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Stories of doomed love always resonated deeply with Tchaikovsky; Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet was no exception. In 1869, when Tchaikovsky took up the play as a musical subject at the suggestion of fellow composer Mily Balakirev, he was deeply in love with Eduard Zak, a 15-year-old cousin of one of his students. Zak committed suicide four years later, and, when Tchaikovsky pondered the incident in his diary in 1887, his recollection of Zak reveals how strong his feelings for the boy were: “How amazingly clearly I remember him: the sound of his voice, his movements, but especially the extraordinarily wonderful expression on his face at times. I cannot conceive that he is no more. The death of this boy, the fact that he no longer exists, is beyond my understanding. It seems to me that I have never loved anyone so strongly as him.”

Shakespeare’s tragedy and Tchaikovsky’s tortured personal life collided to produce the first true expression of his genius as a composer, a tautly constructed masterpiece that boils Shakespeare’s narrative down to its essentials in 20 minutes of music that is, by turns, thunderingly dramatic and achingly beautiful. The fantasy-overture opens with a lengthy introduction before presenting its two main theme groups: oppressively brutal music representing the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues, and a rapturous love theme for Romeo and Juliet. The second statement of this theme is interrupted by the music for the warring families as Romeo and Juliet’s love is crushed by the two families’ seething hatred for one another. After a somber reworked version of the love theme in the minor mode, it is transfigured into music that is serene and chorale-like, ending the piece on a triumphant and otherworldly note.

— John Mangum is Vice President of Artistic Planning for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.