For Attending Ears: Romeo & Juliet in Music
The practice of imbuing instrumental music with “extra-musical” meaning–infusing a story, a theme, or imagery into a piece of music–dates back many centuries (an familiar early example is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which describes each of the seasons in musical tones). This practice, termed “program music” (as opposed to “absolute music,” which ostensibly carries no meaning apart from the notes themselves), began to flower in the nineteenth century, with Romantic composers increasingly using their compositions to depict familiar stories. Well-known examples include Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which tells the story of an obsessive lover; Felix Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a musical depiction of the antics of Shakespeare’s memorable cast; and Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, a musical meditation on Nietzschean philosophy.
Perhaps no story has captured and inspired the musical imagination as much as Romeo and Juliet. More than 100 pieces–including symphonic works, operas, ballets, musicals, and rock albums–by many of history’s most celebrated composers have sought to convey Shakespeare’s tragedy in music,. Attesting to the extent to which the drama has permeated countless musical genres, tonight’s concert features selections from five different musical adaptations of the story: a film, two orchestral suites, a song cycle co-written by a rock star and a string quartet, and a Broadway musical.
After Nino Rota’s Fanfare from Franco Zeffirelli’s classic 1968 film adaptation, and then three movements from Dmitri Kabalevsky’s suite of 1956, the program turns to Sergei Prokofiev’s concert-suite setting of Shakespeare’s play, which arose under remarkable circumstances. Directly after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Prokofiev had emigrated from Russia and spent nearly two decades abroad, working first in the United States from 1918 to 1922, and then throughout Europe until 1936. That year, the composer returned to his native land, where the artistic climate had become intensely politicized, with the combination of Stalin’s horrific purges and the Soviet regime’s threatening artistic manifestos looming ominously over any musical endeavor. Indeed, during his first years back in the Soviet Union, Prokofiev managed only two pieces not marked by political considerations, a cello concerto and the Romeo and Juliet. The work’s long, complicated compositional process saw Prokofiev consider changing the ending to a happy one, an approach he eventually rejected as sacrilegious to the highly revered Shakespeare. Originally conceived as a ballet, the piece was initially rejected as too complicated, and did not premiere until 1938, fully two years after its completion. In the meantime, however, Prokofiev had drawn two successful concert suites–one of them presented in tonights performance–from the ballet’s music.
The Juliet Letters, from 1993, was the product of a noteworthy collaboration between British rocker Elvis Costello and the renowned Brodsky Quartet. The album’s twenty tracks are presented as a series of letters to Juliet Capulet, alluding in genre both to the classical music’s song cycle, which reached its apex with the nineteenth-century German Lieder, and rock music’s concept album, examples of which include The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.
The program closes with nine symphonic dances from West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s groundbreaking Broadway musical. Among the many innovations the work brought to Broadway musicals was its extremely dark tone (no earlier musicals had ended with corpses on stage) and the integration of dance into the drama–West Side Story is a very rare case in that its dance music is arguably as well known as are its songs.
As this impressive span of musical tributes attests, the legacy of Romeo and Juliet is vast, spanning vast temporal and geographic distances, and crossing over traditional boundaries of genre. Just as Shakespeare’s tragedy has flourished across the centuries, so too have musical reflections on the world’s most celebrated star-crossed lovers.
By Nathan Link
Centre College Associate Professor of Music
Chair of African and African American Studies Program
Nathan Link is an associate professor of music. He was named a Centre Scholar in 2009, received a Stodghill Fellowship for the 2009-10 year, and is serving as a Mellon Global Fellow from 2010-2012, contributing to the development of an African and African-American Studies program at Centre.
Prior to joining Centre’s faculty in 2006, he was an instructor at Yale University. He specializes in eighteenth-century opera, with strong secondary interests in nineteenth-century music and aesthetics, the theory of opera, African music, and country and popular music. He currently teaches courses in music history, humanities, and Kentucky music, and leads Centre’s Kentucky Ensemble. His publications have appeared in Oxford University Press’s Opera Quarterly, the Journal of the American Library Association, the Göttinger Händel Beiträge, and Opera Today, and he is currently working on two books, one on Handel’s operas and another on country music.
He serves as vice-president of both the American Handel Society and the American Musicological Society’s South-Central chapter. He earned his Ph.D. in music history, with distinction, from Yale University in 2006 with a dissertation on the operas of Georg Frideric Handel, his M.A. from the University of Washington in 2001 with a thesis on Johannes Brahms’s first string quartet, and his bachelor’s degree from Macalester College, cum laude, in 1992, with majors in English and music theory and composition.