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Beatrice and Benedict (H 138): Overture and Sicilienne

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Orchestral excerpts

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    Berlioz had long been interested in the idea of writing a comic opera on the subject of Shakespeare’s Much ado about nothing, but it took him many years before the idea was realised. In January 1833, at a time when he had plenty to think about with his growing involvement with Harriet Smithson, he was planning an opera in Italian on that subject for the Théâtre Italien, for which he wrote an outline; this is briefly alluded to in two letters at that time (CG nos. 311, 312). Nothing came of this, but Berlioz may have kept a copy of the outline for future use. Years later, at a date which can be fixed to around 1852, he drafted another outline, for a three act opera entitled Bénédict et Béatrix which was intended for the Opéra-Comique. The project is not mentioned in Berlioz’s extant correspondence for this period, and the only evidence is a manuscript outline in his hand of the plot, for which he asked his friend Ernest Legouvé to write the libretto, but again the project fell through (Berlioz’s outline is reproduced as Appendix I of the New Berlioz Edition, volume 3, pp. 299-300).

    Given that neither project got any further than the outline of a plot, it seems unlikely that much if any music was written for either. Furthermore, the plot as it appears in the outline of ca. 1852 is not only tentative and provisional, but it differs considerably from the completed Beatrice and Benedict of 1860-1862: apart from the two central figures of Beatrice and Benedict, who affect to hate each other but in the end get married, the other characters are quite different, as is the detail of the suggested plot. The opera Berlioz composed in 1860-62 was thus a completely fresh creation which, apart from the basic story, probably owed little to the earlier sketches (contrast the very different case of the Huit scènes de Faust of 1829 and the Damnation of Faust of 1846).

    It is commonly stated or assumed that the comic opera Beatrice and Benedict, Berlioz’s last major work, was composed in reponse to a direct commission by Édouard Bénazet, the director of the annual summer festival at Baden-Baden, and this is indeed what Berlioz himself states in his Memoirs (Postface): ‘After the final completion of this opera [The Trojans] I wrote at the request of M. Bénazet the comic opera in two acts Beatrice and Benedict’. The detailed evidence of Berlioz’s correspondence for 1860-62 shows that the reality was more complex.

    Bénazet did indeed commission an opera from Berlioz in 1858; Berlioz started work on a libretto by Édouard Plouvier, but was not enthusiastic and gave it up in December 1859. He asked Bénazet to release him from his commission, which Bénazet eventually did (CG nos. 2442, 2515). But by late October 1860 and on his own initiative, Berlioz started working, and this time with great enthusiasm, on a completely different opera, based on Shakespeare’s Much ado about nothing: he was thus picking up his old idea, though it is not known what may have prompted him to do this at this particular time. The work became the comic opera Beatrice and Benedict, for which Berlioz wrote the libretto as well as the music, as he had done for The Trojans. Initially Berlioz wanted to keep the project quiet, and it was only a few months later (January 1861) that he offered the opera to Bénazet for performance at Baden-Baden, which Bénazet accepted. The work was dedicated to him, in recognition of all he had done for Berlioz over the years in connection with the annual summer festival at Baden-Baden. For the detailed evidence and the argument for all this see the relevant section of the page on Berlioz and Baden-Baden.

    The new work was a complete contrast to the epic The Trojans (which at the time was still unperformed). It was short, small in scale, mixed spoken dialogue and music, and required only reduced forces. The tone was light and witty, as Berlioz said to various correspondents: ‘It is very cheerful and pretty’ (CG no. 2519bis, to his son Louis)/ ‘It is cheerful, incisive and poetic at times; it smiles from the eyes and the lips’' (CG no. 2522, to Peter Cornelius). ‘I have just been seized again with a zest for work which has resulted in a one-act comic opera [two in practice] for which I have written the words and am now completing the music. It is cheerful and smiling; the score will have a dozen musical numbers, and this gives me a respite after The Trojans’ (CG no. 2524, to Humbert Ferrand). ‘The work is a caprice written with the point of a needle which requires extreme delicacy in performance’ (CG no. 2634, to princess Sayn-Wittgenstein). ‘This little work is to my mind musically much more difficult to perform than The Trojans, because it has humour, which could not be introduced naturally into an ancient subject’ (CG no. 2651, to the princess again). ‘This score is difficult to perform well, especially as regards the men’s roles. In my view it is one of the liveliest and most original that I have written. Unlike The Trojans, it does not cost anything to put on stage’' (Berlioz, Memoirs, Postface).

    The work was successful, at least in Germany, where it received a number of performances: in Baden-Baden (9 & 11 August 1862; 14 & 18 August 1863; all under Berlioz), Weimar (8 & 10 April 1863, under Berlioz; other performances on 30 April or 29 May 1863 [?]; 13 November 1863; 17 October 1864), and Stuttgart (November 1864). It was never performed complete in Paris in Berlioz' s lifetime, and only staged there for the first time in 1890 (see Berlioz’s operas in France, 1869-1914).

Orchestral excerpts

The overture

    Berlioz delayed writing the overture till the rest of the opera was completed, as he had done with his opera Benvenuto Cellini (The Trojans did not have an overture). On 7 December 1861 he wrote to his brother-in-law Marc Suat: ‘I have just finished the two-act opera destined for the new theatre in Baden-Baden. I still need to write the overture; but my feuilletons will prevent me from dealing with it’ (CG no. 2585). Even more than the overture to Benvenuto Cellini, that to Beatrice and Benedict is made up entirely of music taken from the opera, but adapted and fused together from no less than six different passages (arias or ensembles) to form a symphonic whole so seamless that the listener is unaware of the artistry involved. The main theme of the overture with which it begins is taken from the very last piece of the opera, the duet between Beatrice and Benedict. It is presented initially in 3/8 time as in the opera, but for the main allegro Berlioz changes the time signature from triple to duple time, which gives the music a different character. The slow introduction (bar 39 and following) is derived from Beatrice’s great aria in Act II (Il m’en souvient), but the descending tremolando passage in the strings (from bar 67) is taken from near end of the duet of Hero and Ursula at the end of Act I. The fanfare-like theme in the allegro (bar 109 and following, and again later) is taken from Hero’s aria in Act I, and the broad melody which acts as second subject (bar 135 and following, and again later) is adapted from the middle section of the Wedding March ensemble in Act II. Throughout vocal music is turned effortlessly into instrumental music.

    The overture to Beatrice and Benedict is one of Berlioz’s finest and most delicate orchestral pieces, at once witty, melodious and exuberant, and orchestrated with exquisite finesse. In practice it has not been as popular as more extrovert pieces such as the Benvenuto Cellini, Roman Carnival or Corsair overtures, as can be seen from the repertoire of past Berlioz conductors, few of whom are known to have performed it (this applies notably to Pasdeloup, Colonne, Weingartner, and Beecham, among others); only Hamilton Harty showed a special fondness for the piece which he performed with some frequency, and of which he made an outstanding recording in 1934.

The Sicilienne

    Very appropriately for an opera set in Sicily, Beatrice and Benedict includes a Sicilienne as its only purely orchestral movement (apart from the overture). It is heard twice, in Act I after the opening chorus, and just before Act II. The piece is one of the curiosities of the opera: it is based on a melody, Le Dépit de la bergère, composed by Berlioz and published in Paris around 1819, while he was still living at La Côte Saint-André. It was in fact his earliest musical publication (H 7; NBE volume 15). The original melody was in a major key (D major); though pleasant it is rather bland and unadventurous, and hardly strays far from the original key. The Sicilienne by contrast is in a minor key (F sharp minor); the melody is much more developed and varied than the original version, full of unexpected twists, rhythmically and harmonically, and wanders off into modulations that the young Berlioz would never have dreamed of. Towards the end (bar 40) the music tries to get back to the major but then relapses into the minor, where it ends. Overall the piece has a sadness that was missing in the original. The echo of the early melody is surely deliberate. Berlioz’s last major work carried a reminiscence of the first piece he had published; as has been suggested to us by John Ahouse, the change to the minor key was intended to give to the piece a valedictory quality.

    Overture (duration 7'38")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 10.07.2000; revised 25.11.2001)
    — Score in pdf format

    Sicilienne (duration 1'43")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 09.05.2000; revised 25.11.2001)
    — Score in pdf format

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

This page revised and enalrged on 1st May 2022.

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