January 31, 2016

Absent Love and Present Love in Romeo and Juliet

The most iconic adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is not an opera. I'm thinking of Tchaikovsky's Fantasy-Overture, one of the warhorses of orchestral literature. The love theme in that piece long ago made the cross-over from classical art to pop culture. It's been plugged into TV, movies and even animated cartoons too many times to count. Sometimes it's used seriously, sometimes with post-hipster irony. Everyone knows what it's intended to express, whether they have an ear for music or not.
Gounod at the piano

In the opera I'm writing about these days, Charles Gounod one-ups Tchaikovsky; if not in popularity, at least in quantity. In his Romeo and Juliet it appears to me that Gounod assigned not one, but two - count 'em! two! - official love themes to the famous couple.

Now, don't misunderstand: Romeo and Juliet sing many melodies during their four love duets. But for our purposes, a melody is not the same thing as a theme. I'm talking about a musical statement that recurs in different scenes, with a consistent extra-musical meaning each time it is heard. For an obvious, if somewhat cheesy example, think of the big sweeping theme by Max Steiner in Gone With The Wind that blares forth anytime mention is made of Tara, the O'Hara family plantation.

After due consideration, I label the two R & J love themes "Absent Love" and "Present Love". Each is heard four times during the opera; each recurrence seems to imply the same meaning and significance.

"Absent Love" is first heard in the orchestra immediately following the choral Prologue, just before the curtain rises on the Capulet ball. At a moderate sustained tempo, the strings present an elegaic, warmly expressive statement full of yearning. A pair of two-bar phrases (A1 and A2), each sketching the contour of a heavy sigh, is followed by a four-bar period (B) leading to a re-statement in fuller orchestration:

After this initial statement of the theme, "Absent Love" is not heard again until Act 4, when it re-appears as an introduction to the scene of Romeo and Juliet's wedding-night duet. As the duet begins, the newly-married couple have just concluded a night of marital fulfillment and are disheartened to see that the sun is about to rise. That's bad news because, of course, Romeo has been ordered to leave Verona forever in punishment for having killed Tybalt. So Juliet is faced with Romeo's permanent absence as he must now begin his exile. The duet (to which we'll return below for the first occurrence of "Present Love") comes to an end, Romeo departs, and Juliet ends the scene by lamenting his departure in a descant to another orchestral statement of "Absent Love". It's at this moment that the attentive listener should begin to appreciate the theme's significance.

The meaning of "Absent Love" is confirmed in Act 5 when Romeo enters the Capulet crypt and sings a mournful soliloquy over the (apparently) dead body of his wife; for Romeo, Juliet is now forever "absent".

As for "Present Love", it is entirely contrasting in mood and construction. This is the theme where the representation of love becomes ardent and passionate, more in the vein of Tchaikovsky's material. In its phrase structure, "Present Love" is a near mirror image of "Absent Love": a longer period is followed by two fragmentary periods:

The rhythmic character is dynamic and dramatic, suggesting impulsiveness and the heat of sexual desire. This is in contrast to the introverted melancholy of "Absent Love".

"Present Love" is first heard in an orchestral statement that follows the earlier duet passage beginning "O nuit divine". When that section has concluded and Romeo is almost out the door, Juliet begs him to stay just a little longer. (I like to think that this is an earlier version of two teenagers in love talking on the phone, each saying "You hang up. No, YOU hang up", etc.). When Romeo agrees to remain, a risky decision in view of his legal peril, the orchestra launches into "Present Love" sans vocalization; the lovers are in no mood to sing, locked in passionate embrace. The entire theme lasts perhaps 15 seconds or less. There is no way even the most attentive listener could comprehend that "An Important Theme" has just been introduced, but in fact that's what's happened. I call this passage "Present Love" because at that precise point, Romeo and Juliet are no longer regretting the past or fearing the future: rather, they are in the moment; they are truly "present", aware only of being together.

It's not until the finale that "Present Love" takes its place with the earlier theme as a defining concept of the lover's relationship. Romeo downs his dose of poison, Juliet's eyelids flutter as she awakens from her coma, and for a few precious seconds Romeo forgets about poison. The young couple, overjoyed to see one another again, believe they have beaten the odds: they are together; nothing else in the world exists.

They are present.

Of course, the ugly reality of the situation soon overtakes their euphoria; Juliet, unwilling to face life without Romeo, self-inflicts a mortal knife wound. So which theme accompanies their final moments of life? The choice is important, as it defines their mindset as life slips away. Rather than giving in to fear and panic of their looming mutual and eternal Absence, they remain focused on clinging to the experience of being Present as long as they can. As a solo violin plays a subdued, pianissimo version of "Present Love", Juliet whispers "avec toi". "With you". I am with you. We are present, right now, right in this moment.

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