Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 25, 1931, Sir Hamilton Harty conducting
This ‘descriptive symphony’ is an entracte to be played before Act IV of The Trojans, Berlioz’s operatic masterpiece composed in the years 1856-1858. It represents the fateful culmination of the love of Dido and Aeneas, and yet neither of them sings. Berlioz always felt that the orchestra on its own can express as much as, if not more than, the human voice when it comes to powerful dramatic feelings. In his symphony Roméo et Juliette both lovers are silent throughout, yet in the great love scene their presence is strongly felt and their passion vividly depicted. The Royal Hunt and Storm follows a precise narrative based closely on Virgil, and the score carries stage directions. It was designed as a pantomime, with mimed action, although when the work was first staged in Paris in 1863, the magic lantern effects and elaborate staging required an interval of 55 minutes to prepare. It was cut after the first performance on Berlioz’s own insistence, and was never played again in his lifetime. He arranged it for concert performance and removed the offstage instruments.
In Virgil’s version of the story Aeneas and the remnants of the Trojan people have arrived in Carthage after years of wandering the seas. Aeneas has helped repel the invader Iarbas, and the goddess Juno persuades Venus (Aeneas’s mother) that a match between Dido and Aeneas would create a great Trojan-Carthaginian empire.
She will contrive to bring them together by sending a mighty storm while they are out hunting. But the gods have a different destiny in store, for Aeneas has to sail on to found the city of Rome, leaving Dido to her despair.
The music opens with a picture of the depths of the African forest on a hot sultry day, with naiads disporting lazily in a pool. Suddenly a horn is heard in the distance, and the naiads grow anxious. They hide when some Carthaginian hunters gallop on to the scene. Soon a storm gathers as more horn calls are heard in the forest, and the hunters take cover. The sky darkens and rain falls. Lightning flashes illuminate the scene, and at the storm’s height Dido and Aeneas appear. They find a cave and take refuge in it. At that point nymphs are seen on the rocks above, crying ‘Italie’, the call of destiny that Aeneas knows he is powerless to resist. Torrents of water stream down and various grotesque figures are seen in the dim light. Gradually the storm subsides, the clouds pass, and the naiads reappear, delighting in the return of calm. A distant horn call is heard once more.
Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.