In 1826 Hector Berlioz
was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire and immediately made an attempt to win the Prix de Rome – a prestigious award entitling its recipient to live in Italy and Germany for several years. The first time, the composer failed to get beyond the preliminary round. In 1827 he presented his cantata La Mort d’Orphée
which was considered un-performable, in 1828 came the cantata Herminie
which took second prize, 1829 saw the ill-received La Mort de Cléopâtre
and in 1830 he at last took the elusive grand prize with La Mort de Sardanapale
(this rather gloomily romantic list could also include his 1848 opus La Mort d’Ophélie, which was written for a different purpose).
The poet and playwright Pierre-Ange Vieillard de Boismartin had been commissioned to write his poem La Mort de Cléopâtre
by the Académie des Beaux-arts, but Berlioz’ eponymous oeuvre was exceedingly untraditional. He filled the early, still Baroque form consisting of a series of recitatives and arias with new expression that could have torn any form apart.
In the recitative C’en est donc fait! Ma honte est assurée
“the widow of Antony and Caesar” complains of Octavian’s insensitivity to her charms, and in the aria Ah! Qu’ils sont loin ces jours
she recalls former triumphs. The recitative Au comble des revers, qu’aurais-je encore à craindre?
focuses on her fateful decision. The prayer (meditation) Grands Pharaons, nobles Lagides
is paradoxically premised by the epigraph from Juliet’s monologue by Shakespeare – “How if, when I am laid into the tomb...” This funereal music was soon used by Berlioz in his Chœur des ombres
from the mono-drama Lélio, ou le retour à la vie
. The tempestuous final aria Non! De vos demeures funèbres je profanerais la splendeur!
is also directed to the forebears of the Lagides dynasty. Cleopatra calls out to the gods of Egypt. The phrasing of the violas and cellos depicts the appearance of a snake. The cantata ends with the agonising scene Dieux du Nil... vous m’avez... trahie!
The Queen’s voice weakens, and the orchestra counts out the last beats of her pulse... Of course, the traditional jury was scandalised and it rejected the work in 1829.
Hector Berlioz’ symphonie dramatique Roméo et Juliette was composed in 1839 and was premiered one year later. The text was written by Émile Deschamps, who turned to David Garrick’s treatment of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
In this work, Berlioz confirmed his reputation as the heir to Beethoven, whose Ninth Symphony also hints at the scale of Roméo et Juliette (at the premiere, the orchestra consisted of one hundred and sixty musicians) and the idea to use a chorus and soloists. Roméo is thus halfway between a symphony and an opera.
Berlioz selected key scenes from Shakespeare’s tragedy, but he placed the accents individually, like a true Romantic. The choral introduction and the finale frame three symphonic movements that are the most famous parts of the symphony: Grande fête chez Capulet, Scène d'amour, Juliette sur le balcon et Roméo dans l'ombre, La reine Mab, reine des songes (scherzo). Most of all, the finale with Father Lorenzo’s aria and the choral Oath of Reconciliation come close to the operatic stage.
Already in the 19th century, the symphony Roméo et Juliette had won acclaim from Russian audiences. Unsurprisingly, echoes of Berlioz can be heard even in Swan Lake.