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Berlioz: Predecessors and Contemporaries

Berlioz and Spontini

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Gaspare Spontini Introduction

Relations between Berlioz and Spontini

Berlioz, champion of Spontini

A balance-sheet

Available scores of Spontini
Notes on the available scores

Abbreviations:
CG = Correspondance générale
Débats = Journal des Débats
NL = Nouvelles lettres de Berlioz, de sa famille, de ses contemporaints (2015)

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Introduction

    Spontini enjoyed a special place in Berlioz’s pantheon of great composers. ‘My religion is that of Beethoven, Weber, Gluck, Spontini’, he wrote in his Memoirs (Post-scriptum of 25 May 1856). These four composers formed a group for which Berlioz had special veneration. But there were differences between Spontini and the other three. For one thing Gluck, Beethoven and Weber were all German, whereas Spontini was Italian. Given Berlioz’s admiration for German music — Berlioz once referred to himself as a ‘musician three-quarters German’ — and given the suspicion towards Italian music which he developed in the 1820s and which was intensified by his trip to Italy in 1831-1832, Spontini’s Italian origins were potentially problematic. Reviewing in 1854 an unsatisfactory performance of La Vestale which did not do justice to the original which he admired, Berlioz commented that on this occasion ‘Spontini, an Italian who was a composer, was treated as an Italian composer’ (On a traité comme un compositeur italien Spontini qui fut un Italien compositeur) (see also CG no. 120). Another difference is that for Berlioz the three Germans were dead composers whom he had never met, whereas Spontini was a living figure with whom he was personally acquainted. Gluck belonged to an earlier generation (1714-1787); Weber and Beethoven died in 1826 and 1827 respectively, before Berlioz could meet them (he missed meeting Weber in Paris by a matter of hours: Memoirs, chapter 16). But Berlioz and Spontini met in September 1830 and remained in touch thereafter; after his time in Berlin as director of the opera there (1820-1841), Spontini returned to Paris where he stayed till nearly the end of his life, and was thus in frequent contact with Berlioz. The link with Berlioz was maintained after Spontini’s death in 1851 by his widow (1790-1878) – she was the niece of Sébastien Érard, the celebrated piano maker, and Berlioz was friendly with the Érard family.

    The Memoirs are not very revealing on the subject of Berlioz and Spontini, as compared with the three other masters. In the Memoirs Gluck is a powerful presence in Berlioz’s early life, even before he came to Paris in 1821 and heard any of his music (chapter 4), and remained so later. Berlioz tells at length of the impression made on him by his discovery of Weber and Beethoven in late 1824 and 1828 respectively (Memoirs chapters 16 and 20). There is no such account in the Memoirs of Berlioz’s encounter with the music of Spontini. Spontini is assumed to have been one of his idols from the time Berlioz started to frequent the Opéra, and in the early chapters of the Memoirs is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Gluck, the giant of tragic opera (chapters 14, 16, 17, 21). This remains true throughout the Memoirs, which presuppose Berlioz’s admiration for the composer.

Relations between Berlioz and Spontini

    The earliest mention of Spontini in the Memoirs is in chapter 5, where Berlioz relates (incorrectly as it happens) his earliest experiences at the Opéra in Paris: he first saw Salieri’s Les Danaïdes with instrumental movements added by Spontini, and then the following week Méhul’s Stratonice. The next reference is in chapter 11, where he notes that his early opera Les Francs-Juges ‘showed on every page the energetic influence of Spontini’s style'. But Berlioz does not relate his earliest experiences of Spontini’s operas on stage. He will have first heard and seen two of Spontini’s major works, La Vestale (1807) and Fernand Cortez (1809, revised in 1817), at the Opéra in 1822. He evidently became an instant convert. In his first published article in Le Corsaire of 12 August 1823 (Critique Musicale I, p. 1-3) La Vestale is presented as a work Berlioz already admired: he attacks the absurd suggestion that the work might be transferred from the Opéra to the Théâtre Italien. The earliest indication in Berlioz’s correspondence of his devotion to Spontini’s music comes only later, in 1826, in a letter of 15 July (CG no. 61) where he relates the impression made by the celebrated Mme Branchu in her last appearance in the title role of Olympie (1819, revised 1821), which he describes as ‘a sublime work, worthy of the author of La Vestale’. Thereafter Berlioz’s enthusiasm for Spontini never wavers, and the addition of Weber and Beethoven to his Pantheon did not cause Berlioz to abandon his older loyalties.

    The rising young composer was understandably anxious to meet the older master, a generation his senior, and to seek his approval and support before his imminent departure for Italy at the end of 1830. Spontini happened to be in Paris in the autumn, and Berlioz boldly approached him in a letter dated 15 September 1830 (CG no. 178):

I have long been consumed with the desire to see you and to tell you in person of the inexpressible admiration I feel for your genius. M. Lesueur, whose student I am, has promised me several times to introduce me to you, but my impatience does not allow me to wait any longer. [...] Please grant me, Monsieur, the honour of receiving me. If knowing, understanding and experiencing your sublime works entitle me to your goodwill, I swear to you that I deserve it as much as anyone else. [...]

    Spontini responded favourably, as a letter of Berlioz to his mother the following month shows (CG no. 184, 20 October 1830):

[...] I am also counting on the support of Spontini [sc. to be excused from the obligation of making the trip to Italy]; he happens to be in Paris at the moment. I wrote to him recently to ask his permission to visit him; he replied immediately with a very gracious letter and fixed an appointment for the following day. He showered me with marks of kindness and friendship. [...] I hope that I will be able to let him hear some of my music before his departure.

    Berlioz could only have been overjoyed with the sequel. Spontini did attend the first performance of the Symphonie fantastique on 5 December 1830 and according to Berlioz was enthusiastic about the work (CG no. 190). Shortly after Berlioz sent him an effusive letter thanking him for his support which meant so much to him, and sending him manuscript scores of the symphony and of the Francs-Juges overture (CG no. 191). Spontini reciprocated by sending him the printed full score of his opera Olympie on 11 December with a hand-written dedication, as mentioned in a letter of Berlioz to Humbert Ferrand dated 12 December 1830 (CG no. 193).

    This was the start of a series of exchanges between the two men which continued for a number of years (the last preserved letters date from 1846). For the letters of Berlioz to Spontini see CG nos. 178, 191, 268, 364, 752, 768, 870, 1052; for the letters of Spontini to Berlioz see NL nos. 645bis [pp. 166-7] & 651quinquies [p. 172], and CG nos. 862, 866, 1051, 1081. After Spontini’s death in 1851 the correspondence continued with Spontini’s widow till at least 1863; see CG nos. 1787, 2202, 2393bis, 2684 for the letters of Berlioz to Mme Spontini, and nos. 1476, 2787 for her letters to Berlioz (in the last known letter she congratulates Berlioz on the first performance of Les Troyens à Carthage in November 1863, and adds: ‘[Madame Charton-Demeur] reminds me very much of Madame Branchu’). There are also frequent mentions of Spontini and his music in other letters of the composer (for example CG nos. 125, 868, 1246, 1379, 1381).

    The preserved letters evidently give an incomplete view of the correspondence between the two men, but in any case it was clearly not comparable to the much more extensive correspondence between Berlioz and Liszt. Berlioz’s devotion and loyalty to Spontini were genuine, but it was not easy for him to become close to someone who, besides the graet difference in age between them (Spontini was born in 1774, and not in 1779 as Berlioz believed), was reputedly a difficult person who easily made enemies (Meyerbeer, his successor in Berlin, was one of them). As Berlioz said shortly after Spontini’s death, ‘He was not a likeable man, but I had come to love him by dint of admiration. The very asperities of his temperament endeared him to me, perhaps because they fitted my own’ (letter of 1st February 1851 to General Lvov, CG no. 1379).

    The start of the relations between Berlioz and Spontini in 1830 had seemed very promising, but the sequel hardly lived up to expectations. During his stay in Rome in 1832 Berlioz wrote an effusive letter to Spontini in Berlin, where he was director of the opera, expressing the hope of going there after his trip to Italy (CG no. 268). The following year, after his marriage to Harriet Smithson, he sollicited at length Spontini’s support for a projected appearance on stage of his wife in Berlin (CG no. 364); it is not clear that Spontini took any action, and the visit did not take place (CG no. 370). The long projected visit to Germany did not materialise till 1842-3, by which time Meyerbeer had replaced Spontini at the head of the Berlin opera (and turned out to be very helpful to Berlioz during his trip). In May 1839 there was a vacancy for a seat at the Institut de France in the music section and Berlioz decided to apply, though he then withdrew when he heard that Spontini wanted to apply himself; Spontini was duly elected (see also NL no. 651quinquies, p. 172; 5 June 1839). Two years later, at a time when Spontini’s position in Berlin was becoming increasingly contested, Berlioz wrote to him a letter of support, with effusive praise for his opera Fernand Cortez which had recently been performed at the Opéra (CG no. 752; 27 August 1841). Spontini resigned from his post in Berlin later in the year. The letter evidently meant much to Berlioz: he reproduced it twice, in 1844 in the first volume of his Voyage musical en Allemagne et en Italie, and again in 1852 in his Soirées de l’orchestre in a section which is entirely devoted to Spontini (13th evening). In March 1842 Berlioz decided to stand for another vacancy at the Institut and wrote to Spontini to sollicit his support (CG no. 768), but in the event failed to be even short-listed. A letter of Spontini of 20 November 1843 (by now he was settled in Paris) congratulated Berlioz on a concert at the Conservatoire the day before, which turned out to be the last concert he conducted there for many years; Spontini was full of praise for Berlioz’s music, but made reservations about his conducting technique (CG no. 866; cf. no. 868). A brief letter of December 1843 shows Berlioz sending a copy of his Treatise on Orchestration to Spontini, in which his debt to him was acknowledged (CG no. 870). The last known letter to Spontini is a brief note of thanks (CG no. 1052) for an astonishingly verbose and rambling letter of Spontini congratulating Berlioz on a review in the Débats of 29 July 1846 of a military concert, in which he had praised Spontini as the ‘father of military music’ (CG no. 1051). The last known letter of Spontini to Berlioz is a rather obscure note, written two days before the first performance of the Damnation of Faust on 6 December 1846 (CG no. 1081). — It might be added that when Spontini died (24 January 1851) Berlioz decided to stand for his vacant seat at the Institut, but once again failed to be elected (CG nos. 1388. 1389, 1392), and it was only on 21 June 1856 that he was finally successful.

Berlioz, champion of Spontini

    Berlioz, nostalgic for the 1820s when his idols Gluck and Spontini were in favour with the public and frequently performed at the Paris Opéra, often lamented that Spontini’s works were no longer as well known as they deserved. In 1857 he has shocked to hear Pauline Viardot admit that she had never either heard or read Spontini’s La Vestale (CG no. 2203). In his conducting career Berlioz included music by Spontini in his programmes where possible; but he never enjoyed in Paris an established position as permanent conductor of a concert society or opera house, and the number of known performances of Spontini under his baton is in practice limited. He conducted the overture to La Vestale as the opening piece of the large Festival of Industry concert (1 August 1844), and later at the end of a concert in Baden-Baden (19 August 1859); this provoked a complaint from Spontini’s widow who felt it should have been placed earlier (CG no. 2393bis) (An overture by Meyerbeer, Spontini’s ersthwile rival, opened the second half of the programme, which for Mme Spontini was probably an additional grievance.) He included an aria from Fernand Cortez in one of his concerts of the Société Philharmonique in Paris (30 March 1850). In the third of the six concerts he gave at Exeter Hall in London in 1852 (28 April) he included the whole of the dramatic Act II of La Vestale, the work he regarded as Spontini’s masterpiece. The concert meant a great deal to him: it was as it were a memorial in honour of Spontini who had died the previous year. He invited Spontini’s widow to come to London for the occasion, and she gave him Spontini’s own baton to use at the concert. It was a disappointment to Berlioz that the critical reaction to the work was not more enthusiastic (CG nos. 1473, 1476, 1477). — It is noticeable that Berlioz did not include any music by Spontini in his concerts during his last trip to Russia in 1867 and 1868 (whereas Gluck figured prominently in them): it may be that memories of the disappointment in London played a part.

    It was therefore through the pen rather than the baton that Berlioz was most able to promote the music of Spontini, and this he did through his entire career as music critic over some forty years. His earliest article in 1823 was in defence of Spontini’s La Vestale, and in one of his last articles in 1863 he was still extolling the merits of Spontini’s Fernand Cortez (Débats 23 July 1863). But Berlioz’s activity as a music critic usually depended in the first instance on actual performances of musical works, to which he could respond in his articles. Spontini’s total musical output was very extensive, but in practice the number of works by him which had a place in the regular repertoire in France was limited to a pair of operas, namely La Vestale (1807) and Fernand Cortez (1809, revised 1817), with a conspicuous lack of either choral or instrumental music.

    Berlioz’s active career as a music critic took a fresh start after his return from Italy. 1834 brought a number of articles on Spontini, prompted in part by a revival of La Vestale at the Opéra (Critique Musicale I pp. 233-7, 287, 361-2), but Berlioz also published a fictional story, Le Suicide par enthousiasme, which concerned a young musician with a passion for La Vestale — rather like Berlioz himself (Critique Musicale I pp. 297-301, 303-7, 347-51, 353-6). Berlioz reproduced it later in the second volume his Voyage musical of 1844, then again in his Soirées de l’orchestre in 1852 (12th evening). For the next 3 years he did not have occasion to mention Spontini until a biographical article on the composer in July 1838, the first he had devoted to the composer (Critique Musicale III pp. 511-15).

    From 1840 onwards references to Spontini become more frequent. It may be simplest to group these around the works that Berlioz mentions most frequently. Most of the following notices concern performances in Paris, but a few mention performances elsewhere to which Berlioz wanted to draw attention; these will be indicated in each case. On La Vestale see Débats 16 February 1840, 17 February 1844 (concerning performances in Dresden), 14 May 1845, 12 October 1847, 7 March 1849, 21 March and 25 March 1854 (compares unfavourably a performance in Paris with one in Berlin). On Fernand Cortez see Débats 21 May and 21 June 1840, 17 February 1844 (concerning a performance in Gotha), 29 July and 7 October 1846 (concerning a performance in Berlin), 14 July 1849, 11 October 1854 (concerning a performance in Vienna), 3 April 1858 (concerning a performance in Bordeaux, cf. 23 April), and 23 July 1863 (concerning performances in Berlin). On Olympie see Débats 27 November 1851 (concerning a performance in Berlin) and 7 April 1861. On Nurmahal see Débats 10 December 1844. There are also a number of references to Spontini which are not related to a specific work: see Débats 10 May 1839, 15 December 1844, 9 June 1846 and 20 January 1854.

    Berlioz’s most extensive article on Spontini was the long obituary notice he published after his death in Débats of 12 February 1851 (Critique Musicale VII pp. 419-32); it was a much more developed study than the earlier biographical article of 1838 mentioned above. In writing it Berlioz took pains to obtain through Spontini’s brother in law Pierre Érard as full a list of Spontini’s works as possible (CG nos. 1375, 1379, 1381); he also had the benefit of numerous conversations with Spontini himself in the 1840s after Spontini’s return to Paris, and was thus less dependent on the existing musical encyclopedias of Fétis and others which he knew to be incomplete and unreliable. The article is only partly biographical; it lays particular stress on Spontini’s decision in 1803 to leave Italy and settle in Paris, and the positive effect this had on his musical development: this made him more receptive to new non-Italian musical influences, notably that of Gluck. In Paris Spontini also gained the decisive patronage of the empress Joséphine and of Napoleon himself, who after the success of La Vestale commissioned from him the opera Fernand Cortez. The article gives a detailed account of Spontini’s musical works, especially his major operas La Vestale, Fernand Cortez and Olympie, the first two of which were the foundation of his reputation as a composer. It proceeds to a detailed discussion of Spontini’s musical style, with comments on his use of harmony, melody, orchestration and modulation, and thus constitutes Berlioz’s fullest assessment of Spontini’s contribution to music.

    In 1849 Berlioz had drafted a new book, but then failed to find a publisher for it. Three years later, during his stay in London from March to June 1852 that book now became the Soirées de l’orchestre, which appeared before the end of the year. One feature of the new book was the prominent place it gave to Spontini; this was evidently prompted by the death of Spontini the previous year and Berlioz’s wish to pay homage to him. It will also be recalled (see above) that one of his Exeter Hall concerts in April included the whole of Act II of La Vestale. In the new book Spontini is almost the central figure. The 11th evening is devoted to a performance of La Vestale, which is played by the musicians with religious fervour. The 12th evening reproduces the story first published in 1834 of a devotee of La Vestale, who commits suicide after a performance of the work — life had no further meaning after such an experience. The climax comes with the 13th evening, which is taken up with the extensive biographical sketch of the composer and his work which he had published the previous year.

    It will be noted that there are few mentions of Spontini in the last collection of essays published by Berlioz in 1862, À Travers chants, and no chapters devoted to him specifically (whereas Berlioz’s 3 other idols, Beethoven, Gluck and Weber receive extensive coverage in it): what Berlioz had to say about Spontini had already been included in the Soirées de l’orchestre.

A balance-sheet

    Berlioz freely acknowledged his debt to Spontini – he was one of the ‘three modern masters’ whose scores had helped to teach Berlioz how to write for the orchestra, the other two being Beethoven and Weber (Memoirs chapter 13), and in the Treatise on Orchestration Spontini is one of the composers most frequently mentioned (though the actual citations of his works are few). In his obituary of Spontini in 1851 Berlioz discussed in some detail the characteristics of Spontini’s orchestral writing.

    Various influences of Spontini on Berlioz can be detected. Berlioz himself stated that the “vigorous influence of Spontini’s style could be felt on every page of Les Francs-Juges” (Memoirs, chapter 11). For example, the long crescendo at the end of the overture is reminiscent of the same device in the overture to La Vestale: Berlioz credited Spontini with the invention of the “colossal crescendo”.  But it might be added that Berlioz’s crescendo in the overture is far more compelling than the rather mechanical and monotonous one of Spontini, and that the Francs-Juges overture is far more imaginative and powerful than that of La Vestale... Some of Spontini’s melodic turns have echoes in Berlioz. Les Troyens, in particular, is not merely a homage to Gluck, but to Spontini as well. Besides dealing with a subject from the ancient world, it has resemblances with Spontini’s operas, for example in the pageantry, the large ensembles and the role of the chorus, the use of march music, and spatial effects. But it should be added that for Berlioz spectacle is never an end in itself, which is not the case with Spontini. In Les Troyens the large ensemble in the first act, Châtiment effroyable, recalls the similar mood of the ensemble Périsse la vestale impie in the third act of La Vestale. When writing the work Berlioz actually consulted the full score of Spontini’s Olympie, as mentioned in a letter to Toussaint Bennet dated 26/7 January 1857 (CG no. 2203):

[...] I sent Roquemont [his copyist] to fetch from the Conservatoire the full score of Spontini’s Olympie where there is a triumphal march in the same tempo as mine and of which the bars have the same duration as those of my finale [the Trojan march at the end of Act I]. I counted the bars, they add up to 347 while I only have 244. Besides, there is no action on stage during this immense procession of the march of Olympie, while I have Cassandra occupying the front of the stage while the procession of the wooden horse is unfolding in the distance. [...]

    Berlioz’s warm praise for Spontini’s music has often been thought overgenerous. It may be that in practice he was more aware of Spontini’s shortcomings than appears at first sight, but if so was reluctant to express them freely. The reason for this may be sought in his strong sense of personal loyalty to Spontini, which went back to his experiences of the 1820s, his first contacts with Spontini’s music and with Spontini himself. Spontini was alive for many years after he first met Berlioz, and after his death in 1851 his widow, with whom Berlioz remained on very friendly terms, naturally wished to defend her husband’s memory. This was illustrated by her visit to London in 1852 at Berlioz’s invitation, and by her reaction to the programming of the concert in Baden-Baden in August 1859 (see above). Out of respect for her Berlioz may not have felt entirely free in his public pronouncements on Spontini.

    Reading between lines one may detect occasional reservations on the part of Berlioz towards Spontini. These occur already in the 1820s, before Berlioz met Spontini in person. In his very first published article in 1823, he raises the possibility that Spontini’s operas were overscored and noisy (he may have been thinking of the frequently mechanical use of cymbals and bass drum common to many composers of the period). Then there is a letter of 1826 which deals among other things with the last performance of Olympie with Mme Branchu in the title role (CG no. 61, 15 July 1826):

[...] It is a sublime work in every respect, worthy of the author of La Vestale; and yet there are passages which are too heavily loaded with brass instruments; generally speaking, he has made excessive use of them in all his operas. Spontini has now left [Paris for Berlin] in a rage; he will find consolations there [for his rebuff in Paris], as he has the whole of Germany at his feet. He is the genius of the century. [...]

    In a letter of 1829 to his sister Nancy he relates his impressions of Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet (CG no. 120, 29 March) and adds:

[...] There is another [composer like Beethoven] who moves almost in the same sphere, and that is Weber. Spontini follows close behind, but he had the misfortune of being born in Italy, although he has completely renounced the trivial style. I believe his first impressions have continued to exercise some influence on the direction of his thoughts; thereafter he has written exclusively tragic operas. Oh! La Vestale!... [...]

    In an article entitled Aperçu sur la musique classique et la musique romantique (A glimpse of classical and romantic music), published in Le Correspondant on 22 October 1830 (Critique Musicale I, 63-68, at p. 67) Berlioz pointed out some differences between Gluck and Spontini:

The author of Alceste delighted in the simple expression of passions, his statues are naked; the author of La Vestale needs costumes, purple, and garlands of flowers. Gluck’s genius loves to wander at the gates of hell, on rocks and on arid beaches; Spontini’s genius inhabits palaces, great temples, and requires marble and gold.

    The biography of Spontini first published in Débats on 12 February 1851 is full of praise for Spontini, but also contains a number of reservations. After noting that Spontini seems to have escaped the influence of German composers, and that of Beethoven in particular, Berlioz adds a paragraph which though respectfully phrased is rather critical in substance:

Spontini was not a musician properly speaking, he did not belong to the category of those who draw music from within themselves and write without the need for an external idea to stimulate their inspiration. As a result I believe he would not have succeeded in the writing either of quartets or of symphonies; though the grace and charm of his dance music or the majesty and vigour of some parts of his overtures are not in doubt, this should not prevent one from admitting that he did not even attempt to try his hand at elevated instrumental and symphonic composition.

    Reading between the lines, this suggests that for Berlioz the purely instrumental pieces of Spontini, such as the numerous ballets in the first and third acts of La Vestale were lacking in musical substance. The short instrumental pieces and ballets in acts one, three and four of Les Troyens are far superior to those of Spontini for their variety and inventiveness. As for overtures, Spontini never wrote one that could stand comparison with those of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber or Berlioz himself. The paragraph was removed from the second edition of the Soirées in 1854; Berlioz may have thought it too risky.

    When in September 1830 Berlioz boldy ventured to introduce himself to Spontini, he was craving for the support of the old master he admired, and his early hopes were fulfilled after the first performance of the Symphonie fantastique (see above). But later Berlioz expressed a regret: in his view, Spontini had been stingy in his praise for the music of his most devoted admirer. Here is a quotation from the end of chapter 50 of the Mémoires:

Concerning a performance of this symphony [the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale] given many years later at the Conservatoire with a double orchestra but no chorus [19 November 1843], Spontini wrote to me a long and strange letter [CG no. 866] [...] In spite of his friendship for me, that was the only occasion when he condescended to praise my compositions. He would always come to hear them, but without ever a word of comment. But I must correct this. He did this also after a large-scale performance of my Requiem in the church of Saint-Eustache [probably on 20 August 1843]. On that occasion he said to me:
« — You are wrong to criticise the sending to Rome of the winners of the music competition at the Institut; you would not have conceived such a Requiem without Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. »
In this he was strangely mistaken, as this celebrated fresco in the Sistine Chapel left me completely disappointed. I see there a scene of infernal tortures, but by no means the supreme assembly of humanity. Besides, I know little about painting and conventional depictions leave me cold.

Available scores of Spontini

An *asterisk indicates that the score is cited by Berlioz in his Treatise on Orchestration

La Vestale, Overture (duration 7'44")
— Score in large format
(file created on 1.01.2003)
— Score in pdf format

La Vestale, Act I Ballet 1 (duration 3'40")
— Score in large format
— Score in pdf format

La Vestale, Act I Ballet 2 (duration 4'32")
— Score in large format
— Score in pdf format

La Vestale, Act I Ballet 3 (duration 2'22")
— Score in large format
— Score in pdf format

(files created on 11.12.2002)

*La Vestale, Act II Scene 2 (ritornello) (duration 1'33")
— Score in large format
(file created on 13.05.2003)
— Score in pdf format

Notes on the available scores

Orchestral excerpts from La Vestale

    It goes without saying that the purely orchestral excerpts of Spontini’s music presented here cannot convey the full stature of the works concerned. The impact of Spontini’s operas is cumulative, and is lost with separate excerpts. As Berlioz put it ‘One might almost say that, taken as a whole, the second act of La Vestale is but one gigantic crescendo’ (Soirées de l’orchestre, 13th evening). He did nevertheless occasionally include excerpts in his concerts – he played the overture to La Vestale at the start of the great concert at the Palais de l’Industrie on 1st August 1844 (Memoirs ch. 53), and at a concert in Baden-Baden on 29 August 1859, but this time at the end (CG no. 2393bis, to Mme Spontini) – the only piece by Spontini he included in his series of annual concerts in Baden-Baden.

    There are no metronome marks in the score of La Vestale. The tempi have been set as follows:

Overture: andante sostenuto, quaver = 72, speeding up from bar 12 to reach 80 at bar 20; presto, crotchet = 176

Act I Ballet 1: allegro marziale, minim = 84

Act I Ballet 2: poco grave, crotchet = 72, andante, crotchet = 50, poco animato, crotchet = 56, allegretto con brio, crotchet = 80, un poco piu animato, crotchet = 88

Act I Ballet 3: presto, dotted crotchet = 152, presto, crotchet = 120

Act II Scene 2 (ritornello): largo espressivo, quaver = 100. This passage is cited by Berlioz in the chapter on voices in his Treatise on Orchestration (in this transcription the voice part remains silent).

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997.
The Berlioz and Spontini page was created on 11 December 2002. New and enlarged version 1 July 2021.

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page. All rights of reproduction reserved.

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