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The Aeolian Harp, from Lélio ou le retour à la vie (H 55)

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    See also Berlioz Libretti; Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings

    Throughout his career Berlioz was perhaps the most literate among great composers, whose music willingly responded to literary influences. One of his early literary enthusiasms which persisted through his life was the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Berlioz discovered his work (in French translation) in the mid 1820s and conceived an affection for it which never wavered, as shown by the frequent references to or citations of the poet in his Memoirs. For example, in chapter 11 he writes concerning his stay at 27 rue de Harlay in 1825-26:

It was summer. I bought my delicacies at the nearby grocer’s and usually took them to the little terrace on the Pont Neuf, at the foot of Henry IV’s statue. There I sat and […] ate my frugal meal, watching the sun go down behind Mont Valérien, […] my head full of splendid images from Thomas Moore’s poetry, which I had just discovered in a translation and was devouring for the first time.

    In 1829 Berlioz set to music several poems by Thomas Moore in a French translation by his friend Thomas Gounet. It was published the following year under the title Neuf Mélodies and dedicated to Thomas Moore himself; in a later edition the title was changed to Irlande. When Berlioz travelled to Italy in 1831 he took with him his enthusiasm for Moore, which bore further fruit there. His stay in Nice in April-May 1831 turned out to be the start of a creative period: after the King Lear overture Berlioz immediately started composing two further works, which continued to occupy him during the coming weeks, first the Rob Roy overture, then the Melologue. Several letters give details about the composition of the latter work, for example a letter to Thomas Gounet from Rome dated 14 June 1831 (CG no. 231; see also CG nos. 232, 233, 234):

I am working hard. I am completing at the moment the melologue which is the sequel to the Episode in the life of an artist [the Symphonie fantastique]; it is to be performed after the symphony and forms the complement to a concert. I wrote the words on the way from San Lorenzo to Rome, during my latest trip; I had left the carriage behind and while I was walking I would write on my wallet. The music is also done, and all I need now is to copy this out. There are six monologues and six pieces of music, solo songs, orchestra on its own, or chorus and orchestra. I very much regret not being able to show you my first attempt at literature and benefit from your advice, but will make up for this later. For the verses I did not play around searching for rhymes, but wrote rhythmical and measured prose, which is all you need for music. I got the idea from Thomas Moore; yet the presence of music is justified in my monologue, and I am presenting the subject in a dramatic form. The scene begins after the dream of the night of the Sabbath, at the moment when the artist comes back to life

    The word melologue, which referred to a mixture of declamation and music, was in fact invented by Thomas Moore. It is likely that Berlioz had been pondering a work of this kind for some time before. He had in recent years composed a number of different pieces which had yet to find a suitable home: none of the music of the Melologue, which was entitled Le Retour à la vie (The Return to Life), was in fact original, but all derived from various sources, including two of his cantatas for the Prix de Rome competition (La Mort d’Orphée of 1827 and Cléopâtre of 1829). Berlioz also had a number of strongly held ideas about music and art to which he wanted to give expression, and the Melologue provided a suitable vehicle.

    Performing the revised Symphonie fantastique together with its new sequel Le Retour à la vie was musically Berlioz’s major objective on his return to Paris. He spent the summer months of 1832 in La Côte-Saint-André, copying parts for the projected concert. The two works were performed together at a momentous concert on 9 December 1832, which was repeated on 30 December. The concerts had a major impact on Berlioz’s life, as he relates in his Memoirs (chapter 44; see also CG nos. 293, 295, 299, 304). They led to his marriage the following year with Harriet Smithson; but they also made a lasting enemy of the musicologist François-Joseph Fétis, whom Berlioz had openly attacked in one of the monologues.

    The Melologue was only performed once again in Paris together with the Symphonie fantastique (3 May 1835), though a few individual pieces from the complete work received occasional performances subsequently (the ballad le Pêcheur in 1833 and 1835, and the Scène de Brigands in Vienna in November 1845). The programme of the symphony and the text of the Melologue were published and distributed at the concerts in December 1832, and Berlioz sent copies of them to his family and to friends (CG no. 299). Three vocal pieces from the work were published in 1833 (Le Pêcheur, the Chant de bonheur and the Scène de Brigands), and all three were dedicated to Harriet Smithson. But the work as a whole remained unpublished (the Symphonie fantastique ventually appeared in 1845, but onits own).

    The matter rested there for two decades, and then the death of Harriet Smithson on 3 March 1854 seems to have moved Berlioz to revisit the work. Taking advantage of the devoted support he was receiving in Weimar from his friend Liszt, Berlioz revised the work and modified the spoken monologues, omitting two paragraphs on Beethoven, and emphasising instead the central Shakespearean inspiration of the work (the different versions of the libretto of 1832 and 1855 are printed side by side in NBE volume 7, pp. 232-40; the 1855 version is reproduced on this site). The work was thus linked even more closely to Harriet Smithson. It was also renamed Lélio ou le retour à la vie. The idée fixe, which in the original version of 1831-2 only appeared in the symphony, was now introduced twice, in the first song, and at the end after the conclusion of the Fantasia on Shakespeare’s Tempest. In this modified form the work was performed in Weimar on 21 February 1855; the performance was a great success (CG nos. 1897, 1899, 1903) and Berlioz now decided to publish the complete work. The vocal score appeared the same year, and the full score followed later in 1857; the work was dedicated to Louis Berlioz, the composer’s son.. Berlioz also took the opportunity to extend the title Episode in the life of an artist, which initially applied only to the symphony (cf. CG nos. 152, 158), to both the symphony and its sequel.

    The piece entitled The Aeolian Harp. Reminiscences is the only purely orchestral piece from the Melologue. It is derived from the first of Berlioz’s cantatas for the Prix de Rome, his unsuccessful entry of 1827 which had the title La Mort d’Orphée (The Death of Orpheus; H 25). While composing the work in 1831 Berlioz had to send for a copy of the original score of the piece to refresh his memory (CG nos. 234, 239, 250). It is the last section of the work – a slow and fragmented reminiscence of an aria sung by Orpheus earlier in the cantata. The version of this piece in Lélio is substantially that of the earlier cantata, except for some elaboration of the string parts, and the music was also transposed up a semitone, from A flat to A major. Berlioz had an evident fondness for this evocative piece, which he quotes in full in his Treatise on orchestration in the section on the clarinet (cf. also Memoirs chapter 19 on its rehearsal in May 1828). The instrumental end of the preceding movement, the Chant de bonheur [Song of bliss] (for tenor and orchestra), has also been included here to illustrate the adaptation of the melody in this movement.

    Song of bliss (end) (duration 1'2")
    — Score in large format
    — Score in pdf format

    The Aeolian Harp (duration 2'10")
    — Score in large format
    (files created on 30.08.2000; revised 23.12.2001)
    — Score in pdf format

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.

This page revised and enlarged on 1 December 2021.

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