This is one of the great milestones in Tchaikovsky’s career. It was written relatively early in his life. The complete story is complicated, since it is was first composed in 1869, but the final, 3rd version we hear today was not completed until 1880, and the world did not hear it until 1886.
- piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (in A), 2 bassoons
- 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in E), 3 trombones, tuba
- 3 timpani, cymbals, bass drum
The whole story:
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The 1st version was a failure:
It was very different from what it eventually became.
The first performance on March 16, 1870 was hindered by a sensational court case surrounding the conductor, Tchaikovsky’s friend Rubinstein. The result was not encouraging as a premiere for Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky said of the premiere:
“After the concert we dined…. No one said a single word to me about the overture the whole evening. And yet I yearned so for appreciation and kindness.”
Nikolai Rubinstein was impressed with Romeo and Juliet. He arranged for the publishing house Bote and Bock to publish the piece in 1870. Tchaikovsky’s music was virtually unknown in Germany at the time. But Balakirev, Tchaikovsky’s friend, thought Tchaikovsky was rushing Romeo and Juliet to press prematurely, and he was probably right.
The 2nd version was better:
Balakirev wanted him to rework the piece, forcing Tchaikovsky to rewrite much of the music into the form it is known today. Balakirev was overbearing and often discouraged his friend, and sometimes his advice was off the mark. In this case it was not.
The second version was premiered in St. Petersburg on February 17, 1872, under Eduard Nápravník.
The 3rd and final version, and success:
In 1880, ten years after his first reworking of the piece, Tchaikovsky rewrote the ending and gave the piece the sub-title “Overture-Fantasia”. It was completed by September 10, 1880, but did not receive its premiere until May 1, 1886, in Tbilisi, Georgia (then part of the Russian Empire), under Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov.
This is the version is that we know today, The earlier versions are performed occasionally only as historical oddities.
From failure to world-wide popularity:
From it’s modest beginnings, this piece has grown into one of the most popular things Tchaikovsky wrote. It’s impossible to guess how much of that popularity is due to improvements in his mastery of form and structure, and how much is due to the world catching up to this genius composer.