Roméo et Juliette is the last work completed by Berlioz during the most fertile decade of his career, the 1830s. The Symphonie fantastique and Prix de Rome (both 1830) had established his reputation in Paris, and the following years saw a succession of mature, original works--Haro/d en Italie (1834), the Requiem (1837) , and Benvenuto Cellini (1834-38)--which culminated in this radical new symphonic composition. It is true that the composer's autograph store of Roméo et Juliette carries the following remark: "this Symphony, begun 24 January 1839, was finished on 8 September of the same year and performed for the first time at the Conservatoire under the direction of the composer on the following 24 November." But the idea for a dramatic work on Shakespeare's tragedy extends backward to Harriet Smithson's appearance as Juliet in Paris, 1827, and to the composer's turbulent Shakespearian musings of 1829-32. This was also the period in which Berlioz came, for the first time, under the spell of Beethoven, and the work reflects in no small measure his absorption of Beethovenian ideals through study of the scores and attendance at concerts of François-Antoine Habeneck's Conservatoire orchestra. After 1839, the work changed in the course of performances and publication in full and piano-vocal score. Not until February 1858, with the appearance of the second edition of the orchestral score, had Berlioz had his final say on the musical text.

Nor is it by any means the case that Roméo et Juliette is the only one of Berlioz's works to have undergone such a lengthy genesis. The majority of subjects Berlioz elected to ortray in dramatito-musical terms during his lifetime--Dido and Aeneas, Beatrice and Benedict, Romeo and Juliet, the trumpets of the Day of Judgement, a wiches' round dance, processions of pilgrims, a chorus of master sculpters--all these concepts have a much longer documentable genesis in the composer's mind than did the actual music eventually composed for rhem. Berlioz's music may or may not, at any given time, endeavor to be strictly depictive. But it is manifestly clear that in his case musical ideas arise from dramatircsituations. If we are disinclined to belieeve this statement. we need only read his essays and orchestration treatise; here he says time and time again that.above all good music must be expressive.

Berlioz's enthusiam for Romeo and Juliet may be traced back as far as his first exposure to Shakespeared, when in the autumn of 1827 William Abbott's English troupe presented a Shakespearean season at the Odéon Theatre in Paris. Harriet Smithson opened as Juliet, opposite Charles Kemble, on 15 September 1827. In the Memoirs Berlioz describes the electrifying effectof the drama in the following terms "To steep myself in the fiery sun and balmy nights of Italy, to witness the drama of that passion swift as thought, burning as laval, radiantly pure as an angel's glance, imperious, irresistible, the raging vendettas, the desperate kisses, the frantic stnife of love and death, was more than I could bear. . . . I may add that at the time I did not know a word of English. . . . But the power of the acting, especially that of Juliet herseif, the rapid flow of the scenes, the play of expression and voice and gesture, told me more and gave me a far richer awareness of the ideas and passions of the original than the words of my pale and garbled translation could do." Of Harriet's performance he writes: "No dramatic artist in France ever touched and excited the public as she did. No press notices ever equalled the eulogies which the French papers published in her honor."

After the Smithson performance, Berlioz is said to have declared: "This woman is going to be my wife, and on this play I shall write my greatest symphony." There is probably some truth to this incident--it was reported by reputable sources close to the composer--but Berlioz denies it in the Memoirs: "My biographer credited me with ambitions larger than life. I was too overwhelmed even to dream of such things."

Deschamps himself says that he and Berlioz worked out a plan for the symphony shortly after the Odéon's 1827-28 season. Indeed, it may be the case that Romeo and Juliet's genesis is intertwined with other works composed before the composer left for his Prix de Rome sojourn of 1830-32. The delicate falling fifths with antique cymbals toward the end of the Queen Mab Scherzo appear in a slightly different guise in a choral Ballet des ombres of 1829. The composer tells us that Cleopatra's invocation from the Prix de Rome competition cantata of 1829 was actually intended to portray Juliet's horror in the vault of the Capulets. And Sardanapale, the cantata with which Berlioz flnally won the Rome prize in 1830, includes the melodic material of both the "Romeo alone" portion of the second movement and the Festivity at the Capulets.

In any event, there is abundant evidence that Berlioz was gradually working out a scheme for Romeo and Juliet during his sojourn in ltaly. He reviewed a February 1831 performance in Florence of Bellini's I Montecchi ed i Capuleui, outlining in passing how he would compose music for the Romeo and Juliet story: it would feature, he says, the swordfight, a concert of love, Mercutio's piquant buffooning, the terrible catastrophe, and the solemn oath of the two rival families. One line of text from the review eventually shows up in the libretto of the symphony.

In Rome, Berlioz asked the poet Auguste Barbier to prepare him a libretto, but Barbier was too busy to help. The Memoirs recount that Berlioz remarked to Mendelssohn in the Roman countryside of his surprise that no one had ever written a scherzo about Queen Mab, then for many years dreaded that Mendelssohn might actually do it first. Back in Paris in 1836, he added several lines to the printed program of the Symphonie fantastique, which reflected on how sung choral recitatives might be used in a dramatic symphony.

But it took a magnanimous gesture by the violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini to prompt Berlioz into beginning serious composition of his new symphony. In 1834 Paganini had commissioned Berlioz to compose a concerto which the artist would play on his new Stradivarius viola; the result was the symphony Harold in ItaIy. Paganini was disappointed with the appearance of the flnished score and did not wish to undertake a part he considered too simple for his talents, although on 16 December 1834 he came to hear the work under the baton of the composer at the Salle du Conservatoire. On the 18th, he sent Berlioz a draft on the Rothschild bank for 20,000 francs in token of his homage.

Two weeks later, relieved of financial obligation, Berlioz was hard at work on the symphony. He began ta draft it, starting with the Festivity at the Capulets, on the 24th. Later he would write to the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein that the Love Scene and the Finale were the most difficult to compose, but the scene at the Capulets' tomb was in fact the last to be completed. Berlioz signed and dated his autograph on 8 September 1839.

From then until the flrst performance, his time was occupied with physical arrangements for the premiere: parts were copied, chorus parts lithographed, and rehearsals gotten underway. The tenor, Alizard, and the Prologue chorus, all of whom came from the Opéra, were prepared during the intermissions of performances there. Berlioz worked with the orchestra in a novel system developed by himself and alter adopted everywhere: sectionals, with two general rehearsals to polish up the details.

Reaction of the public--which included princes of the royal family, Berlioz's own relatives, Balzac, Alfred de Vigny, Théophile Gautier, Beethoven's amanuensis Anton Schindler, and eventually Wagner--was overwhelmingly favorable. The press, though guarded on the subject of the choral recitatives, concurred. Berlioz received a series of rapturous notes from his admirers. An Englishman "bought" the composers baton from a servant for 120 francs. Yet just after the first concert, Berlioz mentions "several little changes I want to make in my score," and revisions of both a major and minor nature would continue for another six years.

Berlioz declined a scheme to use the Festivity at the Capulets as ballet music for Webers Der Freischütz at the 1841 Paris production, using his orchestration of Invitation to the Dance instead. Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet figured prominently on his first concert tour to Germany in 1842-43 and in his 1845 festival concerts at the Cirque Olympique.

After hearing Groidl's complete performance in Vienna on 26 January 1846, Berlioz took the opportunity to make major revisions before a performance scheduled for the following April in Prague. He accepted advice from several confidants and advisers, rewriting the coda of the Q ueen Mab Scherzo, shortening Friar Laurence's narrative at the end, deleting a lengthy second prologue at the beginning of the second haîf, and introducing musical foreshadowing in the first prologue. "After which," he writes, "what can a composer do but admit candidly that he has done his best and resign himself to the work's imperfections? When I had reached that point, and only then, the Romeo and Juliet symphony was published."

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Roméo et Juliette is the last of the composer's dramatic symphonies. (The Damnation of Faust of 1846 is called a légende dramatique.) It is a radical composition, and its point is to explore the ways in which a performing group can deal with an intensely rich drama without relying on much by way of spoken or written words. (For the composer's summary of the genre, see his Foreword.) There can be no doubt of Berlioz's intention to structure the work in seven movements (not in a series of four loosely-related parts as in Faust):virtually ail the original sources divide Romeo and Juliet into the seven movements specified.

The stylistic links of the work with Beethoven before and Wagner a(ter could not be stronger. From Beethoven, Berlioz learned the very notion of programmatic music. He saw in the Pastoral Symphony how music might be depictive without being naïve, in the symphonic scherzos how the delicate Queen Mab might best be be evoked, and in the Ninth Symphony how effective a choral finale could be. He sensed Beethoven's flexibility with regard to number of movements and the performing force. Surely Beethoven's exquisite funeral dirges affected Berlioz deeply.

From Romeo and Juliet Wagner absorbed so much about the ideals of dramatic music that the work can he considered a major influence on Tristan and Isolde. When Wagner first heard Romeo in 1839 he said it made him feel like a schoolboy at Berlioz's side. And Romeo and Juliet was the one of Berlioz's works he knew best. Indeed, their second and last meeting was on the occasion of a performance of the work in London in 1855. Wagner learned something of melodic flexibility and perhaps even a mastery of the orchestral force from Berlioz. He may have absorbed more specific features: the close relationship of the first few bars of the Tristan Prelude to the opening of the second movement of Romeo and Juliet cannot be denied. Moreover, in 1860, he sent Berlioz the published full score of Tristan und und Isolde inscribed merely:  

Berlioz's command of the very aliveness of a public concert is perhaps his most affecting attribute. Romea and Juliet, perhaps even more than the Requiem, is a work that must be experienced live, in all its musical and spatial grandeur. Listeners experiencing the unique joy of hearing the work live and compiete for the flrst time need not apologize for beîng attracted above alI to the three truly symphonic movements: the Festivîty at the Capulets, the Love Scene, and the Queen Mab Scherzo. The Festivity's evocation of the lavish excitement of Capulet's ball, with its tour de force of orchestral writing and a frenzied crescendo which far outdoes Rossini, is unsurpassed. The réunion des thèmes at the end, where Romeo's theme is juxtaposed against the ball music, is perhaps the composer's best use of the device. Romeo's melody near the beginning of movement II incidentally, is closely related to Harlequin's ariette in Benvenuto Cellini (a song which had made its flrst appearance as Je crois en vous,published in a fashionable periodical in 1834). The freely strophic Love Scene, with its offstage chorus and sensuous evocation of the sultry summer night, is luxuriously orchestrated. In Queen Mab, the composer's use of sonorities at the time undreamed of--the harmonics in harp and strings, for example, and the antique cymbals Berlioz first saw in Pompeii in 1831--results in one of his most luminescent movements.

These movements firmly in their repertoire, listeners can turn to the other movements,.all of them fine, but perhaps less brilliant in terms of orchestral color. The first movement opens with a fugal passage evoking the swordfights in the streets of Verona. Throughout Romeo and Juliet, there is an attempt by the composer to connect specific orchestral timbres with characters in the drama, and we sense this early on as the trombones suggest the admonitions of the Prince of Verona. The swordfight fades into a choral prologue that unfolds from unison declamation at first into a progression of triads supported by the harp. In this first section of choral recitative, Berlioz previews brief passages from the Festivity, the chorus of Capulets, and the Love Scene.

The Strophes, "Premiers transports," is, except perhaps for Absence,the best of Berlioz's miniatures, the poetry, among the most suitable for music he ever set. The gentle-handed orchestration reserves the cello obbligato for the second stanza and allows the contralto a breathtaking high D at the close. The Strophes represent Berlioz's world in microcosm, and we may be certain that he identified with every line of Deschamps's text. The Prologue concludes with the lively scherzetto on Mercutio's Queen Mab monologue and a brief reprise du prologue foreshadowing the funeral dirge.

After the intermission comes the splendid Funeral Procession. This was an image Berlioz was pleased to evoke, as he had been successful with marches in all his other major works. The Funeral Procession is closest in spirit and in musical terms to the Offertoire of the Requiem (1837) and the Hamlet funeral march (1844). The magic moment here cornes in the middle of the dirge, when the orchestra and chorus merge for a short time and then switch roles, with the orchestra playing the chanted tones and the chorus singing the fugue.

Perhaps the most problematic movement for both the composer and his audiences was the scene of Romeo at the tomb. David Garrick's version of the dénouementsuggested to the composer a kind of musical setting that is as close as be ever cornes to line-for-line musical palnting of a literary text. (For this reason, Berlioz suggests omitting the tomb scene wbere the audience would be unfamiliar witb the Garrick version.) The openîng agitato depicts Romeo's arrivaI at the Capulets' vault (bars 1-31). He kneels (probably bars 34-47) and delivers his Invocation (bars 48-69). (Here, as in the Love Scene, Romeo's voice is suggested by the use of tenor instruments, in this case English and French horns and bassoon.) Romeo takes the vial of poison (bars 70-84) ; Juliet stirs and wakes (bars 75-89). The loyers share their last moments together in rapture (bars 90-148). Romeo dies first, then Juliet expires. Berlioz uses a complicated metric notation for cellos and basses beginning in bar 169, a notion linked to his conception of the hero dying while the heroine looks on in horror.

The symphony concludes with ail its elements united: with his cry of "Silence, malheureux," Friar Laurence interrupts choral reminiscences of the swordfight music from the first movement and offers the stirring aria, "Pauvres enfants que je pleure." It lasts all too briefly: Berlioz declines the temptation to make it a full-fledged operatic aria, preferring instead to focus his attention on the sermon of reconciliation. Here he calls together the many participants in the drama in a manner highly remiiniscent of the Lacrymosa from the Requiem, particularly in the use of the brass. There are thirty staves per page of score at the end, yet the force is so skillfully deployed that through it aIl we can hear Friar Laurence's fervent admonitions.

In many respects Romeo and Juliet is the most autobiographical of Berlioz's works, and over bis career he developed a special predilection for it. One movement, in particular, became a favorite: "If you now [1858] ask me which of my pieces I prefer, my answer will be that I share the view of most artists:I prefer the Adagio (the Love Scene) in Romeo and Juliet."