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There should be no misunderstanding about the genre of this work. Although voices are frequently used in it, it is neither a concert opera, nor a cantata, but a choral symphony.
The reason there is singing almost from the start is to prepare the listener’s mind for the dramatic scenes where the feelings and passions are to be expressed by the orchestra. It is also to introduce gradually in the musical argument the choral masses, which might have undermined the unity of the work had they been introduced too abruptly. Thus in the prologue, where following the example of Shakespeare’s own drama, the chorus that outlines the action is sung by only 14 voices. Further on the chorus of Capulets alone (men’s voices) can be heard off stage, then in the funeral ceremony the Capulets both men and women. At the start of the finale are found the two full choruses of Capulets and Montagues and Friar Lawrence, and right at the end the three choruses together.
This latter scene depicts the reconciliation of the two families and is the only one to belong to the genre of opera or oratorio. It has never been performed in any theatre since Shakespeare’s time; but it is too beautiful and too musical, and crowns so well a work of this kind, for the composer to have thought of treating it in any other way.
If, in the celebrated scenes in the garden and in the cemetery the dialogue of the two lovers, Juliet’s asides and the impassioned pleas of Romeo are not sung, if in short the love duet and the duet of despair are entrusted to the orchestra, the reasons for this are numerous and easy to grasp. First, and this would by itself be a sufficient justification for the author, the work is a symphony and not an opera. Then, since duets of this kind have been treated countless times in vocal form by the greatest masters, it was wise as well as interesting to try another mode of expression. It is also because the very sublimity of this love made its depiction so dangerous for the composer that he needed to allow his imagination a freedom which the literal meaning of the words sung would have denied him. Hence the resort to instrumental language, a language which is richer, more varied, less finite, and through its very imprecision incomparably more powerful in such a situation.
[…] It was during one of these rides in the countryside around Rome together with Felix Mendelssohn [in 1831] that I told him of my astonishment that no one had yet thought of writing a scherzo on Shakespeare’s sparkling little poem Queen Mab. He shared my surprise, and I immediately regretted having suggested the idea to him. For several years after I dreaded hearing that he had dealt with the subject. This would probably have made impossible or at least very risky the double attempt I made in my Romeo and Juliet symphony. Luckily for me the idea did not occur to him. […]
[…] [Berlioz has just told at length the story of Paganini’s gift of 20 000 francs] After paying off my debts, as I was left with a substantial sum of money, my only thought was to use it for a musical purpose. I thought I must suspend all other activities and write a masterpiece, novel in character and on a large scale, a grand and passionate work, full of imagination, and worthy of being dedicated to the celebrated artist to whom I owed so much. While I was pondering this project, Paganini, whose health in Paris was getting worse, found himself compelled to return to Marseille, and thence to Nice, from which sadly he never returned. I submitted to him through letters various subjects for the large work I was planning, and which I had told him about.
“I do not have any advice to give you about this, he replied, you know better than anyone else what suits you.”
After a fairly long period of indecision, I settled on the idea of a choral symphony, with vocal solos and choral recitatives, for which Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet would provide the sublime but perennially fresh subject. I wrote a prose draft of all the text that was intended for the vocal interludes between the instrumental pieces. Émile Deschamps, obliging as ever, turned this text into verse with the exceptional fluency that is his, and I started work.
No more feuilletons now, or at least almost none! I had money, which Paganini had given me to write music, and that is what I did. For seven months I worked on my symphony, without having to stop for more than three or four days a month for any other activity.
How intensely I lived during this period! How vigorously I roamed over this great ocean of poetry caressed by the wild breeze of fancy, under the warm rays of the loving sun that Shakespeare had kindled, fortified by the conviction of being able to reach the marvellous island where stands the temple of pure art!
It is not for me to say whether I have succeeded. The score was performed in its existing form under my direction at the Conservatoire three times, and on all three occasions it seemed to score a genuine success [on 24 November, 1st and 15 December 1839]. But I immediately felt that many parts needed revising, and I started to examine the work critically from every aspect. It is a matter of keen regret for me that Paganini never heard or read the symphony. I was always hoping to see him return to Paris, and I was waiting in any case for the symphony to be finally revised and published before sending it to him. But in the meantime he died in Nice, leaving me with many painful regrets, and notably the uncertainty whether he would have approved the work I had undertaken with the primary purpose of pleasing him and convincing him that he had been right in helping its author. He too seemed to regret keenly not knowing Romeo and Juliet, and he mentioned this to me in a letter of 7 January 1840 from Nice, where he had this sentence: “Everything is now done, and envy has been reduced to silence.” Poor dear great friend! Fortunately he never read the dreadful nonsense written in several Paris papers on the plan of the work, on the introduction, on the adagio, on Queen Mab, and on the narrative of Friar Lawrence. One paper found my attempt to write a new form of symphony extravagant, another could see nothing in the Queen Mab scherzo but a grotesque little noise similar to the sound made by badly lubricated syringes. A third paper, writing of the love scene in the adagio – the piece that three quarters of the musicians in Europe who know it put above everything else I have written – maintained that I had not understood Shakespeare! Toad swollen with stupidity! How you will prove that to me…
I have never felt so wounded by such unexpected criticisms. As always happens, none of these experts who have written in praise or blame of this work has pointed out a single one of its shortcomings, which I subsequently corrected when I was able to identify them.
M. Frankoski (Ernst’s secretary) pointed out to me in Vienna that the abrupt ending of the Queen Mab scherzo was unsatisfactory; I therefore wrote for this piece the coda which now exists and deleted the previous version.
It was on the advice of M. d’Ortigue, I believe, that an important cut was made in narrative of Friar Lawrence, where the effect was cold and long-winded because of the excessive number of verses provided by the librettist. All other changes, additions and deletions were made on my own initiative, after I had the opportunity to hear performances in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Prague and study the effect of the work as a whole and in detail. If I have failed to detect other blemishes that need to be removed, I have at least searched for them in all good faith and applied all the sagacity I posses in trying to identify them.
After this what more can an author do than to say to himself frankly that he can do no better and come to terms with the works’ imperfections? Once I reached that point, but not any earlier, the Romeo and Juliet symphony was published [in 1847].
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. […]
Romeo and Juliet (commentary and score)
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© Michel Austin for the English translation. All rights of reproduction reserved.