Hector Berlioz (1803­69)

La Captive


H. 60F (Version VI: for contralto or mezzo-soprano and orchestra, in D major)

For Contr. ou M.-Sopr. solo; Fl. I-II, Hb. I-II, Cl. I-II, Bns I-II, Cors I-II, Timb., G. c., Cymb., Cordes (10-10-8-8-6), Cordes II ad libitum.

Text by Victor Hugo (1802­1885), no. 9 of Les Orientales (Paris, 1829).

Composed for voice and guitar or piano, Rome, February 1832. Orchestrated 1848.

First performed 29 October 1848 (Versailles; Mme Widemann). An earlier orchestration for soprano and orchestra was performed by Cornélie Falcon at the Salle du Conservatoire, 22 November 1834 (Narcisse Girard, conducting); the E-major version of the same orchestration was premiered by Mme Viardot in London, 21 June 1848 (Berlioz, conducting).

Published by S. Richault (Paris, 1849).

Duration: c. 8 minutes.

La Captive, to the ninth of Victor Hugo's Orientales (1829), is a touching souvenir in miniature of Berlioz's prix de Rome sojourn--much as Harold en Italie and Benvenuto Cellini represent full-length reminiscences. In early February 1832, on his fourth and last visit to wintry Subiaco in the Abruzzi hills, Berlioz jotted down the melody and the bass as he warmed himself by a tavern fire. On his return to the French Academy he fashioned a piano accompaniment, which he tried with the director's daughter, Louise Vernet, who may have become an object of his desire. He was, surprisingly enough, at the piano; Mlle Vernet was the singer.

The original version of La Captive--two dozen measures on a single page: the seductively curvaceous melody over a simple chordal accompaniment--became a succès de salon. Copies were made and distributed to admirers. The other women were jealous of Mlle Vernet's mélodie and begged for one of their own. The servants sang La Captive while at their work. "Ah, ça!," complained Vernet: "quand vous retournerez dans les montagnes, j'espère bien que vous n'en rapporterez pas d'autres chansons, car votre Captive commence à me rendre le séjour de la villa fort désagréable: on ne peut faire un pas dans le palais, dans le jardin, dans le bois, sur la terrasse, dans les corridors, sans entendre chanter, ou ronfler, ou grogner: 'Le long du mur sombre... le sabre du Spahis... je ne suis pais Tartare... l'eunuque noir,' etc. C'est à en devenir fou. Je renvoie demain un de mes domestiques; je n'en prendrai un nouveau qu'à la condition expresse pour lui de ne pas chanter La Captive."

La Captive is the second of Berlioz's Hugo settings. An 1829 Chanson des pirates, to the eighth of the Orientales, has been lost. Additionally there is a sketch, c. 1832, of Dans l'alcôve sombre, no. 20 of the Feuilles d'automne (Paris, 1831); a lost romance from Marie Tudor (1833: "Chantez, ma belle, chantez toujours!"); and the 1834 Sara la baigneuse (Orientales, no. 19).

With La Captive Berlioz and Hugo seem to enjoy a meeting of minds as to the attractions of orientalism, that affection for exotic subject matter so à la mode in Paris of the late 1820s and 1830s. Hugo's text--Berlioz at first gives four of the nine strophes, the first three and the last--treats the reveries of a young woman captured for the harem of some Turkish pasha. She sits on a beach idly pondering her lot, guarded by a saber-wielding eunuch--an altogether useless companion and a poor conversationalist. Not a few aspects of her situation might be pleasant enough, she reasons wishfully, if only she had her freedom and a virile young man with whom to share her evenings. The sonority of the text is languid, and the setting magnificent: it is nightfall, with stars and a gentle breeze; the sea laps at the maid's feet. This is precisely the sort of imagery that tended to seduce Berlioz, and his music for La Captive, particularly in its wide melodic intervals, markedly foreshadows Hylas's song from a quite similar perspective in Les Troyens. Berlioz did not fail to notice the allusion, at the beginning of the second strophe, to the maiden's guitar, the instrument he had at his side as he wrote the music, and on which he doubtless first tried it out.

Note especially the shape of the main melody: a pair of matched phrases growing at first toward a striking high point, with each moment of subsidiary arrival deflected through feminine endings of equivocal harmonic direction. There follows the dramatic fall of an octave-and-a-half, then the undulating return to tonic. It is a famously successful design in both contour and dramatic implication: naive yet impassioned, quite as fine as the celebrated idée fixe from the Fantastique and admirably suited to the prosody of the text.

It pleased Berlioz to program so charming a mélodie for his Paris concerts, refashioning it again and again through six different versions. For the concert of 30 December 1832, La Captive was given a new cello part, ad libitum, written for the cellist Desmaret: simple arpeggiations at first, then surging up at the climax and receding again, like the play of surf at the captive maid's feet. This is very much on the order of the delicious cello part in the second of the strophes from Roméo et Juliette, and there is a very similar ad libitum horn part in the later versions of Le Jeune Pâtre breton.

Berlioz first orchestrated La Captive in 1834 for the soprano Cornélie Falcon, just then achieving her stardom at the Opéra. This version is lost, though what may be its ending appears in the 1832­36 sketchbook, set out for strings. The sketches also include an effort to set Hugo's fifth stanza, which paints a canvas of "tours vermeilles, ... drapeaux triomphants, ...maisons d'or pareilles à des jouets d'enfants, ... tentes balancées au dos des éléphants." It seems likely, however, that the new strophe was never finished, and that what Mlle Falcon sang was a simple orchestration of the setting with cello.

The more important orchestration was prepared in 1848 for the celebrated Mme Viardot to sing in London. For a subsequent performance by Mme Widemann (who had premiered the Roméo et Juliette strophes in 1839), and for publication in both full and piano score, Berlioz transposed the Viardot version down a step, from E major to D major. The fully orchestrated La Captive is a much expanded, through-composed resetting of the original song. The cello part has been developed and redistributed largely to the winds, beginning in measure 2.

Berlioz obviously enjoyed the process of developing new variations for each stanza from the full orchestral pallette. For the texture of the second strophe, with its references to the maiden's guitar, he evokes strumming figures, with staccato sixteenths in the woodwinds and pizzicati in the strings. The third strophe returns to the style of the first, with sustained chords in the wind. For the fourth Berlioz newly set Hugo's eighth stanza, which makes reference to "a Spanish song": the accompaniment, accordingly, is in bolero rhythm, pianissimo, receding into a fifth stanza much like the first and third. The ravishing conclusion, empathically the stuff of Romanticism, sees the scene wind down with the charming appearance of a second string orchestra (the remainder of the strings on stage), con sordini; the entry of the double-basses, following the instruction to tune down their E-strings, on a low D; the four strokes of the bass drum and cymbal fading off into the distance; and the generous sprinkling of restless fermatas. The breathtaking touch is the captive maid's last sigh, "ah!"--possibly the most successful of Berlioz's many dramatic Ah's---and the quiet reminiscence of her melody that draws the revery to its close.

La Captive illustrates Berlioz's' creative world in microcosm. It underwent on a small scale the same kinds of transformation that inform the great dramatic symphonies. The composer lavished on it the same attention--the same need to return to a good idea and elaborate on it, the same disinclination to let a promising accomplishment lie fallow--that was visited on many a more exalted composition.