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Romeo and Juliet (H 79): Orchestral excerpts

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I: Introduction
II: Romeo alone – Festivities at the Capulets
III: Love Scene
IV: Queen Mab Scherzo
VI: Romeo at the tomb of the Capulets

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

    The composition of the dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet in 1839 was made possible by the generous gift of 20 000 francs by Paganini to Berlioz, made after the great virtuoso had publicly knelt before Berlioz after a concert at the Conservatoire on 16th December 1838 and hailed him as Beethoven’s heir. The work was first performed in 3 concerts conducted by Berlioz at the same Conservatoire, on 24 November, 1st December and 15th December 1839, before an audience that comprised much of the Parisian intelligentsia of the time and included none other than Richard Wagner, whose Tristan und Isolde of 1859 bears evident traces of the impact that the music had on him. The work did not reach its final form until several years after its composition: after a performance of the complete work in Vienna on 2 January 1846, the first since 1839 and the first abroad, Berlioz decided to make several important cuts and changes to the Prologue, Queen Mab Scherzo, and the Finale, and the full score was not published till 1847.

    Romeo and Juliet is one of Berlioz’s greatest and most original works, and reflects a number of influences. It is in the first instance a homage to the genius of Shakespeare, whose discovery by Berlioz in 1827 had such a profound effect on his artistic development (quite apart from his personal life). It is also a homage to Beethoven, in particular the 9th Symphony, which provided Berlioz with one of his starting points in developing the possibilities of symphonic music. It also reflects, like his previous symphony Harold in Italy, the impact of Berlioz’s stay in Italy in 1831-1832 – including a hearing in Florence of Bellini’s I Montecchi ed i Capuletti which only encouraged him to do better. Finally, the exceptional virtuosity deployed in the orchestral writing seems particularly appropriate for the dedicatee of the work, Paganini himself, who was never able to hear it, much to Berlioz’s regret.

    It goes without saying that the orchestral excerpts presented here and often performed independently in the concert hall cannot give a complete idea of the work’s scope and originality. Berlioz’s full title for the work is ‘Dramatic symphony with chorus, vocal solos, and a prologue in choral recitative, composed after Shakespeare’s tragedy’.

    I. Introduction. The almost mimetic vividness of the introduction, one of the hallmarks of the orchestral music in Roméo et Juliette, plunges the listener immediately into the action of the play (not unlike the opening of Les Troyens). An electrifying fugato depicts the fighting of the Capulets and Montagues (bars 1-66), which is then quelled by the intervention of the Prince, represented by an imposing recitative of the brass (bars 79-163). The disturbances subside, if only temporarily (bars 164-200). As well as introducing the listener to the theme of conflict and eventual reconciliation which pervades the work, Berlioz sets out the distinctive musical features of the symphony, which combines instrumental and vocal movements: the orchestral introduction is followed by a recitative of the small chorus which outlines the main elements of the story and includes two vocal numbers, for contralto solo and for tenor and small chorus. The orchestral introduction also hints at the main thematic material of the work: the basic elements are contained in the opening theme of the violas (bars 1-5), notably the rising arpeggio figure and the alternating semitone interval, with the upper or the lower note (the brass recitative in the Introduction is of course derived from the opening viola theme in augmentation). For the elaboration of these elements later in the work see for example the main theme of the Queen Mab Scherzo (bars 11-14, 35-9, 78-82 etc.) or the Invocation of Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets (bars 48-9, 53-4 etc.) for the rising arpeggio, and for the semitone interval see for example the Introduction (bars 36-43, 108, 110, 112-15), Romeo alone (bars 2, 11, 16, 30, 32-4, 87, 131, 134-6, 150-3 etc.), the Love Scene (bars 3, 7, 8, 11, 24, 26, 35, 37, 82-6, 92-3, 131, 135-6, 152 etc.) or the opening of Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets (bars 2-3, 6, 8, 24, 26, 27). The tonal scheme of the introduction is also significant. In this work B minor is the key of conflict, while B major is that of the restoration of order through the assertion of authority. The fugato starts in B minor. The Prince’s recitative moves through a sequence of keys to end in an emphatic B major. But the tonality quickly subsides into B minor and ends on the dominant F sharp. It is only in the Finale, with the intervention of Friar Lawrence, that B major will be re-established and bring the work to its majestic conclusion with the oath of reconciliation of Capulets and Montagus, which is itself built on a rising arpeggio figure.
    In this movement as elsewhere all tuplets have been written out in full to preserve the correct note values on playback.

    II. Romeo alone – Festivities at the Capulets. This movement, one of Berlioz’s finest symphonic pieces, covers a vast expressive range and deploys large instrumental forces in a most varied and imaginative way, from the rarefied and spare opening to the riot of colour and rhythm at the end. The movement is in two main parts, one slow, the other fast, but the two are carefully integrated. The opening chromatic phrase of the violins, from which the early part of the movement grows, is integrated into the main theme of the allegro (bars 128 and following), and later generates an ostinato bass on which the latter part of the movement is built (bars 278 onwards; there is an echo here of the end of the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony). The main theme of the allegro is itself alluded to in the course of the slow introduction (bars 63-66). The expressive oboe theme (previously used by Berlioz in his cantata Sardanapale which won him the Prix de Rome in 1830) is accompanied by the distant rhythm of the ball in the percussion (bars 81-95). The theme can be seen as a diatonic amplification of the opening chromatic phrase of the violins. The oboe theme reappears later in the allegro (bars 206-14) and is then combined with the theme of the ball in a magnificent tutti (bars 225-65) – a device much loved of Berlioz and which he had used previously (see for example the end of the Prix de Rome cantata Herminie of 1828, the last movement of the Symphonie Fantastique, or the overture to Benvenuto Cellini). It reappears once more briefly on the solo oboe before the final tutti (bars 386-95).
    In order to achieve the correct note values on playback all triplets throughout the movement have been notated in full and not in abbreviated form.

    III. Love Scene. Berlioz reckoned this movement, rightly, to be one of his greatest achievements and preferred it to all his other compositions (Memoirs, Post-Scriptum dated 25 May 1856). The movement is purely instrumental (in this version the vocal introduction, sung by a chorus of Capulets leaving the feast, has necessarily been omitted, which thus deprives the instrumental section of its full context). In a note on the work Berlioz explains at length his reasons for not assigning vocal parts to the protagonists:

“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” (Berlioz, Preface to Romeo and Juliet; full text in Texts and Documents).

    As well as the inspiration of Shakespeare’s poetry, the movement may be seen as reflecting the impact of Beethoven’s great slow movements, which Berlioz admired so much – one may compare for instance the 4th movement of the quartet in C sharp minor (op. 131), which deeply impressed Berlioz, as may be seen from a letter to his sister Nanci dated 29 March 1829, a few days after hearing a performance of the work (Correspondance générale no. 120), and from an article he published later in the year in Le Correspondant (6 October 1829; Critique Musicale I pp. 55-57).
    In this movement more than all others electronically generated sounds cannot of course give more than a very rudimentary idea of the music’s magic; for instance, the software is unable to reproduce accurately the numerous grace notes that play such an expressive part in this movement (bars 8, 9, 24, 26, 28, 34, 36, 50, 52, 54, 131, 137, 140, 143, 157, 164, 188, 200, 223-5, 239-41, 242, 245).

    IV. Queen Mab Scherzo. Fairy music had already stimulated the imagination of previous composers (notably Weber in his Oberon, and Mendelssohn in his overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in several of his chamber works). One may also detect echoes of some Beethoven scherzos, both in symphonic and chamber music. But the Queen Mab Scherzo went beyond anything that had been achieved before in its virtuosity and imaginative range of sounds.
    Several technical points should be mentioned:
1. Through large parts of the movement the string parts are divided (apart from the double-basses, which are silent for much of the time). In this version the strings have been notated throughout as divisi (except on the first page, for the sake of the layout) in order to preserve the tonal balance, though this makes admittedly for a complicated layout.
2. Limitations in the software used mean that it is not possible, without tampering with Berlioz’s text, to give their proper duration to pauses involving string tremolandos (bars 610-15 and 720).
3. There is no Midi equivalent for several of the sounds or instruments used by Berlioz: the cymbales antiques in bars 621-662, 721-3 and 730-8 (for which the glockenspiel has been substituted), and violin and harp harmonics in the middle section of the movement, bars 361-418 (for which ordinary string and harp sounds have been used).

    VI. Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets. “The general public lacks imagination; pieces that appeal exclusively to the imagination are therefore lost on the general public. The following instrumental scene is of that kind, and in my view it should be omitted whenever this symphony is not performed before an élite audience, thoroughly familiar with the fifth Act of Shakespeare’s tragedy with Garrick’s ending, and gifted with a high degree of poetic feeling. That is to say that it should be left out ninety nine times out of a hundred. In any case it confronts a conductor who might want to perform it with huge difficulties. Consequently, after the Funeral Procession of Juliet [the 5th movement of the symphony], there should be a short pause before going on to the Finale.”

    Thus Berlioz in a note in the score of this movement. It should be recalled that the version of Romeo and Juliet that Berlioz saw in 1827 was not in fact Shakespeare’s original but the version of the XVIIIth C English actor David Garrick, and as always Berlioz remained faithful to his first impressions. Garrick’s version introduces a funeral procession of Juliet (believed dead, but only drugged – Berlioz’s 5th movement), and makes Juliet wake up in the tomb to find Romeo still alive. The graphic vividness and intensity of Berlioz’s music, divided into sharply contrasted sections, makes the sequence of events easy to imagine. Romeo rushes in to the tomb of the Capulets (bars 1-33), where he finds Juliet and believes she is dead (bars 34-47). He invokes her in a solemn passage in C sharp minor (bars 48-69), a key Berlioz uses rarely but always for solemn invocations (the Invocation to nature in the Damnation of Faust; the chorus of the priests of Pluto in Act V of The Trojans). Romeo takes poison, but Juliet then wakes up, to music taken from the Love Scene (bars 70-89). The two lovers embrace passionately to a hectic version of the love music, but Romeo dies and Juliet takes her own life (bars 90 to the end). There is a final pathetic echo on the oboe of the chromatic phrase from the start of the 2nd movement, Romeo alone (bars 215-25).

    Romeo and Juliet I: Introduction (duration 3'57")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 2.7.2001)

    Romeo and Juliet II: Romeo alone – Festivities at the Capulets (duration 11'17")
    — Score in large format
     (file created on 13.5.2001)

    Romeo and Juliet III: Love Scene (duration 13'1")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 13.4.2001)

    Romeo and Juliet IV: Queen Mab Scherzo (duration 7'6")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 28.2.2001; revised 11.12.2001)

   Romeo and Juliet VI: Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets (duration 6'15")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 15.6.2001)

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page

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