Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette, Opus 17

Roméo et Juliette, Dramatic Symphony, Opus 17

: December 11, 1803. La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France
DIED: March 8, 1869. Paris

COMPOSED: January 24 to September 8, 1839, with revisions following through 1846. The text is by Émile Deschamps, after William Shakespeare

WORLD PREMIERE:  November 24, 1839. Contralto Emily Widemann, tenor Alexis Dupont, and bass Louis Alizard were soloists, with the composer leading an orchestra and chorus assembled for the occasion, at the Salle du Conservatoire in Paris. The entire ensemble totaled 200 performers

US PREMIERE: May 17, 1878. Soloists Annie-Louise Cary, Charles Adams, and Frantz Rennerts with conductor Theodore Thomas, at the May Festival in Cincinnati

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1949. Soloists Nan Merriman, David Lloyd, and Stanley Noonan, the University of California Chorus, with Pierre Monteux conducting. MOST RECENT—October 2003. Soloists Monica Groop, Matthew Polenzani, and Samuel Ramey, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting

INSTRUMENTATION:  3 solo singers (mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass) and double chorus plus a chamber choir, with an orchestra of 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, 2 triangles, 2 tambourines, 2 antique cymbals, 2 harps, and strings

DURATION: About 95 mins

THE BACKSTORY That Hector Berlioz was a genius there can be no doubt, though genius does not always ensure a calm passage through life. His father was a physician in a town not far from Grenoble; and since the father assumed that his son would follow in the same profession, the son’s musical inclinations were largely ignored. He was sent to Paris to attend medical school, hated the experience, and took advantage of being in the big city by enrolling in private musical studies and, beginning in 1826, the composition curriculum at the Paris Conservatory. The seal of approval for all Conservatory composition students was the Prix de Rome, and in 1830, in his fourth consecutive attempt, Berlioz was finally honored with that prize. Apart from providing a measure of recognition for his skills and a welcome source of income, the award included a residency in Italy, a nation whose ancient cultural lineage was considered to wield an indispensable influence over the formation of the creative intellect.

The fifteen months he spent there provided both inspiration and disappointment, and Berlioz ended up returning to France before his residency concluded. But what he liked about Italy would become a permanent passion; both the remnants of antiquity and the vivacity of modern Italian life left an indelible imprint on his taste. Depictions of Italian history, art, and landscape would surface often in his music during ensuing decades, as witness such works as the symphony Harold in Italy, the “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette, and the operas Benvenuto Cellini (inspired by the autobiography of the sixteenth-century Italian sculptor, goldsmith, and musician), Les Troyens (1856-58, after Virgil’s Aeneid, chronicling events leading to the founding of Rome), and Béatrice et Bénédict (1860-62, after Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which is set in Italy).

Berlioz idolized the works of Shakespeare, which the Romantics viewed as reflecting their own esthetics of highly personalized expression, as opposed to so-called Classical playwrights, such as Racine, whose preference for formulaic structures were deemed emotionally limiting. Apart from Roméo et Juliette and Béatrice et Bénédict, he wrote such Shakespeare-inspired works as overtures on Le Roi Lear  and La Tempête (grafting the latter into his 1831 Lélio), as well as the song La mort d’Ophélie (1842, later turned into a vocal concert scene); and although his solo cantata La mort de Cléopâtre (1829) was written to an assigned text that did not relate to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Berlioz nonetheless affixed a quotation from Romeo and Juliet as a motto: “How if, when I am laid into the tomb . . . .”

Berlioz first encountered Romeo and Juliet in the theater in an eighteenth-century adaptation by David Garrick. That was in September 1827, at the Paris Odéon. The troupe performed in English, but attendees could purchase a French translation by Pierre Letourneur at the door, a version Berlioz had already studied. Playing the part of Juliet Capulet (on nights when she was not appearing as Ophelia or Desdemona) was the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, with whom the twenty-three-year-old Berlioz was immediately and irredeemably smitten. “My heart and whole being were possessed by a fierce, desperate passion in which love of the artist and of the art were interfused, each intensifying the other,” wrote the composer in his Memoirs. Despite the fact that he spoke no English and she no French, they would finally marry in 1833. It would be an unhappy union, and after they separated in the early 1840s, Smithson declined into alcoholism. She died in 1854.

One of Berlioz’s admirers was the renowned violinist Niccolò Paganini. Impressed by the Symphonie fantastique, he approached Berlioz in 1834 to commission a concerto with which he could show off his newly acquired Stradivarius viola. The resulting work, Harold en Italie, was not quite what Paganini had in mind, and he declined to perform it; but when he finally heard the piece, in 1838, he was so moved that he presented Berlioz a gift of 20,000 francs. Suddenly Berlioz enjoyed a degree of financial security, and he spent most of the year 1839 reinterpreting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a symphony, “something splendid on a grand and original plan, full of passion and imagination” (as he put it). Original it surely was. Berlioz’s dramatic symphony incorporated distinct genres that did not normally intermarry any more than Capulets and Montagues did: oratorio, melodrama, operatic movements, song, and ballet, in addition to what might be considered “standard” symphonic writing. In the end this unprecedented project unrolled over eight movements (organized into three parts), stretching across an hour and thirty-five minutes. These movements 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 MUSIC  It would have been more obvious for Berlioz to act on his Romeo and Juliet fascination by turning the play into an opera, as Charles Gounod would in 1867. (While living in Italy, Berlioz had seen Bellini’s I Capuletti e i Montecchi, but that was based on a version of the story that traces its ancestry to a non-Shakespearean source.) But his opera Benvenuto Cellini had recently nosedived at its premiere, and it was doubtless the wrong moment to bank on another stage work. There is nonetheless a good deal that is operatic in this score, particularly in the sections that spotlight the solo singers. Berlioz roughed out the libretto by writing a prose text, adapting Shakespeare’s action considerably, after which his friend Émile Deschamps crafted the lyrics in French verse. And yet, Berlioz insisted that this was a symphony, even if it far surpassed the assumptions that term might imply to music lovers. “There can be no mistaking the genre of this work,” he wrote in a foreword to the score:

Even though voices are often used, it is neither a concert opera nor a cantata, but a choral symphony.

If there is singing, almost from the beginning, it is to prepare the listener’s mind for the dramatic scenes whose feelings and passions are to be expressed by the orchestra. …

[The] last scene of the reconciliation between the two families is the only one that falls into the domain of opera or oratorio. It has never been performed on any stage since Shakespeare’s time, but it is too beautiful, too musical, and it concludes a work of this nature too well for the composer to dream of treating it differently. …

If, in the famous garden and cemetery scenes, the dialogue of the two lovers, Juliet’s asides, and Romeo’s passionate outbursts are not sung, if the duets of love and despair are given to the orchestra, the reasons are numerous and easy to comprehend. First, and this alone would be sufficient, it is a symphony and not an opera. Second, 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 positive sense of the sung words would not have given him, resorting instead to instrumental language, which is richer, more varied, less precise, and by its very indefiniteness incomparably more powerful in such a case.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, tenor Kenneth Tarver, and bass Orlin Anastassov (LSO Live)  |  James Levine conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Berlin/RIAS Chamber Chorus, Ernst Senff Chamber Chorus, and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, tenor Philip Langridge, and bass James Morris (Deutsche Grammophon, re-issued by ArkivMusic)  |  Riccardo Muti conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, Westminster Choir, and soprano Jessye Norman, tenor John Aler, and bass Simon Estes (Warner Classics)

Reading: Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette, by Julian Rushton (Cambridge University Press)  |  Berlioz, by David Cairns (University of California Press; a two-volume study, of which the second, Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness, covers the period of Roméo et Juliette)  |  Berlioz, by D. Kern Holoman (Harvard University Press)  |  The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, translated and edited by David Cairns (Cardinal/Victor Gollancz)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz, edited by Peter Bloom (Cambridge University Press)

Online: Keeping Score: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon)

(June 2017)