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Romeo and Juliet (H 79): Orchestral excerpts

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Contents of this page

The symphony
The orchestral excerpts
Performance history
The scores

This page is also available in French

See also Texts and Documents; Berlioz Libretti; Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings; Letter of Paganini to Berlioz


    As is well known, Berlioz discovered Shakespeare at the Odeon Theatre in Paris in September 1827, through a performance of Hamlet on the 11th and one of Romeo and Juliet on the 15th, with Harriet Smithson first as Ophelia, then as Juliet. Ever since then it was likely that sooner or later Berlioz would try to set the subject of Romeo and Juliet to music in some form, and there are early indications that he was contemplating such a work. During his trip to Italy, in March-April 1831, he stayed in Florence; in a letter to his father dated 2 March 1831 Berlioz writes (CG no. 211):

I have seen here a new opera by the young Bellini on Romeo and Juliet; pathetic, ridiculous, feeble, non-existent; this little fool was not afraid that Shakespeare’s shadow might come to torment him in his sleep; he richly deserves it. And they write on the poster: The illustrious Master Bellini! But you must give it to the Florentines: it was the first performance, and their reaction was admirably cold, no applause at all.

    The Memoirs give a more elaborate view of his reactions (chapter 35):

Conversations at table informed me that Bellini’s new opera (I Montecchi ed i Capuletti) was about to be performed. There was much praise for the music, but also for the libretto, which surprised me greatly in view of the Italians’ general indifference for the words in an opera. Ha, ha, this is something new!!! After so many miserable operatic attempts at this fine drama, I am now going to hear a real opera about Romeo, worthy of Shakespeare’s genius! What a subject! How everything there is designed for music!…

    Berlioz goes on to elaborate on the musical possibilities of the play; he lost no time in going to attend the performance, and continues:

What a disappointment!! In the libretto there is no ball at the Capulets, no Mercutio, no chattering nurse, no solemn and composed hermit, no balcony scene, no sublime monologue of Juliet when she receives the hermit’s flask, no duet in the cell between the banished Romeo and the distraught hermit; no Shakespeare, nothing; a failed work.

    Years later, in 1859, Berlioz wrote a detailed review of Bellini’s opera when it was performed for the first time in Paris, and took the opportunity to review dismissively the different settings of Shakespeare’s play (Journal des Débats, 13 September 1859, reproduced in À Travers chants).

    Another passage of the Memoirs (chapter 36), also about his stay in Italy, is relevant here. In it Berlioz relates how in his conversations with Mendelssohn in Rome in 1831 he mentioned the idea of an instrumental scherzo on the subject of Queen Mab, only to regret making the suggestion, for fear of seeing Mendelssohn take up the idea himself.

    In the event years were to elapse before the subject of Romeo and Juliet would come up again. This happened through the generosity of the great violinist Paganini, an admirer of Berlioz’s music, whose suggestion in 1834 of an orchestral work with solo viola had led to the composition of the symphony Harold en Italie. On hearing the work for the first time at a concert on 16 December 1838, Paganini made a public homage to Berlioz, and two days later sent him a present of 20,000 francs with a letter in which he hailed Berlioz as the heir of Beethoven. One of the most celebrated episodes in Berlioz’s entire career, it received considerable publicity at the time and later (Memoirs, chapter 49; CG nos. 602, 616; see the page Letter of Paganini to Berlioz). Paganini’s generosity enabled Berlioz to clear his wife’s debts and to enjoy several months of relative leisure which he could devote to composition (he nevertheless managed to publish no less than 19 feuilletons in the Journal des Débats in the course of 1839). Mindful perhaps of the embarassment he had caused Berlioz in 1834 with his suggestion of a work for viola and orchestra, Paganini this time left Berlioz completely free to choose the subject and treatment of his new work, and after a period of reflection Berlioz decided on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The composition of the work is related by Berlioz (Memoirs, chapter 49); it took seven months in all, but Berlioz quickly realised that it needed further revision and waited patiently several years to examine the work critically in performance. He listened to the advice of friends but relied ultimately on his own critical judgement. A decisive stage was a performance of the complete work in Vienna on 2 January 1846, the first since 1839 and the first abroad. For that performance Berlioz, who had conducted the rehearsals of the work himself, took the unusual step of listening to the work in the audience, while allowing the leader of the orchestra to take charge of the concert. Significant changes were made to the work: the original double prologue was reduced to one, a new and longer coda was added to the Queen Mab scherzo, a large cut was made to the narrative of Friar Lawrence in the Finale, and there were other smaller changes of detail. It was thus not till 1846 that Berlioz felt satisfied with the work and could now allow it to be published; it appeared in 1847 and was appropriately dedicated to Paganini, who, to the great disappointment of Berlioz, never heard the work that he had made possible.

The symphony

    Berlioz relates that before starting work he went through a fairly long period of indecision (Memoirs, chapter 49). The subject he chose, a work based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, presented him with a dilemma. One possible setting would have been as an opera. Years later, Baron von Donop, one of his German admirers, suggested to Berlioz that he was capable of writing a wonderful opera on the subject, given what he had already achieved with his symphony. Berlioz did not reject the idea outright; an opera on Romeo and Juliet therefore seemed to him an acceptable proposition. But he objected that it would be impossible to find singers capable of playing the leading roles adequately (Memoirs, Post-Scriptum). The same idea is found in a letter to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein of 10 March 1859: ‘ One could still do a wonderful opera on Romeo, besides the symphony. But for whom? who would sing it? who would stage it? who would appreciate it? Let us not talk about this (CG no. 2361).

    But in 1839 there was a more immediate objection: any thoughts of a new opera were nullified by the recent failure of Benvenuto Cellini at the Paris Opéra. Hence Berlioz settled on the idea of a symphony, though a symphony of a very novel kind. His two previous symphonies, the Symphonie fantastique and Harold en Italie, were highly original works, but Roméo et Juliette, was even more original and ground-breaking. Beethoven’s ninth symphony with its choral finale provided only a limited precedent. In his preface to the work Berlioz was at pains to anticipate criticism and justify his approach:

There should be no misunderstanding about the genre of this work. Although voices are frequently used in it, it is neither a concert opera, nor a cantata, but a choral symphony.

    Berlioz then goes on to develop all the musical reasons for his highly individual treatment of the subject and its continuous blend of instrumental and vocal music. Unlike Beeethoven’s choral symphony, voices are introduced gradually throughout the work, at first in small separate groups (in the Prologue), then in larger numbers (in the third and fifth movements), then all together in the quasi-operatic finale, with Friar Lawrence playing the leading role, a scene which Berlioz describes as ‘too beautiful and too musical’ to be treated in any other way. He then devotes a paragraph to explain the absence of the two protagonists of the play, Romeo and Juliet, and the resort to purely instrumental language in the place of singers, ‘a language which is richer, more varied, less finite, and through its very imprecision incomparably more powerful in such a situation’.

    The full title of the work on the autograph score is ‘Dramatic symphony with choruses, vocal solos and a prologue in choral recitative. Dedicated to Nicolo Paganin and composed after the tragety of Shakespeare by Hector Berlioz. Words by M. Émile Deschamps’.

The orchestral excerpts

    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, still less of its cumulative impact, when performed complete as Berlioz intended.

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

    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 a possible echo here of the end of the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, and a more definite one of the coda of the first movement of the 9th 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 but resorting to instruments only.

    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 Nancy dated 29 March 1829, a few days after hearing a performance of the work (CG 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).

Performance history

    As compared with other symphonies of the time, Roméo et Juliette required unusually large forces: a full-scale orchestra, a large chorus (subdivided into three groups), and three solo singers, one of whom (Friar Lawrence) has an extensive part. Berlioz stressed the demands the work made on the performers (Memoirs, chapter 49 [end]):

It is immensely difficult to perform, and presents many kinds of problems which arise from the work’s form and style; these problems can only be overcome after long and patient study which has to be supervised perfectly. To interpret the work properly requires artists all of them of the front rank, whether the conductor, the instrumental players or the singers, and determined to study it as is done with new operas in good lyrical theatres, that is almost as though they were to be played by heart.

    The result of these demands was that performances of the complete work were likely to be infrequent. For the first airing of the work Berlioz went to considerable lengths and expense to ensure the quality of the playing and singing, and insisted on giving the work not once, but three times in succession, something which had never been done for a single symphony (24 November, 1 December and 15 December 1839). The result was financially disappointing but artistically a considerable success, which attracted great attention from the cultural élite of Paris (CG nos. 683, 688, 697, 700). Years later Berlioz looked back to the enthusiasm generated by the work in 1839, one of the high points of his artistic career, in contrast with the indifference which greeted the first performances of the Damnation of Faust in 1846 (Memoirs, chapter 54).

    Among the audience at the third concert on 15 December 1839 was Richard Wagner, recently arrived in Paris, who was deeply impressed by the work. Many years later, in 1860, Wagner presented to Berlioz a copy of the full score of his own Tristan und Isolde with the inscription: ‘To the dear and great author of Romeo and Juliet the grateful author of Tristan und Isolde’ (cf. CG no. 2468), a recognition of his debt to the work of the French master which had inflenced his own.

    The three performances of 1839 turned out to be the last ones of the complete work to be given in Paris in Berlioz’s lifetime. Only five more were given subsequently by Berlioz, two in 1846 (one in Vienna and one in Prague), two in 1847 in St Petersburg, and one in 1852 in Weimar. All of them were special occasions. The performance in Vienna (2 January 1846) was mentioned above; it was rehearsed by Berlioz with the greatest care but conducted by the leader of the orchestra, while Berlioz in the audience listened critically to his own work and was able to decide on necessary changes to the original version. The performance in Prague (17 April 1846) was the last one of a series of no less than six concerts he gave in that city in January, March and April 1846. The day before the concert he reported to his friend Joseph d’Ortigue on the success of the rehearsals, the quality of the singing by the chorus, the impression the work made on Liszt, who was new to it, and the extensive changes he made to the score (CG no. 1034). The two performance in St Petersburg (5 and 12 May 1847) were even better. Berlioz was given as much rehearsal time as he wanted, and the result lived up to the highest expectations. ‘The performance could not fail to be, and was marvellous’, wrote Berlioz in his Memoirs (chapter 56); ‘I remember it as one of the great joys of my life’. Letters he wrote at the time from St Petersburg attest to how deeply moved he was by the occasion (CG nos. 1106, 1108). The last complete performance under Berlioz was on 20 November 1852 in Weimar, and though excellent was partly overshadowed by the prominence given to the performances of Benvenuto Cellini which Berlioz was hearing for the first time in its revised version and under the direction of Liszt (CG nos. 1532, 1533, 1542).

    The purely orchestral movements of Roméo et Juliette (II, III and IV) provided ideal material for concert performance on their own, particularly the second movement, and these, together with very occasional excerpts from the solo vocal pieces, figured very frequently in Berlioz’s concerts through much of his conducting career. In Paris excerpts from Roméo were performed by him in 1840, 1843, 1844, 1845, 1848 [Versailles], 1851, 1857, 1858 and 1861 (The conductor Pasdeloup also started to introduce them in his Concerts populaires in 1868). They were also regular items in Berlioz’s concert tours abroad, in 1843 (Dresden, Brunswick, Berlin, Darmstadt), 1846 (Vienna, Prague, in addition to the complete performances), 1847 (St Petersburg, in addition to the complete performances), 1852 (London), 1853 (Brunswick, Leipzig), 1854 (Hanover, Dresden), 1855 (Weimar, Brussels, London), 1858 (Baden-Baden), 1859 (Bordeaux, Baden-Baden), 1863 (Löwenberg), and in Berlioz’s last tour in Russia in 1868 (Moscow., St Petersburg).

The scores

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

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

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

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

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

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page

This page revised and enlarged on 1 January 2022.

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