Costello’s story has all the makings of a classic urban legend: a nameless man works in secret to answer letters addressed to a dead fictional character until he is at some point unmasked by (again unnamed) members of the press. This version, mysterious and sexy, makes for great reading but leaves a lot of questions unanswered: how did the professor get the letters in the first place? Didn’t the postman delivering them to him notice that they were addressed to “Juliet?” Did anyone wonder about the high volume of mail that must have been entering and exiting his home? How did he, on an academic’s salary, afford all those postage stamps?
Nevertheless, it’s still a good tale, and one that I’ve told to many audiences before performing these songs. Over the years, I’ve even added my own touches: that the professor would visit the tomb in the darkest hours of every night, collecting the letters secretly by candlelight; that he continued responding to these letters until his death, at which time his family revealed that he was the one who, for decades, had been corresponding with the world; that in his dead hands was found one final letter, still in its sealed envelope, that must forever remain unopened and unanswered.
The truth behind the legend is less exotic, but by no means pedestrian. In 1935 (or 1937, depending on who you believe), Antonio Avena, the Director of the Verona Civic Museums, opened the thirteenth-century cloisters of the Capuccinni monastery of San Francesco al Corso to the public. In order to increase tourist activity, he called the cloisters “Juliet’s tomb,” part of a sightseeing triumvirate (along with “Juliet’s House” and “Romeo’s House,” both conveniently located nearby). Although the empty sarcophagus that sits in the middle of the tomb had probably been identified as Juliet’s gravesite at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Avena was the first to mass-market the cloisters under that name.
Shortly afterward, in 1937 (or 1938), a letter arrived in Verona, Italy, addressed to Juliet Capulet. For unknown reasons, the curator of Juliet’s tomb wrote back, sparking a trend that would eventually spread throughout the world. Over the ensuing years so many letters continued to arrive for Juliet that the city of Verona organized the Juliet Club in 1990, an organization with a team of eight volunteer secretaries who respond to the more than 5000 letters that are received each year. Although we don’t know exactly what the letters to Juliet contain, I like to think of the writers asking for advice, discussing problems or issues with life that they can’t talk about with even their closest friends, or even offering prayers — as to a saint.
Whatever the truth about the origins of the Juliet letters, Costello and the Brodsky Quartet were inspired by the idea of this correspondence and jointly composed 17 songs for voice and string quartet that explore the types of letters that might have been left at Juliet’s tomb.
When I first heard the original recording of these pieces in 1995, I was immediately struck by how clever, witty, and compelling they were. It wasn’t long after my first listening to that recording that I decided to arrange these songs for piano and voice, enabling myself to perform them instead of just passively listening to them.
Flash forward eight years: after recording Blue, Michelle and I took a trip to San Diego to celebrate. On the way home, we started talking about what our next recording should be. I mentioned my desire to arrange the Juliet Letters and played her the CD. We listened to the songs for the entire six hour drive. After a few times through the entire disc, we knew we had found our next project.
Right away, I began arranging the songs and was struck by the difficulty of transferring the original accompaniments from string quartet to piano. The original arrangements are masterpieces of understated, almost minimalistic, part writing; many of the songs consist solely of chains of successive triads that weave hypnotically underneath the vocal line. Although this approach works very well with string accompaniment, piano accompaniment is, by necessity, a totally different animal.
I soon decided that it was more important to keep the original emotional intent underlying the songs intact rather than transcribing the original string parts note-for-note to the piano. Once I reached this decision, the act of arranging (or, in some cases, composing) became much more natural and organic. Although I was able, in certain songs, to keep my arrangement very similar to the original, most songs have a completely recomposed accompaniment.
One troubling aspect of arranging these songs was determining exactly what they were. What genre of music could they be categorized as? Are they pop music or classical music? Should they be tonal, atonal, or merely dissonant? I kept two handwritten sentences on a piece of paper with me and would refer to them every time I started to work on a new song. The first, written by Costello himself in the original Juliet Letters liner notes, simply says, “This is no more my stab at ‘classical music’ than it is the Brodsky Quartet’s first rock and roll album.” The second was something Charles Ives wrote in 1925: “Why tonality as such should be thrown out for good, I can’t see. Why it should be always present, I can’t see. It depends, it seems to me, a good deal – as clothes depend on the thermometer – on what one is trying to do.” Buttressed by this wisdom, I began to listen to each song as if for the first time, letting go of my preformed opinions. I let the text and expressive content of each song determine its own style. Although different than the composers’ original conception, my goal has been to remain true to their intent.
David Murray, 2006