octave apart with the cello prominently playing the melody. The music slowly quietens and with the voices singing repetitive words it makes the listener believe that the scene is coming to an end. A solo horn then breaks the silence portraying Juliet returning to the balcony having been to see her nurse. Romeo and Juliet’s voices then become agitated and rise quickly against an augmented chord in the strings. The voices then soften with the strings playing a low soft melody and the tempo slows down as the scene comes to an end. After Juliet’s final departure Romeo sings a solo accompanied by the strings which parallels Romeo’s speech in the play

Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast.

Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest.

Hence will I to my ghostly Friar’s close cell,

His help to crave and my dear hap to tell.

Act Two, Scene One, Line -5

The strings slowly become higher in pitch at the same time as the tempo slows when the voice trails off and this concludes Gounod’s balcony scene.

Prokofiev begins the balcony scene with short notes rising up by the flute and harp. After a couple of bars the strings take over with a new melody while the flute plays long notes that crescendo throughout. The flute then returns to its first motif of short notes, joined again by the harp. The lead violin then has a solo that is eventually joined by the rest of the strings at a very high pitch in the style of a canon. The flute then begins playing a new melody alongside the original theme in the strings. I associate this section with Mercutio and Benvolio’s discussion after Romeo has climbed over the wall into Capulet’s garden


Come, he hath hid himself among these trees

To be consorted with the humorous night.

Blind is his love, and best befits the dark.


If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.

Now will he sit under a medlar tree

And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit

As maids call medlars when they laugh alone.

O Romeo, that she were, O that she were

An open-arse, or thou a popp’rin’ pear.

Romeo, good night. I’ll to my truckle-bed;

This field-bed is too cold for me to sleep.

Come, shall we go?

BENVOLIO Go then, for ’tis in vain

To seek him here that means not to be found.

Act Two, Scene One, Line 1-4

In this passage Benvolio’s words are stressed with alliteration with the repetition of the letter ‘H’ in the first line. The bawdiness of the language becomes intense and graphic especially when Mercutio mentions ‘medlars’, as it is a pun on ‘meddler’ meaning to meddle or to have sexual intercourse. He repeats this pun more graphically with ‘open-arse’ a couple of lines later. The sexual bawdy is depicted by the high-pitched style canon. There is a short interlude of music involving sharp stabbing chords from the double basses and cellos. The flute then takes over but rather than the soft romantic sound that it usually gives out it produces quite a harsh sounding tune played in the low register. When the strings take over from the flute with the same melody it is at a higher pitch and slightly softer. This interlude ends the same way as it began, with stabbing chords in the low register of the double basses and cellos. To me, this helps the listener to keep the idea of trespassing and danger in their minds.

Prokofiev divides the rest of the balcony scene into two halves. The first half represents Romeo, his soliloquy and all his attempts to win Juliet’s heart. The second, is Juliet’s half focusing on her intelligent remarks and her speech in the middle of their conversation. The first half begins the same as the whole movement did except with brass and the harp as opposed to the flute playing the stabbing chords. The cello takes over as the main instrument leading the orchestra with the rest of the strings accompanying it. It creates a very full warm sound that fits well with Romeo’s soliloquy at the beginning when he talks about the sun and the moon

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon

Act Two, Scene One, Line 46-47

As Romeo gets more overcome by the thought of Juliet Prokofiev adds the brass making the volume louder and it is the piccolo that is prominent with the main theme at a very high pitch. As the volume dips the french horn replaces the piccolo with the theme before the strings, particularly the cello reclaims it. Towards the end of Romeo’s section the whole orchestra plays creating an enormous sound that represents Romeo’s delight and elation at seeing Juliet and having won her heart. The music gradually dies down with instruments dropping out until it is only the flute and oboe left playing a romantic love tune symbolising Romeo calming down and leaving Juliet.

The violins start Juliet’s section depicting the time that she has stood on her balcony listening to Romeo. The clarinets join in with a semiquaver motif that helps to keep the music flowing. Eventually the violins start a new theme that is quickly taken over by the clarinet and flute. This is reminiscent of Juliet’s speech during her conversation with Romeo when she speaks of love and makes presumptions of Romeo’s answer

Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’,

And I will take thy word; yet if thou swear’st,

Thou may prove false.

Act Two, Scene One, Line 1-15

The violins return to their long notes with the woodwind playing soft chords on every other beat. The brass joins in with chords and the double basses and cellos play tremolando on the same repetitive note. Slowly the chords fade out until there are just strings and woodwind playing a long chord that lasts for several bars with a solo horn shining through. To me, this portrays the goodnight and the end of the scene with the horn symbolising the danger ahead.

Tchaikovsky places the balcony scene near to the end of his overture with it coming shortly before he portrays the lovers’ deaths in his music. The theme that he uses for his balcony scene is similar to the love theme that he used for to represent Romeo and Juliet for their first encounter. However, this time he positions the short phrases that came second in his other love theme first helping to depict the animosity of Romeo being under Juliet’s balcony. It is played by the wind instruments and is loud and powerful with the strings playing quick semiquaver motifs helping the music to sound faster and to give an air of excitement, not knowing whether Romeo is going to get caught or not. The music then changes to a lyrical part that is played with lots of emotion. It involves a duet by the oboe and clarinets with the cornets playing a quiet chord on every other beat of the bar and the violins playing a short lyrical semiquaver motif underneath. This helps to represent the words of the two lovers as they are talking about love and having to leave each other till the morning. The cornets and violins portray that time is running out and they must leave one another soon whilst the oboe and clarinet resemble their conversation


O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?


What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?


Th’ exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine.


I gave thee mine before thou didst request it;

And yet I would it were to give again.


Wouldst thou withdraw it?

Act Two, Scene One, Line 168-17

The flute then joins in with the clarinet and oboe playing at a higher pitch helping the music to reach its climax before the mood turns tense going into a minor mode representing the appearance of the nurse. The music then begins to retreat to the Feud theme symbolising Juliet’s departure into her room and the idea that there is still a chance that Romeo could be caught trespassing on Lord Capulet’s land.

Friar Laurence

Act Two Scene Two is the first time that Shakespeare introduces the audience/reader to Friar Laurence. In just twenty-two lines he manages to tell us a lot about himself. The soliloquy that he speaks is important to indicate his narrative importance and helps us to pick up on his character. The Friar uses a rhyming pattern that until now has not been present. It is a series of rhyming couplets and within them one line plays against the other and this makes the rhyme. By having the two lines the Friar appears to be making both points that he raises valid. The first and second couplet establish the time of day

The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,

Checking the eastern clouds with streaks of light;

And fleckled darkness like drunkard reels

From forth day’s path and Titan’s burning wheels

Act Two, Scene Two, Line 1-4

These four lines are descriptive within themselves with ‘grey-eyed’ being conventionally linked to early morning, ‘Titan’s’ referring to sun god and the ‘burning wheels’ ‘belonging to the chariot he drives across the sky in his path’. By identifying plants as he collects them he is telling the audience that not only is he a philosopher but also a chemist. The philosophical side of the Friar is also distinguished by the lyrical language he uses as exemplified in the above quotation. The Friar becomes the spokesperson for moderation and restraint in the play. This is reflected from the first time that we see him collecting plants to make medicines. This is ironic as it is the Friar who engineers the final tragedy by using his collected plants to make a poison that will stop Juliet’s heart beat for a couple of days so that she is presumed dead. On

meeting Friar Laurence it is also the first time that the play is confined to a small space � the private area of his cell. The qualities of the compositions by Gounod, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky change accordingly with this by using a smaller part of the orchestra than usual making the sound smaller.

When Romeo enters the Friar continues to speak in couplets and as Romeo speaks he carries on the rhythm of couplets although it is out of character for him. As Romeo is asking Friar Laurence to marry him and Juliet the speech keeps moving forward all the time and the rhyming couplets help the pace to continue. The Friar offers wise advice to Romeo at the end of the scene when he begins to rush all his thoughts and actions


O let us hence! I stand on sudden haste


Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.

Act Two, Scene Two, Line -4

This helps the audience realise that Friar Laurence is a friend to Romeo and that he is trying to guide him but there is also an underlying idea that the Friar is older and wiser.

Gounod focused more on the marriage ceremony of Romeo and Juliet that Friar Laurence conducted rather than the first time that we meet the Friar. But even from the short marriage scene we can hear what instruments are used to characterise the Friar. It is the solo cello that is most commonly linked to Friar Laurence in Gounod’s opera and it begins the marriage ceremony with long notes. The Friar’s part is sung by a bass making him lower than the rest of the group in his cell so he becomes easy to distinguish. When he begins to sing he remains on one note making his voice sound very monotonous although he is saying some happy words and is about to deliver a joyous ceremony

So smile the heavens upon this holy act,

That after-hours with sorrow chide us not.

Act Two, Scene Five, Line 1-

The music then modulates up a tone representing Romeo’s conversation with the Friar before Juliet’s arrival where he is asking what sorrow could arise from such a cheerful event. When Juliet makes her appearance she sings a solo in a minor key striking a difference between her, Romeo and Friar Laurence. By singing in the minor key it puts across any apprehension that she might be feeling about the secret wedding. There are augmented chords being played in the strings and brass underneath the voices of all three persons that are present. The voices mirror an authentic wedding service with the Friar singing answered by Romeo and then the Friar speaking to Juliet with her answering him. Shakespeare does not use the wedding as a significant part of the play and it is not acted out on stage, instead it is portrayed in the Friar’s cell . To mark the end of the ceremony all the voices join together and sing in unison. The music becomes pompous and joyful celebrating the wedding of the two protagonists. The violins mirror the voices and the timpani recreate the sounds and beats of wedding bells helping to symbolise a church wedding. The strings and brass play a bold fanfare representing the Friar’s final words before the end of the scene

Come, come with me, and we will make short work;

For, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone

Till holy church incorporate two in one.

Act Two, Scene Five, Line 5-7

The speed of this section of speech is quite fast due to the amount of monosyllabic and alliteration used such as the ‘W’s’ in line one. The poetic sounds are cancelled out by the words with Shakespeare using the word ‘alone’ in line two and then using the opposite word of ‘incorporate’ in line three. This makes Gounod’s music quite deceiving as he has had a ceremony portraying the wedding of Romeo and Juliet yet he still ends the scene with the Friar’s original words in the play yet the words that Shakespeare wrote are telling us that they are not yet married. It appears that Gounod has done this because the wedding is not acted in the play and it helps to clear up any confusion as to whether Romeo and Juliet are actually married.

Prokofiev introduces Friar Laurence the same way that Shakespeare does � with a solo. It is only a short section of music and he does not carry on the scene with Romeo’s arrival. It is exclusively the Friar’s piece of music and by having this it helps to be able to distinguish the Friar’s appearance later in the play as we have already heard the style of music used to represent him. The music begins with a simple melody played by the bassoons and horn. The harp produces a chord at the beginning of each bar and occasionally on every beat of the bar with represents the Friar walking along, occasionally stopping and then getting faster. The melody is slow and soft which helps to depict the Friar thinking as he walks and also portrays the small space that he is confined to within his cell. It also portrays some of the words that the Friar says as he is talking about earth and nature so his words are descriptive

The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb;

What is her burying grave, that is her womb;

And from her womb children of divers kind

We sucking on her natural bosom find;

Act Two, Scene Two, Line -1

By using rhyming words like ‘womb’ and ‘tomb’ Shakespeare is almost spelling out the tragedy of the play but at the same time building on the Friar’s characteristic of using rhyming couplets. The clarinets and flutes play sporadic long notes that similar to the harp depict the Friar pausing as he looks at his flowers. The cellos and strings take over the main theme from the bassoons and they glide from note to note giving the music a graceful air representing the religious beliefs of the Friar even though later in the play it is the Friar that organises the deaths. As the strings’ section reaches its climax the music becomes more full and louder helping the listener to recognise the change in the Friar’s language when he starts to use stronger words like vile and abuse

For nought so vile that on the earth doth live,

But to the earth some special good doth give;

Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use,

Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.

Act Two, Scene Two, Line 17-0

The strings then subside and the bassoons, horn and harp re-enter with their original tune. Again the clarinets and flute play long notes but this time the oboe joins in mirroring the bassoon creating an angelic sound. The bass clarinet joins the group and slowly takes up the theme until it is the only instrument playing. To me, this portrays the Friar’s words when he mentions poison and power as the instrument represents power as it has silenced all the other instruments and has gained control of the music

Within the infant rind of this weak flower

Poison hath residence and medicine power

Act Two, Scene Two, Line -4

The ordinary clarinet then assumes control of the theme and brings the piece to an end with a slow diminuendo , helping the music to die out thoughtfully.

Tchaikovsky differs again to Prokofiev and Gounod in his musical interpretation of Friar Laurence. He uses a series of chords in the wind section to represent the Friar and this is introduced firstly in the introduction of his overture. The music is fairly slow at this point with the flute, clarinet and bassoon playing the chords in a steady semiquaver motif. This motif is the melody and is played in unison with the brass adding the occasional chord to give the music a lift. This section is then repeated at a faster tempo accompanied by pizzicato (plucked) strings. The music at this point helps to portray the joyfulness of the Friar’s words in his first soliloquy even though it opens Tchaikovsky’s overture

Now ere the sun advance his burning eye,

The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry,

I must upfill this osier cage of ours

With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.

Act Two, Scene Two, Line 5-8

Again, the language in this passage is very poetic with the Friar’s rhyming couplets making the text bounce at the end of each line depicting the happy Friar walking through his gardens. Not long after Tchaikovsky’s love theme discussed in chapter one the theme for Friar Laurence is played in fragments by the winds along side his feud theme. More often than not Friar Laurence’s theme in the winds played in conjunction with the feud theme that Tchaikovsky has put in the strings. Whether this is coincidental or purposeful I do not know but in my mind it helps to reiterate the point that the Friar is not the good person that is expected of him.

Later on in the music Friar Laurence is once again blasted out in a broad explosive manner by a trumpet over fragments of Tchaikovsky’s feud theme. This is far removed from Friar Laurence’s first quiet appearance in the introduction. This helps to represent the Friar’s change of character when, later in the play, he offers a poisonous helping hand to Juliet

Hold, daughter, I do spy a kind of hope,

Which craves as desperate an execution

As that is desperate which we would prevent.

If rather than to marry Count Paris

Thou hast the strength of will to slay thyself,

Then it is likely thou wilt undertake

A thing like death to chide away this shame,

That cop’st with death himself to scape from it;

And if thou darest, I’ll give thee remedy.

Act Four, Scene One, Line 68-76

With Tchaikovsky’s music having reached a climax before the Friar’s theme it shows Juliet’s despair at having to marry Paris and the Friar calming her down before offering her a dramatic exit. After this Friar Laurence’s theme is not heard till after Tchaikovsky’s representation of the balcony scene discussed in chapter two. This part of the overture is also expressive, helping to portray Friar Laurence’s speech upon learning that Juliet is ‘dead’

Peace, ho, for shame! Confusion’s care lives not

In these confusions. Heaven and yourself

Had part in this fair maid; now heaven hath all

And all the better it is for the maid.

Your part in her you could not keep from death,

But heaven keeps his part in eternal life.

Act Four, Scene Four, Line 1-6

The coda of Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overture contains the love theme, played in a minor key helping to give a sense of the final tragedy. There is also a variant of the Friar’s theme which, like at the beginning, is peaceful and depicts the representation of peace in heaven and portrays Friar Laurence’s last speech that explains the tragedies that have occurred in the play

I will be brief, for my short date of breath

Is not so long as is a tedious tale.

Romeo, there dead, was husband to that Juliet;

And she, there dead, that’s Romeo’s faithful wife.

I married them, and their stol’n marriage-day

Was Tybalt’s doomsday, whose untimely death

Banished the new-made bridegroom from this city,

For whom, and not for Tybalt, Juliet pined.

Act Five, Scene Three, Line -6


Shakespeare’s use of language in Romeo and Juliet has been portrayed differently by Gounod, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky in their respective pieces. Although all three composers use different genres of music for their interpretations, the scenes that they focus on are all similar. It is interesting that each of the composers depicted the wedding scene in a corresponding manner, each portraying a church wedding service whereas Shakespeare places the wedding off stage and only refers to it in the text as opposed to acting it out on stage.

Gounod’s opera Romeo et Juliette (1867), influenced more by Garrick than Berlioz, heightens the passion of the love story by closing with a duet in which the protagonists invoke God. The history of Prokofiev’s ballet music aligns this score with other experimental versions of the narrative. Commissioned in 14 and rejected as undanceable, the music finally turned the ballet into a political statement about betrayal and misuse of power.

Here Levenson is making the point that different composers have looked at opposing material in the play and based their compositions on them.

By Gounod’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet being in the style of an opera, the words relate very closely to Shakespeare’s text although Gounod does swop the order of some of the scenes around. As there is a text with Gounod’s music it is fairly easy to see what instruments are used to illustrate certain characters. Prokofiev’s ballet uses the form of dance to portray the action of the characters. By using visual images the portrayal of action incorporated in Shakespeare’s play becomes recognisable. As a member of an audience and a listener it is possible to associate music with dance which helps the plot to unfold. Tchaikovsky’s method for portraying the plot of Romeo and Juliet is one that he leaves open for the individual. A knowledge of the play would be useful to a listener to enable them to interpret the music as there are no words or actions to aid them. Tchaikovsky mainly incorporates themes into his fantasy overture, which recur throughout the piece as opposed to following the guidelines of Shakespeare’s text.

From the opening sonnet to the closing sestet, short lyrics in Romeo and Juliet form a heterogeneous series. The amatory verse includes not only sonnets but also quatrains, octaves, an aubade, an epithalamium, a duet, a quartet and some straight forward rhymed passages.

With Shakespeare using rhymed passages throughout Romeo and Juliet it helps composers to form their music. As Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story Gounod, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky all based their music on a series of themes, mainly the feud and the love story, yet it is Tchaikovsky that continues the idea of themes throughout his music, interpreting them slightly different each time they occur.

If this work has succeeded in its purpose of interpreting classical music compositions, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, then it will above all enable listeners to speed up the process of understanding Gounod’s, Prokofiev’s and Tchaikovsky’s music, alongside Shakespeare’s text, by directing their attention to significant features of their works.


This glossary has been adapted from that in The Cambridge Music Guide edited by Stanley Sadie and Alison Latham.


An interval that has been increased by a semitone (See semitone below).


A type of polyphony in which a melody is repeated by each voice or part as it enters (See polyphony below).


A slow tempo.


A texture in which two or more independent melodic lines are combined.


Becoming slower


Half a tone, the smallest interval commonly used in Western music.


A rapid reiteration usually of a single tone by the trembling action of a bow of a string instrument.


Brown, D, Tchaikovsky The Early Years, London, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 178

Drakakis, J, Editor, Shakespearean Tragedy, London, Longman, 1

Harding, James, Gounod, London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 17

Levenson, Jill, L, Editor, Romeo and Juliet, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 000

Sadie, S and Latham, A, Editors, The Cambridge Music Guide, Cambridge University Press, 16

Sternfeld, F, W, Music in Shakespearean Tragedy, London, Routledge and K.P, 16

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