13 Apr 2017

Program Notes: Romeo & Juliet

0 Comment

Program Notes for Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra
Halekulani Masterworks 11 – Ken Lam & Sayaka Shoji – 13 & 14 May 2017
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017


Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Born 12 October, 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England
Died 26 August, 1958 in London

Approximate duration 11 minutes

These performances are an HSO premiere

Luke 16:19-31 relates the only parable of Jesus that gives a character a name: Lazarus the beggar. The rich man of the tale is generally called Dives (Latin for ‘rich man’). The tale was popular in medieval art and music, and found its way into English hymnody and balladry in several versions. Its tune, chronicled as early as 1619, is mentioned in a play by John Fletcher, and remained popular throughout Britain in the 18th century. In the song, the parable is moved to a local village.

Ralph Vaughan Williams first encountered “Dives and Lazarus” in 1893. The tune was a favorite that remained with him his entire life. He quoted from it in several compositions, both instrumental and vocal. Four decades after that initial acquaintance, “Dives and Lazarus” blossomed into one of his most splendid orchestral pieces. The commission came from the United States, in conjunction with the New York World’s Fair in 1939. On 10 June, 1939, Sir Adrian Boult conducted the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra (a predecessor to today’s New York Philharmonic) in the premiere at Carnegie Hall.

In Ireland, “Dives and Lazarus” is known as “The Star of County Down”; in Scotland, as “Gilderoy.” Vaughan Williams collected a Norfolk variant in 1905 with the words “Murder of Maria Martin in the Red Barn.” Other variants bear the titles “The Thresher” and “Cold Blows the Wind.” Vaughan Williams drew on all of them for his Five Variants. A note in the score states: These variants are not exact replicas of traditional tunes, but rather reminiscences of various versions in my own collection and those of others.

Five Variants is thus not a traditional theme and variations, but a synthesis, fusing folk-song settings with original music. Biographer James Day calls it “a meditation on folk material.” Each variant alters the disposition of the strings, favoring a different section or instrument within the ensemble. Violas and celli are divided into two voices, which allows for antiphonal writing in Variant I, with the harp prominent in the antiphonal response. Variant II is faster, with three-measure phrases.

Variant III shifts key and provides a violin solo in a new version of the theme. Variant IV places the violas in the spotlight. The climax occurs in Variant V, followed by a solo cello declaiming the ‘Murder of Maria Martin’ version. The piece closes in transcendent, ethereal beauty.

Vaughan Williams had an instinctive gift for plumbing the essence of a tune without over-dressing it. Five Variants on ‘Dives and Lazarus’ has the melancholic, wistful, haunting quality that permeates the best English folk music. Its contrapuntal texture and modal harmonies make it a clear descendant of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which preceded this work by three decades.

The score calls for harp and strings.


Concerto Gregoriano
Ottorino Respighi
Born 9 July, 1879 in Bologna, Italy
Died 18 April, 1936 in Rome

Approximate duration 30 minutes

These performances are an HSO premiere

The great Italian colorist, Ottorino Respighi, holds a special place in the symphonic literature because of his brilliant symphonic tone poems.  Music lovers do not generally associate his name with the solo concerto.  Guest violinist Sayaka Shoji’s performances of Concerto Gregoriano are almost certainly a first hearing for Honolulu audiences.

What listeners may not know is that Respighi was an excellent violinist and violist who briefly considered a virtuoso solo career in his youth.  (Multi-talented, he did later perform as a piano soloist on tour in this country, on the mainland.) Composition intervened as his Conservatory studies at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna exposed him to Giuseppe Martucci, a leading Italian composer and the most important of Italy’s Wagnerites. Another composer at the Liceo, Luigi Torchi, fostered Respighi’s lifelong interest in early music. Initially, that interest manifested itself in his editions of music by Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, and other early Italian composers. works. Later, Gregorian chant would play a significant role in his original compositions.

Respighi traveled to Russia twice between 1900 and 1903, working for several months as principal viola in the St. Petersburg Opera orchestra and taking a few crucial composition lessons with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. His experience as a string player and his increasing mastery of orchestration would serve him well throughout his career.

Concerto gregoriano derives much of its modal musical language, and some of its melodies, from Gregorian chant.  It is a traditional concerto in the sense that violin plays a virtuosic solo role, supported by the larger orchestral ensemble.  Dialogue between the two parties, however, is different from what we might expect in a late romantic concerto.  Marguerite Butler likens their interaction to an ancient house of worship.

The solo violin plays, so to speak, the role of cantor in the old religious service, while the orchestra represents the choir of believers.

After his marriage to Elsa Sangiacomo in 1919, Respighi undertook more intensive study of chant melodies. His wife’s biographical memoir asserts that virtually everything he composed after 1920 was influenced by Gregorian melodies. In Concerto gregoriano, Respighi’s use of the Gregorian material is more adaptation than strict quotation. The closest he comes to actually incorporating a chant is the ethereal slow movement, whose violin melody is similar to the Easter sequence “Victimae paschali laudes.” The last movement also employs some Gregorian material. These serene melodies, which unfold in largely stepwise motion, have a compelling effect when cloaked in the rich sounds of a modern full orchestra. Bold cadenzas in the finale relate the concerto to the late 19th-century romantic tradition. Ultimately, it is Respighi’s irresistible writing that draws us in.

Respighi’s score calls for two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, celesta, harp, solo violin and strings.

Selections from Romeo and Juliet, Op.64
Sergei Prokofiev
Born 23 April 1891 in Sontzovka, Ukraine
Died 5 March, 1953 in Moscow

Approximate duration 43 minutes

First performed by the HSO in 1974

Sergei Prokofiev: Innovator

Many operas and orchestral works have been based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet [see sidebar]. Sergei Prokofiev was the first to set the story as a ballet. That decision was a stroke of genius and a monumental challenge. Though no novice to ballet scores – he had collaborated with the legendary impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the choreographers Léonide Massine and George Balanchine in the 1920s – Prokofiev’s previous experience was with one-act ballets.  This new subject required great detail in the scenario and, by association, greater length in the music.  At almost two and one-half hours, the ballet remains one of the longest in the entire repertoire.

Shakespeare’s drama was difficult to convey through ballet.  The dancers would have to be able to act in order to project the emotional and psychological nuances of the story.  Prokofiev developed the ballet scenario with Sergei Radlov (1892-1958), a Soviet stage director with considerable Shakespearean experience.

Stumbling blocks to production lead to orchestral performances

Most of Romeo and Juliet dates from 1935, the year before Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union after nearly 20 years living abroad.  After his score was complete and ready for production, Romeo and Juliet encountered political and artistic snags that resulted in its postponement.  Frustrated, Prokofiev extracted two sets of seven movements from his score of 52 numbers, and published them separately as orchestral suites.  Eventually he compiled a third suite as well.  As orchestral works, the suites became well known in Russian concert halls even before the ballet was finally produced at Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet in 1940.  Since the Second World War, Romeo and Juliet has become Prokofiev’s most beloved ballet.

Each Suite’s component movements bear no chronological relationship to events in the ballet.  Prokofiev arranged their sequence for musical (as opposed to dramatic) logic, contrast, and coherence. The selections that Kenneth Lam conducts were compiled by the German conductor Mathias Bamert with the same goal, but with more movements.  This version has been performed by a number of orchestras in Europe, Asia, and North America.

This concert’s selections

To open, this Suite sets forth the tension of the family feud and potential for violence with “Montagues and Capulets,” communicating their menacing antipathy and laying the groundwork for the tragedy that unfolds.

“Morning Serenade” (also known as Aubade, or dawn) occurs after Juliet has taken the potion that will make her appear lifeless. Lady Capulet and Juliet’s nurse are busy getting ready for Juliet’s wedding to Paris later that day, oblivious that their preparations will soon be those for a funeral. The music features solos for mandolin and concertmaster, as well as a bright trio for cornet and trumpets.

“The Child Juliet” portrays the innocent heroine before she has met Romeo. Still half girl, half woman, she is untroubled and teasing. Responsibility, passion and tragedy have not yet clouded her life.

Prokofiev included several dances in the score as music for transitional scenes. These movements generally featured the corps de ballet or minor characters, and helped to move the narrative forward between cameo movements for the principals. “Tableau” and “Dance” are two such movements. The brief “Tableau” is a simple march with typical, quirky Prokofievan modulations. “Dance” is lively with prominent harp, orchestral piano, and snare drum motor rhythm supported by pizzicato divided strings. Solo oboe introduces the principal melody, which Prokofiev develops and harmonizes with characteristic charm.

“Morning Dance” takes place in the ballet’s first scene as the streets of Verona awaken –  but before the quarrel that sets the plot in motion. Nervous and fleet, Prokofiev’s music is a masterpiece of orchestration, with chirping winds, bellowing brasses, expressive strings, and an occasionally circus-like atmosphere.

“Masks” is the music for Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio arriving at the Capulets’ ball, uninvited and in disguise.  Percussion is essential to establishing a martial mood for this movement. Yes, the young men are at a social event and intend to be on their best behavior, but the uncompromising march rhythm makes clear they could be looking for trouble.

The ‘Death of Tybalt’ captures the frenetic atmosphere of the melée as Romeo resolves to avenge Mercutio’s death through a duel with Tybalt, nephew of Juliet’s mother. Tybalt’s death at Romeo’s hand, which concludes the ballet’s second act, prompts a scene of somber mourning as the Capulets gather around the body of their fallen kinsman. The die is cast, and Romeo is banished from Verona.

‘Romeo and Juliet before Parting’ communicates the depth of feeling between the doomed young lovers. In the ballet, it provides an opportunity for a classic pas de deux. This tender movement includes some of Prokofiev’s most memorable themes. Mathias Bamert’s arrangement proceeds without pause to “Romeo at Juliet’s Grave.”

Having heard of Juliet’s death, Romeo purchases poison in Mantua before returning to Verona, where he slips into the Capulet crypt. In this final movement, Prokofiev combines funeral march, anguish, and overwhelming grief. The young man mourns his beloved, unaware that she will soon awaken from her drugged sleep. Knowing that he cannot live without Juliet, he drinks the vial of poison. She regains consciousness, only to discover Romeo dead at her side, the flacon empty. Seizing his dagger, she plunges it into her breast. The star-crossed lovers are united in death.

* * * * *

Prokofiev once said that he “had taken special pains to achieve a simplicity which will, I hope, reach the hearts of all listeners.  If people find no melody and no emotion in this work  of mine I shall feel very sorry; but I feel sure that they will sooner or later.”  With their sweep and brilliant orchestral color, these movements stand proudly in the finest romantic tradition and remind us of the timeless tragedy in Shakespeare’s drama.

The score calls for a large orchestra including piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, cornet, 3 trumpets, 6 horns, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, wooden drum, maracas, tambourine, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tubular bells, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, 2 harps, piano, organ, viola d’amore, and strings.



Since Shakespeare’s time, his plays have inspired artists: poets, painters, and especially musicians. Long before the film industry appropriated Shakespeare as its darling, Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest spawned art works in other fields.

None of the plays has had a greater impact in music than Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.  The tale of star-crossed lovers in Verona was a source of inspiration to many composers, particularly during the nineteenth century.  Hector Berlioz wrote a dramatic symphony based  on the tragedy; Vincenzo Bellini and Charles Gounod composed Romeo and Juliet operas,  and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky wrote a symphonic poem that he labeled ‘fantasy-overture.’

The theatrical magnetism of the story continued to be irresistible in the 20th century.  One brilliant musical imagination after another was captivated by the emotional sweep of the doomed young lovers, and the corresponding hostile passion of the feud between their two families.  The most famous modern adaptation is Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 musical West Side Story, which transferred the plot to New York City and metamorphosed its principal characters into Puerto Rican and Eastern European immigrants.

More than twenty years before Bernstein, the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev turned his attention to Romeo and Juliet. He chose  ballet, a realm in which Shakespeare’s play had not yet found a home.  The result is a classic of modern ballet and arguably Prokofiev’s greatest score.

– L.S. ©2017