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Berlioz - Roméo et Juliette

Identifier

021205

Type of spiritual experience

Background

On 11 September 1827, Berlioz attended a production by a traveling English theatre company at the Odéon theatre with the Irish-born actress Harriet Smithson playing Ophelia and Juliet in the Shakespeare plays Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. This event led to two intense infatuations. One was to Smithson, which would result in a disastrous marriage. The other was to Shakespeare, which would become a lifelong love.

He followed the rest of the 1827 season closely, until the company moved to the Salle Favart, and began learning the plays from pocket translations on sale. Though the performances were in English, of which Berlioz knew virtually none, he was still able to grasp the grandeur and sublimity of Shakespeare's language along with the richness of the plays' dramatic design.  In 1828,  Berlioz began to study English so that he could read Shakespeare.

The timing for these performances, not just for Berlioz' career but also for French Romanticism in general, could not have been more apt. Berlioz was on the verge of producing his most Romantic works—as were the writers Vigny, Dumas, Gautier and several others in attendance that night.

Shakespeare for Berlioz represented the summit of poetic utterance, with the bard's veracity of dramatic expression and freedom from formal constraints resounding in the composer's spirit. More profoundly, Shakespeare became a source, by way of its dramatic truth, for Berlioz' fundamental notion of expressive truth; this was how he could call Romeo and Juliet "the supreme drama of my life." He read from the plays constantly, often aloud for anyone who would listen. He quoted from them for the rest of his life and would associate any personal upheaval with its Shakespearian counterpart.

Berlioz was especially taken with Shakespeare's ability to pinpoint the heart of a dramatic conflict and penetrating the secrets of intense love. These secrets, Berlioz suggested in the text of Roméo et Juliette the playwright took with him to heaven. Time and again through the years, Berlioz would distill the favourite image of a play and distill it into musical terms. Roméo et Juliette may have been the first. Later came The Tempest, King Lear, a funeral march for the final scene in Hamlet, the love scene for Les Troyens (which, some claim, Berlioz took from The Merchant of Venice), and Béatrice and Benedict.

Thanks to the money Paganini had given him after hearing Harold en Italie, Berlioz was able to pay off Harriet's and his own debts and suspend his work as a critic. This allowed him to focus on writing the "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette for voices, chorus and orchestra.

 It was a success both at home and abroad, unlike later great vocal works such as La damnation de Faust and Les Troyens, which were commercial failures. Roméo et Juliette was premiered in a series of three concerts later in 1839 to distinguished audiences, one including Richard Wagner.

The same year Roméo premiered, Berlioz was appointed Conservateur Adjoint (Deputy Librarian) Paris Conservatoire Library.

A description of the experience

HECTOR BERLIOZ.- Romeo y Julieta Op 17 (completo)

Solistas.

Contralto: Patricia Kern
Tenor: Robert Tear
Bajo: John Shirley-Quirk

John Alldis Choir

Orquesta Sinfónica de Londres Y coros

Director: Sir Colin Davis

 

The source of the experience

Berlioz

Concepts and Symbols used in the text or image

Activities

Observation contributed by: Margaret Booth