In Roméo et Juliette (1839), Berlioz revisits his passion for Shakespeare, and, by extension, for the woman whose renditions of Juliet and Ophelia had completely captivated him more than a decade earlier, Harriet Smithson. By the time he composed Roméo, Berlioz' love for her had become harsh reality: He was married to Harriet, but the match had proven unsuccessful and the two were effectively separated. In his Memoirs, when he remembered his wife, Berlioz quoted from his friend and colleague Jules Janin's obituary of her from the Journal des débats (she died in March 1854). She was, Janin wrote, "A golden voice, pure and vibrant, a voice through which the language and genius of Shakespeare in all their rich, perennial vitality and force found superb utterance. When she moved, when she spoke, her charm mastered us. A whole society stirred to the magic of this woman. She was barely 20, she was called Miss Smithson, and she conquered as of right the hearts and minds of that audience on whom the light of the new truth shone. All unknowingly she became a new passion, a poem unheard till then, an embodied revolution. She pointed the way for Madame [Marie] Dorval, Frédérick Lemaître, [Maria] Malibran, Victor Hugo, Berlioz."
Janin captured the profound impression Smithson made on Berlioz and his cohorts. Berlioz put it more simply in his Memoirs: "It is enough to say that an English company came over to the Odéon to perform Shakespeare's plays, then entirely unknown in France. I was present at the first performance of Hamlet, and there, in the part of Ophelia, I saw Miss Smithson, whom I married five years afterwards. The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay her dramatic genius, was equaled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted. That is all I can say."
Berlioz had also seen Romeo and Juliet at the Odéon during that 1827 Shakespeare season, and the impression of those performances was just as strong as those of Hamlet. Berlioz was overwhelmed by Romeo, and found himself unable to take any more - "more experiences of that kind would have killed me," he wrote.
Harriet and Shakespeare may have been the inspiration, but Berlioz also had the renowned violinist Niccolò Paganini to thank for bringing Roméo et Juliette into the world. Paganini, for whom Berlioz had originally composed his symphony with viola obbligato, Harold in Italy, disliked that work at first, but had since come to admire it greatly. He rewarded Berlioz with 20,000 francs, which gave the composer the freedom to create Roméo et Juliette.
Berlioz conducted the first three performances of Roméo et Juliette in Paris in November and December 1839. After hearing a performance of the work in Vienna in January 1846, he revised it thoroughly and conducted the premiere of this final version in Prague on April 17, 1846. He called the work a "dramatic symphony," a designation that hints at both its revolutionary form - a far cry from the four movements of Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven - and Berlioz' combination of words and music in his exposition of the story, something perhaps inspired by Beethoven's Ninth, which Berlioz had heard for the first time in 1833. The poet Émile Deschamps, a member of Victor Hugo's circle and a Shakespeare enthusiast, versified the text from a prose sketch by the composer.
The excerpts heard on this program present two of the five purely orchestral sections of Berlioz' score:
In his Memoirs, Berlioz wrote that the "Love Scene" was his favorite among his works. The movement gradually builds from its atmospheric introduction (horns, winds, and strings), which evokes something of the Italian nights that Berlioz had experienced first-hand. Cellos introduce the lovers' theme, and the movement gradually builds to a rapturous climax.
"Romeo Alone - Great Festivities at the Capulets" begins with a lengthy slow introduction, dominated by an oboe-led theme filled with longing, depicting the solitary Romeo. Toward the end of this slow section, sounds of a distant ball drift into the scene, calling Romeo to the "Great Festivities." At the height of the revelry, we hear Romeo's plaintive theme again, something Berlioz had done before when he brought back the idée fixe toward the end of the "Ball" movement of the Symphonie fantastique.
Writing 15 years later, Berlioz described the fevered period during which he composed Roméo et Juliette: "Oh the ardent existence I lived during that time! I struck out boldly across that great ocean of poetry, caressed by the wild, sweet breeze of fancy, under that fiery sun of love that Shakespeare kindled. I felt within me the strength to reach the enchanted isle where the temple of pure art stands under a clear sky. It is not for me to determine whether I succeeded."
- John Mangum holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. He is Vice President of Artistic Planning for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.