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The Musically Inspiring 'Romeo and Juliet'

You wouldn't call Romeo and Juliet the world's most famous fun-loving couple, but they were among the most inspirational. Their passionate story prompted many other art works — musical ones in particular. As a Valentine's Day treat, Morning Edition commentator Miles Hoffman recently brought in a stack of Romeo and Juliet recordings and played them for NPR's Bob Edwards.

Hoffman starts this romantic musical journey with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. The "lush and sweeping" work, written in 1869, "set a standard in some ways for what we think of as love music," Hoffman says.

Next up: Berlioz' Romeo et Juliette. The composer "didn't want words," Hoffman says. "He only wanted instrumental music because he felt that words would be too limiting" in telling the love story.

Charles Gounod created the most famous operatic version of Shakespeare's tragedy. "His Romeo and Juliet opera has been called a love duet with occasional interruptions," Hoffman says.

And then, of course, there's West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein's modern take on Romeo and Juliet. For Bernstein, "the Capulets and the Montagues became the Sharks and the Jets," Hoffman says.

"We're lucky that this beautiful love story has inspired composers," Hoffman says. "I suppose you could say that all beautiful music is Romeo and Juliet because all music that moves us is somehow or other, if not actually about love, it's about something that connects with love somewhere in us."

Music Heard in This Report

1. Piotr Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, Claudio Abbado and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (SK47179)

2. Hector Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette "Love Scene: Serene Night," Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Chorus (LSO 00003)

3. Charles Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, Munich Radio Orchestra, Chorus of the Bavarian Radio. Romeo: Placido Domingo. Juliette: Ruth Ann Swenson. (RCA Victor 09026-68440-2)

4. West Side Story, Original 1957 Broadway Cast recording. (Sony)

5. Sergei Prokofiev. Romeo and Juliet ballet, Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony (RCA Victor 09026-68288-2)

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Morning Edition music commentator Miles Hoffman is the author of The NPR Classical Music Companion, now in its tenth printing from the Houghton Mifflin Company. Before joining Morning Edition in 2002, Hoffman entertained and enlightened the nationwide audience of NPR's Performance Today every week for 13 years with his musical commentary, "Coming to Terms," a listener-friendly tour through the many foreign words and technical terms peculiar to the world of classical music.

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