The genesis of Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette is itself a classic story of love and sorrow. September 11, 1827, the composer attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by a touring British company. A stunning Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, played Ophelia. Berlioz saw her again, later that same month, in Romeo and Juliet.
The young Hector was smitten, both with the playwright and with the player (even though Berlioz could barely understand English at the time!). Smithson, however, refused to meet with him. He was crushed, but he was hooked nevertheless: he was in love with her, and with Shakespeare. Berlioz would read and quote from Shakespeare the rest of his life, inspired by the creator of the work as well as by the beautiful actress.
As a result of his winning the Prix de Rome in 1830 and the success engendered by several major performances, Berlioz’ reputation spread. His personal life, on the other hand, was bleak. He eventually gave up on Smithson (whom he referred to as "his Juliet") and was engaged to be married to Camille Moke, a young pianist. Before they could wed, however, she dumped him for the prosperous Camille Pleyel, the piano manufacturer.
In 1832, the despondent composer returned to Paris and gave two concerts of his work. One of these concerts was attended by Harriet Smithson, whom he finally met. A courtship ensued and they were married in October 1833; a son was born in 1834. Both families protested strongly against the marriage. (A cynic might point out that Smithson was deeply in debt at the time and her career was seemingly on the decline. No one ever said love doesn’t have its practical side!)
Clearly, Berlioz could identify with the story of Romeo and Juliet, two lovers unable to find peace together because of their feuding families. His Roméo et Juliette (1839) is a "dramatic symphony" in which, according to the composer himself, "I [gave] up on everything else [to] write a really important work, something splendid on a grand and original plan, full of passion…" The result is a thrilling concert work for orchestra, chorus, and soloists.
Berlioz took some liberties with the Shakespearean version of the tale. We join the story at a dramatic, but purely instrumental moment: Romeo has been wandering aimlessly, preoccupied with the unattainable Juliet. Meanwhile, rambunctious festivities are taking place at the Capulets’ palace. Tonight’s music begins with a flash of brilliant Berliozian light as we enter their magnificent ballroom. Romeo has donned a mask and crashed the fête in order to encounter Juliet; the moment is portrayed in the music by a foreboding, descending melodic figure, first in the bassoons, then in the low strings, which in one form or another permeates the rest of the dance.