Coming of Age in Verona: Musical Examples

In my last post, I discussed Coppélia Kahn’s article “Coming of Age in Verona” in which she describes the rites of passages that both Romeo and Juliette are enduring throughout the story. The masculine rite of passage was to earn one’s manhood through violence or love, while young women were expected to symbolize purity, beauty, youth, and new life through motherhood. In viewing Romeo and Juliette within this patriarchal society, it creates a more multi-dimensional understanding of each character and their behaviors. Both lovers resist and defy the societal pressures demanded of them, which leads them down the road towards inevitable death. Within their intimate interactions, there is a reversal of the typical gender roles and behaviors. This article really inspired me to open my score again and take a look at the music and duets of Romeo and Juliette with this new understanding of their societal context. 


3:21 for “Juliette parut…”

“Juliette parut, et Roméo l’aima!/ Juliette appeared, and Romeo loved her!”

  • Juliette simply appears; she initiates the exchange and Romeo responds. The four measure phrase is marked forte when mentioning Juliette and pianissimo for Romeo. Musically and textually, Juliette symbolizes the “masculine” force and Romeo the (literally) softer, romantic, “feminine” presence. (3:21)

Act I

6:35 for “Écoutez…”

“Écoutez, écoutez…” & “Je veux vivre”

Here, Juliette epitomizes beauty, youth, and grace. She is inviting everyone to join in the festivities, making her father proud, and fulfilling expectations with phrases like “A whole new enchanting world is born in my eyes! Everything celebrates and intoxicates me!” Her music here is very joyful, major in sonority, and mostly stepwise diatonic motion. A few moments of chromaticism display her flirtatiousness and the high tessitura and arpeggiated lines convey a youthful and simple personality. 

In her aria, Juliette’s music still contains these youthful and simplistic qualities: a waltz meter, playful ornamentations on almost each phrase, and many moments of explosive and “joyful” coloratura. However, the text of aria implies Juliette’s resistance to all the societal expectations. She wants to keep the “sweet flame of [her soul] guarded like a treasure”. The “dream of youth” and “sweet flame” are her innocence and youth that she does not want to squander away in love. In the first slow section, she describes how “youth only lasts but a day…the heart gives into love and happiness flees without return…” In the second slower section beginning “Loin…” she begs “leave me, let me sleep and breathe the rose before devouring it”. I believe the rondo form and return to the happy “Je veux vivre” refrain is Juliette remembering her duties to please the crowd and her father. 

Romeo and Mercutio

When Mercutio exclaims that they can finally remove their masks, Romeo responds “No, you promised! Let’s be careful!” These are Romeo’s very first words of the entire opera and they show that he is not the fighting type and doesn’t want to be caught in the middle of an altercation. After Mercutio’s taunting Queen Mab aria, Romeo still feels “troubled by a dark premonition” but when he sees Juliette he immediately bursts out into romantic words of poetry comparing her to the sun: “This celestial beauty that seems like a sunbeam in the night!” These early scenes with Romeo establish that he would rather choose the path of love versus violence. 

First duet: “Ange adorable”

“Ange Adorable”

In Romeo and Juliette’s first interaction, we see these typical gender role behaviors begin to shift towards reversal. Romeo approaches her, touches her hand, and not wanting to offend, begins to ask for forgiveness. Juliette’s first line “Calm your fears” places her in control and authority in this situation. She goes on to describe how the saints have already forgiven and that she must refuse a kiss. When Romeo says “even the saints have blushing lips”, Juliette quickly responds “To pray only!” She tries to stand her ground and avoid seduction by Romeo. Eventually by the end of the duet, Juliette gives in and lets Romeo kiss her. Gounod’s use of thirds show this first pure and simple union of the two lovers. 

In the Finale of Act I, Romeo and Juliette learn each other’s names and realize what trouble they could be in. Juliette has a premonition that “La haine est le berceau de cet amour fatal!…/Hatred is the cradle of this fatal love!” (1:25). Juliette quickly realizes that violence and death is in her future.

Act II

Balcony Scene

Referenced in my last post, the Balcony scene is really the first moment that Romeo and Juliette experience a private moment to express their true feelings and passions for each other. At first, not realizing that Romeo is listening, Juliette wishes that he could “renounce that fatal name that separates us” and Romeo wishes that he could be “reborn as someone else” in order to love Juliette. Even the word choice in these two phrases shows how Romeo and Juliette portray the opposite of what would be expected of them socially. Juliette’s words “renounce…fatal… separate” hint at violence and physical conflict and Romeo’s “reborn” connects him to the feminine idea of birth and life. 

Later Juliette starts to give into the passionate poetic moment and hopes the night hides her blushing face, but quickly catches herself and says “Goodbye all vain detours! Do you love me?” She doesn’t want to waste time with romantic talk and blushing, she wants to get to the point and really find out if Romeo is serious about her or not. This shows Juliette’s growing independence and maturity; if she is going to renounce her name and risk losing her family, she is going to make sure Romeo is worth it. 

In this section of the scene, Romeo only responds once before the lovers are interrupted. He gladly and passionately responds “Before God who hears me, I pledge my faith to you!” After a short interruption, Romeo and Juliet meet again on the balcony and his first words mimic that of Juliette’s first aria “O night divine! I implore you, leave my heart to it’s enchanted dream!” In these two phrases from Romeo, we understand that he is very passionate, driven by emotion, and focused on love and romance — contrary to the more logical and clear-cut Juliette. The next part of the scene continues to show the reversal of the typical and expected behaviors of Romeo and Juliette. Juliette says “only one word… then goodbye!” and then she essentially proposes to him and makes sure there is a plan set in stone to get married the next day. Romeo professes his love and fidelity for her, calls her his queen and continues his comparison of Juliette to the sun, light, and heavens. 


Wedding Ceremony

In Act III, Romeo and Juliette defy the normative cultural codes in a more clear-cut fashion when they are married in secrecy by Friar Laurence. The symbolic act of becoming united in love and marriage foreshadows their final union in love and death, again harkening back to the romance vs. violence dichotomy of the patriarchal society. Friar Laurence prays that the Lord will favor their union, “ordain the yoke of the handmaiden to be one of love and peace”, and that in their “happy old age” may Romeo and Juliette see their children and their children’s children. Finally in a declarative and forte phrase, he prays that they will be united in eternal life and reach the kingdom of heaven. All these prayers are answered by Romeo and Juliette by a unison/octave phrase completing the prayer. After they exchange vows, the quartet erupts in a celebratory homophonic hymn of praise saying “Heaven has received our gifts of love!” and “God of kindness and mercy, Be blessed by these two happy hearts!” This final line returns in the final moments of the opera when Romeo and Juliette are reunited in the tomb, right before they die. 

Fight scene

In the next scene, a fight ensues between the Capulets and Montagues after Stephano taunts the Capulets with his aria “Que fais tu, blanche tourterelle/What are you doing, white dove/” which uses similar word play and clever language like Mercutio’s Queen Mab aria. When Tybalt and Mercutio begin to fight, Romeo tries desperately to stop them. “Allons!” (3:45) Here, Romeo’s music contrasts the men’s with legato, major and sweet lyrical phrases. The orchestra echoes the rising and falling eighth note patterns from the Act I Duet “Ange Adorable”.

When all men start fighting and erupt into unison chorus “Capulets/Montagues”, Romeo is literally covered by their violent cries as he pleads: “Hatred, hatred fruitful in miseries! Must you always through your fury give to the world a spectacle of horror?” (5:30) Romeo wants the fighting to stop but ultimately his pleas for peace are never heard.

Mercutio dies, Roméo kills Tybalt

When Mercutio is killed, the violence and “fire-eyed fury” (0:41) takes over Romeo and he kills Tybalt. In the moment right before he kills Tybalt, he calls him a coward and the orchestra mimics an ascending chromatic line which echoes the opening to Juliette’s aria “Je veux vivre” (0:54). These little “easter eggs” recalling Juliette’s music show how Romeo’s union to Juliette through marriage has given him a strength that leads him to an act of violence.  

Act IV

Juliet forgives Romeo & “Nuit d’hymenee”

In Act IV, Romeo is completely distraught and runs to Juliette for comfort. She immediately forgives him, and states logically that if he didn’t kill Tybalt, Tybalt would have killed him, so it was the only real choice that Romeo had. This recitative before their duet “Nuit d’hyménée” is quite short compared to other recitative between the two lovers. There’s no need for them to discuss much before they consummate their marriage and Juliette simply forgives Romeo and tells him she loves him. In this lovely duet, the two lovers sing in sweet third harmonies symbolizing their passionate union. Later in the duet, they exchange the same musical material back and forth showing how they are united and equal.

I won’t go into detail analyzing Juliette’s Poison aria in this post (check out my post: “The Poison Aria: Diving into the Shakespeare”). To summarize, in this aria we see Juliette’s strength, courage, and how she is logically processing her situation and all the possible outcomes. 

In the Act IV Finale, the wedding between Juliette and Paris is about to take place, but just having taken the Friar’s potion, Juliette collapses and “dies” as she is walking down the wedding aisle. Here she is physically resisting the marriage that her father expects of her. On an even deeper level, she is opposing the societal expectations of women of birth and new life by collapsing and dying. She repeats the exact music from the Act I Finale “La haine est le berceau…/Hatred is the cradle…” (2:15).

Wedding ceremony to Paris, Juliette collapses

Act V

Act V

In Act V, Romeo approaches the Capulet tomb and describes it as “more beautiful than the heavens above! Splendid and radiant palace!” Romeo has a skewed view of the symbol and place of death. When he sees Juliette, he believes that she is actually dead yet he describes her beauty as not being altered by death. After one last kiss, Romeo takes the fatal poison… just as Juliette begins to awake. He starts experiencing some effects of the poison and is confused as Juliette speaks. She is confused as well, but when they realize they are finally together they rejoice recalling the wedding hymn from their secret wedding ceremony “God of kindness and mercy, Be blessed by these two happy hearts!” (8:35) This fulfills the idea that this musical moment earlier in the opera is actually a foreshadowing of their deaths. Suddenly Romeo begins to really physically feel the effects of the poison and starts talking about approaching the gates of heaven (9:24). Juliette is confused and asks Romeo “Die?… What delirium takes over you? My beloved, Remember your reason.” (10:02) Juliette is literally telling Romeo to come to his senses and be more rational, as a man might say to an over-emotional woman. In response, Romeo tells Juliette to “Console-toi/Console yourself” (10:45) and then recalls the Act IV duet “No, no it isn’t the lark…” (12:26) as he is really starting to lose his touch with reality. Romeo is overtaken with pain and the feelings of death, but he still wants to revel in the beauty and romance of their young love. Juliette immediately goes into plan/logical mode “Ah cruel husband! Of this fatal poison, you did not leave me my part!” (13:21) She is frustrated that Romeo did not leave her any poison, but she quickly goes to her next plan: “Ah! Fortunate dagger!” Juliette remains strong and fulfills her plan of using the dagger to take her own life. 

In reviewing the score and music with a deeper understanding of their patriarchal society and what behaviors would be expected of them, we can see that Romeo and Juliette resist and defy these expectations. Instead of portraying the belligerent and domineering “typical” manly behaviors, Romeo is quite soft, emotional and driven by his love for Juliette and yearning for peace in almost all his actions. On the other hand, Juliette establishes her independence from her father’s and society’s expectations, is very rational-minded and takes many risky and dangerous behaviors. Through her actions, Juliette embodies the “masculine” qualities rather than the typical “womanly” characteristics of submission, poise, beauty, and birth/new life. It’s really amazing to see how Gounod uses the music to solidify these characteristics of both Romeo and Juliette. Romeo and Juliette may be “star-crossed lovers” but they are truly the perfect complementary couple and they balance each other well. Within their relationship they are quite equal in power and strengths which exemplifies their resistance to the typical male-female relationship codes of their time.

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