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Overture: King Lear (H 53)

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    The overture to King Lear was composed in April-May 1831 in very unusual circumstances. Berlioz had just arrived in Rome as winner of the Prix de Rome of 1830, but then left abruptly in order to return to Paris and assassinate his fiancée the pianist Camille Moke and her mother who had just broken off the engagement... On reaching Nice Berlioz had second thoughts and gave up the attempt: instead he stayed there for a month and composed the overture to King Lear. Berlioz gives a light-hearted account of the whole episode in his Memoirs (chapter 34) and looked back on his stay in Nice as the happiest period of his life. He returned there twice, in 1844 and in 1868.

    Berlioz’s discovery of Shakespeare dated back to 1827, but it was only on his way from Rome to Florence in April 1831 that he read King Lear: the impact of the work was thus fresh in his mind when he composed the overture. The influence of Beethoven is also readily apparent, notably in the prominent role of the lower strings at the start and subsequently (cf. the opening of the last movement of the 9th Symphony).

    Berlioz provided no elucidation of the contents of the work, but clearly expected his listeners to be familiar with the play and to be able to interpret the overture accordingly. It is not difficult to imagine that the opening theme, from which much of the thematic material of the overture is derived, stands for Lear, and the two oboe melodies, in the introduction (bars 38 and following) and in the main allegro (bars 151 and following), stand for Cordelia. But Berlioz evidently had more precise allusions in mind. In his Memoirs (chapter 59) he quotes approvingly the admiring comments of the King of Hanover in 1854:

Magnificent, M. Berlioz, magnificent! Your orchestra speaks, and you do not need any words. I followed all the scenes: the king’s entry to the council chamber, the storm on the heath, the terrible prison scene, and the lament of Cordelia! Oh this Cordelia! How you have portrayed her – her humility and tenderness! It is heartrending, and so beautiful!

    In a letter of 2 October 1858 (Correspondance générale no. 2320), in answer to an enquiry from Baron Donop, another one of his German admirers, concerning the timpani part at the restatement of the main theme in the introduction (bars 66 and following), he writes:

It used to be the practice at the French court, as late as 1830 under Charles X, to announce the king’s entrance to his chambers (after Sunday mass) with the sound of a huge drum which beat a strange rhythm of five beats; this was a tradition handed down from very ancient times. This gave me the idea of accompanying Lear’s entrance to his council chamber for the scene where he divides his states with a similar figure on the timpani. As for the king’s madness, I only intended to portray it towards the middle of the allegro when the lower strings take up the theme of the introduction during the storm [bars 340 and following]. To perform this overture you need a first rate orchestra; I have not heard it since my last trip to Hanover [in 1854]; it is the King’s favourite piece.

    Berlioz performed the overture fairly often in his concert tours abroad; one performance which particularly moved him was at the court of the Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen at Löwenberg in Silesia in April 1863 – it was the first time in many years he had conducted the work.

    Berlioz’s metronome mark for the main allegro is minim = 168, which seems too fast to be sustainable (cf. Hugh Macdonald in Berlioz Studies, ed. Peter Bloom [Cambridge University Press 1992], p. 23), and which few performances attempt. In this version the main tempo for the allegro has been set at minim = 152, with a slowing down to minim = 132 for the second subject (bars 151 and following, and 446 and following).

    In order to obtain the correct note values on playback it has been necessary to notate in full the triplets in the strings (bars 37 and following) and sextuplets in the wind (bars 56 and following), and not in abbreviated form as in Berlioz’s score.

    Overture: King Lear (duration 13'31")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 26.09.2000; revised 23.12.2001)

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

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