No symphonic 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, and surely the most poetic.
Roméo et Juliette, Dramatic Symphony, Opus 17 1839/1846 | 95 mins
Berlioz idolized the works of Shakespeare, which the Romantics viewed as reflecting their own esthetics of highly personalized expression. He spent most of 1839 reinterpreting Shakespeare’s play as this dramatic symphony, “something splendid on a grand and original plan, full of passion and imagination,” as he put it.
The work’s seven parts depict or refer to selected scenes from Shakespeare’s tale of fair Verona—or, better put, they express the composer’s representation of the emotions involved. 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 (which Berlioz admitted willingly that it fell "into the realm of opera or oratorio"). The rest of the work consists of three large orchestral movements. The introductory music depicts the warring households of the Montagues and Capulets, and ends with the entry of the Prince of Verona, who orders the families to keep peace, on pain of death.
DID YOU KNOW? The Love Scene begins with the offstage voices of the young people making their way home through the moonlit night after the Capulets' ball. 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.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.