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Roméo et Juliette is a "symphonie dramatique", a large scale choral symphony by French composer Hector Berlioz. The libretto was written by Émile Deschamps and the completed work was assigned the catalogue numbers Op. 17 and H.79. It is based on Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet; it is regarded as one of Berlioz's finest works, and it is certainly among the most original in form.[1] The score is Berlioz's most comprehensive and detailed programmatic piece.[2]





Initial inspiration came from a performance he witnessed in 1827 of Romeo and Juliet (in David Garrick's edited version) at the Odéon Theatre in Paris. The cast included Harriet Smithson, who also inspired Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. In his Memoirs, Berlioz describes the electrifying effect of the drama:

To steep myself in the fiery sun and balmy nights of Italy, to witness the drama of that passion swift as thought, burning as lava, radiantly pure as an angel's glance, imperious, irresistible, the raging vendettas, the desperate kisses, the frantic strife 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 herself, 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.[3]

The range of feeling and mood as well as poetic and formal invention which Berlioz found in Shakespeare[4] had a strong influence on his music, making a direct musical setting of Shakespeare's work only natural. In fact, he had been planning a musical realisation of Romeo and Juliet for a long time before 1838, but other projects intervened.[5] Emile Deschamps (the librettist of the work) 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 Roméo et Juliette's genesis is intertwined with other works composed before the composer left for his Prix de Rome sojourn of 1830-32. Sardanapale, the cantata with which Berlioz finally won the Prix de Rome in 1830, includes the melodic material of both the Roméo seul ("Romeo alone") portion of the second movement and the Grande fête chez Capulet ("Great banquet at the Capulets").[3]

There is abundant evidence that Berlioz was gradually working out a scheme for Roméo et Juliette during his sojourn in Italy. He reviewed a February 1831 performance in Florence of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, outlining in passing how he would compose music for the Roméo et Juliette 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.[3]


The eventual composition of Roméo et Juliette as we know it now was made possible by the generous gift of 20,000 francs by Niccolò Paganini, After hearing a performance of Harold en Italie at the Paris Conservatoire on 16 December 1838, the great virtuoso had publicly knelt before Berlioz and hailed him as the heir of Beethoven. Sadly, Paganini died shortly after, and did not read or hear the piece.[6] Berlioz used the money primarily to repay his debts, and afterwards was still left with "a handsome sum of money",[7] which he used to allow himself to put his full focus towards working on "a really important work", unobstructed by his usual time-consuming obligations as a critic.[7] Berlioz finished the score on 8 September 1839.

The work's libretto is not sourced from the original plays, and as a result contains inaccuracies, both in the version Berlioz worked from, and subsequent cuts he and his librettist made. Berlioz's composition was heavily influenced by the play he had seen acted by Charles Kemble and Harriet Smithson in 1827, which had been rewritten by the 18th century actor David Garrick to have Juliet awaken from her death-like sleep before Romeo's death from (a much slower acting) poison. Berlioz enlisted the services of author Emile Deschamps to write the libretto. Between them they also left out the character of the nurse and expanded Shakespeare's brief mention of the two families' reconciliation into a substantial vocal finale.[4]

Berlioz's developed a special predilection for the symphony over his career, referring to it in his Memoirs as "the supreme drama of my life."[8] 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 (Scène d'amour (Love scene)) in Roméo et Juliette."[3]


From composition until the first performance, Berlioz's time was occupied with physical arrangements for the premiere: parts were copied, chorus parts lithographed, and rehearsals got underway. The bass-baritone, Adophe-Louis Alizard (Friar Lawrence), and the Prologue chorus, all of whom came from the Paris Opéra, were prepared during the intermissions of performances there.[3] There was much anticipation in Paris prior to the first performance. In the rehearsals, Berlioz pioneered the practice of orchestral sectionals, rehearsing the different sections of the orchestra separately to better prepare them for the challenging piece. This was followed by two full orchestra rehearsals to polish up the details.[3]

It was first performed in three concerts conducted by Berlioz at the Paris Conservatoire with an orchestra of 200[4] on 24 November, 1 December and 15 December 1839, before capacity audiences that comprised much of the Parisian intelligentsia. Another notable audience member was Richard Wagner.[5] Reactions to the piece were quite varied, as could be expected for a radical work. However, it was widely acknowledged that Berlioz had scored a major triumph in these first performances; a "tour de force such as only my system of sectional rehearsals could have achieved".[4] Berlioz comments "The score ... on all three occasions ... seemed to score a genuine success. But I immediately felt that many parts needed revising". He continued to revise the work, a few instances upon the suggestions of critics, but generally by his own judgement.[8]

A premiere of a later revision (including cuts and changes to the Prologue, Queen Mab Scherzo, and the Finale) was held in Vienna on 2 January 1846, the first performance since 1839 and the first abroad. After hearing a 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 Queen Mab Scherzo, shortening Friar Laurence's narrative at the end, deleting a lengthy second Prologue at the beginning of the second half, and introducing musical foreshadowing in the first prologue.[3] The full score was not published until 1847.[6]

Reflecting on the first performances, Berlioz commented in his Memoirs:

It is immensely difficult to perform, and presents many kinds of problems which arise from the work's form and the style; these problems can only be overcome after long and patient study which has to be supervised perfectly. To interpret the work properly requires artists, all of them of the front rank, whether the conductor, the instrumental players or the singers, and determined to study it as is done with new operas in good lyrical theatres, that is almost as though they were to be played by heart.[8]


Structurally and musically, Roméo et Juliette is most indebted to Beethoven's 9th symphony - not just due to the use of soloists and choir, but in factors such as the weight of the vocal contribution being in the finale, and also in aspects of the orchestration such as the theme of the trombone recitative at the Introduction.[4] The roles of Roméo and Juliette are represented by the orchestra, and the narrative aspects by the voices. Berlioz's reasoning follows:

If, in the famous garden and cemetery scenes, the dialogue of the two lovers, Juliet's asides, and Romeo's passionate outbursts are not sung, if the duets of love and despair are given to the orchestra, the reasons for this are numerous and easy to understand. First, and this reason alone would be sufficient, it is a symphony and not an opera. Second, since duets of this nature have been treated vocally a thousand times by the greatest masters, it was wise as well as unusual to attempt another means of expression.[9]

The vocal forces are used sparingly throughout, until they are fully deployed in the finale.[4] The exceptional virtuosity deployed in the orchestral writing seems particularly appropriate for the dedicatee of the work, Paganini himself, who was never able to hear it, much to Berlioz's regret.[6] Further examples of Berlioz's inventiveness are shown in the use of thematic links throughout the piece, somewhat laying the ground for the Wagnerian leitmotif, for example the last solo notes of the oboe which follow Juliet's suicide echo a phrase from the earlier funeral procession when she was thought to be dead. The "Romeo at the tomb of the Capulets" movement is the most tragic movement of the work, and the main theme, which played by English horn, 4 bassoons and horn, is one of the most desolate, dramatic melodies ever written.[4] Berlioz signed and dated his autograph on 8 September 1839.[3] The final score was dedicated to Paganini.[10]

The stylistic links of the work with Beethoven before (and Wagner after) 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 scherzi how the delicate Queen Mab might best be evoked, and in the 9th symphony how effective a choral finale could be. He sensed Beethoven's flexibility with regard to number of movements and the performing force.[3]


From Roméo et Juliette Wagner absorbed so much about the ideals of dramatic music that the work can be considered a major influence on Tristan und Isolde. When Wagner first heard the work in 1839 he said it made him feel like a schoolboy at Berlioz's side. And Roméo et Juliette 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.[3] Moreover, in 1860, he sent Berlioz the published full score of Tristan und Isolde inscribed merely:

Au grand et cher auteur de

Roméo et Juliette
L'auteur reconnaissant de
Tristan et Isolde.[3]

Beyond the influence on Wagner's music drama, the piece pushed the limits of the contemporary orchestra's capabilities, in terms of colour, programmatic scope and individual virtuosity. While this applies to much of Berlioz's music, it is even more true for Roméo et Juliette, written at the height of his powers and ambition. Its vivid scene-setting surpasses many operas, which constitutes an enormous success on Berlioz's part. Franz Liszt also recognised the significance of Berlioz as a progressive composer, and championed his music.


Part I

1. Introduction: Combats (Combat) - Tumulte (Tumult) -

Intervention du prince (Intervention of the prince) -
Prologue - Strophes - Scherzetto

Part II

2. Roméo seul (Romeo alone) - Tristresse (Sadness) -

Bruits lointains de concert et de bal (Distant sounds from the concert and the ball) -
Grande fête chez Capulet (Great banquet at the Capulets)

3. Scène d'amour (Love scene) - Nuit serène (Serene night) -

Le jardin de Capulet silencieux et déserte (The Capulets' garden silent and deserted) -
Les jeunes Capulets sortant de la fête en chantant des réminiscences de la musique du bal -
(The young Capulets leaving the banquet singing snatches of music from the ball)

4. Scherzo: La reine Mab, reine des songes (Queen Mab Scherzo)

Part III

5. Convoi funèbre de Juliette (Funeral cortège for the young Juliet): "Jetez des fleurs pour la vierge expirée"

6. Roméo au tombeau des Capulets (Romeo at the tomb of the Capulets) -

Invocation: Réveil de Juliette (Juliet awakes) - Joie délirante, désespoir (Delirious joy, despair) -
Dernières angoisses et mort des deux amants (Last throes and death of the two lovers)

7. Finale:

La foule accourt au cimetière (The crowd rushes to the graveyard) -
Des Capulets et des Montagus (Fight between the Capulets and Montagues) -
Récitatif et Air du Père Laurence (Friar Lawrence's recitative and aria) Aria: "Pauvres enfants que je pleure" -
Serment de réconciliation (Oath of reconciliation) Oath: "Jurez donc par l'auguste symbole"


  • Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette: Julian Rushton, 129pp, Cambridge University Press, 26 August 1994. ISBN : 0521377676, ISBN : 978-0521377676
  • Berlioz's Semi-Operas: Roméo et Juliette and La Damnation de Faust: Daniel Albright, 204pp, University of Rochester Press, September 2001. ISBN : 1580460941, ISBN : 978-1580460941






  • David Cairns: Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness (the second volume of his biography of the composer) (Viking, 1999)
  • Hugh Macdonald: Berlioz ("The Master Musicians", J.M.Dent, 1982)

External links


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