Berlioz: Scenes from Roméo et Juliette, Opus 17

Hector-Louis Berlioz was born at Cote-Saint‑André, Department of lsère, France, on December 11, 1803, and died in Paris on March 8, 1869. He began Roméo et Juliette on January 24, 1839, and finished it the following September 8. The first performance was in the concert hall of the Paris Conservatory on November 24. The composer conducted and the soloists were Emily Widemann, Alexis Dupont, and Louis Alizard. The performing force consisted of more than one hundred singers and one hundred instrumentalists. Theodore Thomas, who met Berlioz in Paris, brought much of his music, including Roméo et Juliette, to this country. The first US performance of any portion of the work was of the Festivity at the Capulets' and Love Scene, in New York, on December 3, 1864. Pierre Monteux led the San Francisco Symphony in the first performances of scenes from Roméo et Juliette in April 1938; Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the most recent performances of music from Roméo et Juliette in September 2010. The orchestral score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two piston cornets, three trombones, ophicléide (here replaced by tuba), four timpani played by two timpanists, bass drum cymbals, antique cymbals in F and B-flat, two tambourines, a minimum of two and a maximum of ten harps, and strings. Performance time: about twelve minutes.

Except for those who chose to specialize in opera, no composer of Berlioz's generation could ignore Beethoven. His Ninth was a redefinition of "symphony," an inspiration to young musicians (often an all but fatally paralyzing one), and a daunting challenge. To that challenge, Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette, a "dramatic symphony with choruses, soloists, and a prologue in choral recitative," was a vigorous response, perhaps the most original, surely the most poetic of hundreds of responses.

What Berlioz proposed—and carried out—was a work in which he would use words in a purely utilitarian function (with two brief but important exceptions) but in which he would render Shakespeare's poetry in what Thomas Mann called “that speaking unspokenness that belongs to music alone.” Let us hear Berlioz himself in his foreword to the published score: “. . . If there is singing, almost at the beginning, it is to prepare the listener's mind for dramatic scenes whose feelings and passions are to be expressed by the orchestra. . . . If, in the famous garden and cemetery scenes, the dialogues of the two lovers . . . are not sung, if the duos of love and despair are given to the orchestra, the reasons for this are numerous and  easy to understand. First, . . . it is a symphony and not an opera. Then, since duets of this nature have been handled vocally a thousand times by the greatest masters, it was wise as well as unusual to attempt another means of expression. It is also because the very sublimity of this love made its depiction so dangerous for the musician that he had to give his imagination a latitude that the specific sense of the sung words would not have left him and resort to instrumental language, which is richer, more varied, less fixed, and by its very flow incomparably more powerful. . . . ”

Slowly, beginning with conversations in 1827 with his friend Emile Deschamps, who would eventually provide the finished libretto, Berlioz realized his plan. Roméo et Juliette in fact incorporates a certain amount of detritus from Berlioz’s minor projects of the late twenties and early thirties. Even his music criticism, for a review of a performance of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, was the occasion for him to articulate his thoughts on how he would deal with Shakespeare's tragedy, and a phrase from the review even made its way into the libretto. It was the 20,000 francs that Paganini paid him in December 1834 for Harold in Italy that provided Berlioz with the freedom to concentrate on the Roméo project in earnest.

The work is divided into seven parts. The first is the Prologue, and the last three comprise Juliet's funeral procession, the scene of Romeo in the Capulets' tomb and Juliet's awakening, and the finale, about which Berlioz admitted willingly that it fell "into the realm of opera or oratorio." The rest consists of three large orchestral movements, with an introduction. That introductory music is an allegro depicting the warring households of the Montagues and Capulets, ending with the entry of the Prince of Verona, who orders the families to keep peace, on pain of death.

The Love Scene, which in the complete Roméo et Juliette begins with the offstage voices of the young people making their way home through the moonlit night after the Capulets' ball, was the music Berlioz loved best of any he had written. The ardor of its melodies, the delicacy of coloration, the finesse of poetic detail make it a love scene like no other in music. Then, as if a curtain is drawn aside, we at once look back on and find ourselves in the midst of the brilliant festivities at the Capulets’ palace.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.