Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Roméo et Juliette (Berlioz)

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

The great 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz holds a unique place in musical history. Far ahead of his time, he was one of the most original of great composers, but also an innovator as a practical musician, and a writer and critic whose literary achievement is hardly less significant than his musical output. Few musicians have ever excelled in all these different fields at once.

2019 marks the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s passing, and I have a pair of OTF posts planned to mark the anniversary, starting with this week’s seco d of two looks at music inspired by the Bard’s famous play.

Which of the two powers, Love or Music, can elevate man to the sublimest heights??It is a great problem, and yet it seems to me that this is the answer: ?Love can give no idea of music; music can give an idea of love??Why separate them? They are the two wings of the soul.?
- Hector Berlioz

Classical music lovers familiar with Symphonie fantastique will know of the supposed genesis of the symphony: the young composer’s infatuation for Harriet Smithson, the Irish Shakespearean actress. Yet this passion was only part of the transformation that Berlioz experienced when he first saw Harriet as Ophelia in the performance of Hamlet at the Odéon Theatre, Paris, in 1827. As he relates in his memoirs, “This sudden revelation of Shakespeare overwhelmed me. The lightning flash of his genius revealed the whole heaven of art to me, illuminating its remotest depths in a single flash?” From then on the dramatic works of Shakespeare shaped his musical imagination in the creation of such works as the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, the comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict, and shorter works - Le roi LearFantasy on The Tempest and the memorial to his love for Harriet, La Mort d’Ophélie.

In their excellent website Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb point out that Roméo et Juliette is one of Berlioz’s greatest and most original works, and reflects a number of influences. We already discussed the Shakespeare influence; the work is also a homage to Beethoven, in particular the Ninth Symphony, which provided Berlioz with one of his starting points in developing the possibilities of symphonic music. It also reflects, like his previous symphony Harold in Italy, the impact of Berlioz’s stay in Italy in 1831-1832 – including a hearing in Florence of Bellini’s I Montecchi ed i Capuletti which only encouraged him to do better. Finally, the exceptional virtuosity deployed in the orchestral writing seems particularly appropriate for the dedicatee of the work, Paganini, who was never able to hear it, much to Berlioz’s regret - The composition in 1839 was made possible by the generous gift of 20 000 francs by Paganini to Berlioz.

The work was first performed in 3 concerts conducted by Berlioz at the same Conservatoire, on 24 November, 1st December and 15th December 1839, before an audience that comprised much of the Parisian intelligentsia of the time and included none other than Richard Wagner, whose Tristan und Isolde of 1859 bears evident traces of the impact that the music had on him. The work did not reach its final form until several years after its composition: after a performance of the complete work in Vienna on 2 January 1846, the first since 1839 and the first abroad, Berlioz decided to make several important cuts and changes to the Prologue, Queen Mab Scherzo, and the Finale, and the full score was not published till 1847.

As it turns out, the work is rarely heard from beginning to end in concert, and we typically only hear the Love Scene and the Queen Mab scherzo as stand-alone bonbons. Charles Dutoit and Sir Colin Davis, in their respective Berlioz anthologies, both recorded the work in its entirety and it is the former’s interpretation (from the Montreal Symphony London/Decca recordings made at the old Church of St-Eustache North of Montreal) that is featured today.

(The YouTube playlist I found also includes a performance of the Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale as filler)

Happy Listening!

Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette, op. 17 [Ĥ 79]

Symphonie dramatique avec Chœurs, Solos de chant et Prologue en récitatif choral, composée d’après la Tragédie de Shakespeare
French libretto by Émile Deschamps, after Shakespeare

Florence Quivar, Mezzo-soprano
Alberto Cupido, Tenor
Tom Krause, bass
Chœurs de L'Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Tudor Signers Of Montréal
Jean-François Sénart, chorus master
Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal
Charles Dutoit, conductung

London Records ‎– 417 302-1
Format: 2 × Vinyl, LP, Stereo, Box

Recording details -


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