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Overture: King Lear (H 53)

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Performances and publication

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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 at the beginning of April to go to Florence where he stayed awaiting news of his fiancée, the pianist Camille Moke. On receiving a letter from Camille Moke’s mother in which she broke off the engagement of her daughter, Berlioz decided on revenge: he would return to Paris and assassinate Camille, her treacherous mother, and Camille Pleyel, Camille’s new fiancé… On reaching Nice Berlioz had second thoughts and gave up the attempt: instead he stayed there for a month and among other activities composed the overture to King Lear. The overture was written with remarkable speed and largely completed by the time he left Nice on 21 May, though he made further revisions to it later.

    Berlioz gives a light-hearted account of the whole episode in his Memoirs (chapter 34) (an earlier version of the story had appeared in 1844 in volume II of the Voyage musical en Allemagne et en Italie, but it was presented in an allusive way which concealed the identities of the protagonists and the details of Berlioz’s private life, which made the story hard to understand for the reader). Berlioz looked back on his stay in Nice as the happiest period of his life: Nice remained for him the place he would look to in times of stress, and he did in fact manage to return there twice, in September 1844 after organising the Festival of Industry, and in March 1868 on his return from his last trip to Russia.

    Berlioz’s discovery of Shakespeare dated back to September 1827 when a company of English actors performed several of his plays at the Odéon theatre in Paris. But it was only during his stay in Florence in early April 1831 that he read King Lear. The account in the Memoirs mentioned above (chapter 34) shortens the duration of Berlioz’s stay in Florence, and omits any mention of his reading of Shakespeare at the time; but a long letter written not long after from Nice and addressed to several of Berlioz’s friends fills in the gap (CG no. 223; 6 May 1831):

I had completely recovered [from a bout of quinsy]; I would spend days on the banks of the Arno, in a delightful wood over a mile away from Florence, reading Shakespeare. That is where I read for the first time King Lear, and I screamed with admiration for this work of genius; I thought I would suffocate in my enthusiasm, and rolled around (in the grass, admittedly), but I did roll around convulsively to give vent to my excitement. […]
[PS at the end of the letter] I have nearly finished the overture to King Lear; all I need to complete is the orchestration. I have a great deal of work to do.

    As indicated by the frequency of references to the work in his writings (the Memoirs and his correspondence), Berlioz had a particular fondness for the King Lear overture. The reading of Shakespeare’s play took place in Florence, a city for which he confessed a special liking, and it was composed in Nice in a period he remembered with great fondness. Musically the work, though entirely individual in tone and style, shows the influence of Beethoven, notably in the prominent role of the lower strings at the start and subsequently (compare the opening of the last movement of the 9th Symphony with its recitative of cellos and basses). There is a detailed analysis of the overture in Tom Wotton’s Berlioz (chapter 4, pp. 88-92).

    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 connection with a performance he gave there on 1st April 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 heart-rending, and so beautiful!

    In a letter of 2 October 1858 (CG 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.

Performances and publication

    The overture was first performed at a concert at the Conservatoire on 22 December 1833, conducted by Narcisse Girard (cf. CG nos. 366, 367). It was then heard again a number of times in Paris in subsequent years: in 1834 (twice), 1835 (twice; the second performance saw Berlioz conducting it himself for the first time, cf. CG no. 451), 1843 (cf. CG no. 860) and 1844 (cf. CG no. 892). It was last heard in Paris in 1851 (23 May); Berlioz later regretted that the work was not better known to Paris audiences (CG no. 2714). On the other hand, the early performances in Paris in the 1830s convinced him that, unlike the symphonies, there was no point in delaying the publication of the overture. In 1837 he wrote to Liszt (CG no. 498; 22 May):

If you have time, why don’t you arrange the King Lear overture [for piano]; unlike the symphonies I have no reason to delay the publication of this piece; on the contrary I would be very pleased to see it appear.

    In the event Liszt’s arrangement was not published (on it see further CG no. 1593). There was some delay in the publication of the full score, as emerges from a letter of Berlioz to the publisher Catelin (CG no. 641; spring 1839?):

Is it not the case that my overture is moving as fast as a stone in a hole? But the job must be done; I did not agree to have you publish it only to take years over the publication.

    The full score eventually appeared early in 1840, together with two other overtures, those to Waverley and Benvenuto Cellini. It was dedicated to Armand Bertin, the director of the Journal des Débats to which Berlioz had been a regular contributor since 1835. Berlioz’s letter to him is extant (CG no. 704; March 1840):

[…] I am sending you our overture to King Lear which has at last been published, together with the manuscript which I beg you to keep.
The dedication of a piece of music is a commonplace homage which has value only through the merits of the work, but I hope you will accept this one as the expression of the grateful friendship which I have long felt for you.

    The result of the publication was that performances of the overture started to be given in various places in Europe, without any intervention on the part of Berlioz. In Germany the work was heard even before he made his first trip there in 1842-43. Early performances of the work are known in 1840 in Brunswick [CG no. 816], Marseille, Bremen and London, in 1841 in Munich and Frankfurt (Memoirs), later in Prague in 1845 (Memoirs). There were performances in the United States (mostly New York) in 1846, 1853, 1854 and 1864 (CG nos. 2970, 2973).

    In 1843 during his first trip to Germany Berlioz conducted a series of performances of the work in several cities: Hechingen (2 January), Mannheim (13 January), twice in Leipzig (4 and 23 February), twice also in Dresden (10 and 17 February), and once in Berlin (23 April), Hanover (6 May) and Darmstadt (23 May). In later trips he conducted it in Vienna (23 November 1845), twice in Brunswick (7 April 1846 and 22 October 1853), three times in Hanover where it was a particular favourite of the king (8 and 15 November 1853 [cf. CG no. 1651], 1 April 1854). At the request of the prince of Hohenzollern he included it in a memorable concert in Löwenberg in 1863 (19 April; Memoirs Postface and CG no. 2714). The evident popularity of the work in Germany prompted Berlioz to suggest to the publisher Rieter-Biedermann in 1856 that he should issue a German edition of the score, even though it would not earn Berlioz any royalties, as it was in the public domain in Germany (CG nos. 2169, 2175; the project did not materialise). Berlioz conducted the overture for the very last time at his last concert in Moscow on 11 January 1868 (CG no. 3326), it also happened to be the first time he had performed the work in Russia.

    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)
    — 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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