For never was a story of more woe…


In this week’s music post, Mahlerman is contemplating star-cross’d lovers…

No need for officers from Operation Yewtree to plan a dawn raid, but the archetypal love story of the Renaissance enshrined in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet does throw up a few parallels. It did take place a long time ago, and it is going to be difficult to find anybody still alive who remembers what happened. Juliet Capulet was only thirteen and, even judged by today’s lax moral standards, was underage for sex and marriage. And Romeo Montague, though also young, was a fully mature man, and probably knew exactly what he was doing, as he dumped Rosaline for the probably menarcheal Juliet.  Wherever the truth may lie, the four hundred year old story has never relaxed its grip upon artists, writers and musicians – and today from the long list of dramatis personae I have extracted a quartet who managed to translate Shakespeare’s text into notes on a stave.

Much of what we know of the troubled life of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is shrouded in mist, seen as if through gauze. His sexual orientation, taboo in 19th century Russia, only partly explains this mystery; for the rest we must be satisfied with the knowledge that his extremely nervous and highly strung disposition, allied to a passionate creative soul, meant that much of his life would be spent in the shadows.  In the year of the first version of the Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet 1869, Tchaikovsky was deeply in love with one of his pupils, the fifteen year old Eduard Zak who, four years later, would commit suicide. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that the love and loss of this teenager, dying in the same manner as Romeo, inspired or at least contributed to the white heat of inspiration that brought this marvellous work, his first mature masterpiece, into the world. The piece was revised in 1870 and again in 1880, and it is in this last version that we hear perhaps one of the most ravishing themes he ever wrote – which is saying a lot. Is it possible to write such music and not be in love?

Sexual orientation was never a concern for the great American polymath Leonard Bernstein; male or female, old or young, attached or otherwise, all were collected by Lenny’s voracious appetite for everything and everyone. But in a world full to overflowing with little people, everything he did was expansive and writ large – even the almost constant smoking that found him battling emphysema for the last forty years of his life, and which silenced him via a heart attack in 1990.  You will struggle to find an image of this much-photographed man without a fag on the go; in fact he employed a man to light one up in the wings, that he could take a few puffs before returning to the rostrum. Now, more than twenty years after his death, his genus and genius is, rightly in my view, no longer questioned. And even if all his marvellous theatre works were to be swept away – his own Mass, On The Town, Candide, Wonderful Town – we would still be left with the imperishable masterpiece that is West Side Story, now more than fifty years old and sounding fresh as paint. The maestro recorded the work many times but in 1985, with a pick-up band of soloist-standard instrumentalists, and a handful of world class operatic stars, he demonstrated that the piece worked not just as a high-voltage theatre extravaganza, but also as a majestic operatic experience to rank against anything by Verdi or Puccini. We all know the half-dozen masterful numbers that are scattered throughout this score. Less well known, but as touching as anything Bernstein wrote, is the plaintive duet sung by Tony (Anton) and Maria One Hand, One Heart, originally intended for Cunegonde in Candide.  I have no reason to doubt the words of the conductor/composer in this video, when he explains how his ‘hard-boiled’ daughter broke down in tears on hearing this performance – I did myself, not for the first time. On the page, the opening four note motif  E, A, B, E(repeated) looks nothing special; but listen to it played by the eloquent clarinet here, and taken up by the flute, before a very nervous Jose Carreras as Tony moves into the hymn-like melody with encouragement from Kiri Te Kanawa’s Maria.  Then tell me you have a heart of stone.

The English composer (born of German stock) Frederick Delius was in his mid-40’s when his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet first appeared in Berlin in 1907. The piece demonstrates many of the weaknesses of this almost-great composer, and yet very few of the strengths that bring Delians to fever-pitch, but one of them is the bewitching Intermezzo that covers a rather awkward scene change near the end of the opera The Walk to the Paradise Garden. The opera is performed almost never, for all the most obvious reasons – not least that it has nothing much in common with the Shakespeare story known to all; we find the origins in the classic Swiss novella by Gottfried Keller, telling of the warring fathers of the lovers Sali and Vreli, who vow to die together after just one day of happiness – all this against a background of grinding poverty, a world far removed from that of of the Veronese Houses of Montague and Capulet. The wonderfully evocative paintings are by the Pre-Raphaelite-influenced near-contemporary of Delius, John Atkinson Grimshaw.

Brilliant as both of them are, there is a wryness and cynicism in the work of the Russians Igor Stravinsky and Serge Prokofiev that make their scores difficult to ‘love’. The only time I regularly ‘get upset’ with either of them is at the close of Prokofiev’s great ballet score for Romeo and Juliet, and even then I am aided by what I see enacted as much as what I am listening to. Two brilliant but cold fish.  However, the piece is a marvel, fit to rank alongside any of the great ballets by Tchaikovsky. The plangent motoric beat of Dance of the Knights has been used to sell just about everything, from video games and perfume (Chanel, Egoiste) to the baleful presence of Alan Sugar on The Apprentice. But today we end with a real three-hanky job, the deathbed scene from the end of the ballet with most men’s idea of what a thirteen year old girl should look like, in the person of the gamine waif Alessandra Ferri, whom I was fortunate enough to see in the role. Her Romeo in this Teatro alla Scala production is the Spaniard Angel Corella.

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

2 thoughts on “For never was a story of more woe…

    June 23, 2013 at 23:35

    Beautiful words and sublime music, Mahlerman.
    The Tchaikovsky sets me off..
    Was he in love with tragedy, perhaps?

    Des’ree’s Kissing You from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, though curiously repetitive, also evokes the tortured soul.

  2. Brit
    June 24, 2013 at 21:42

    Brilliant and informative as ever, MM.

Comments are closed.