Berlioz’s New Dramatic Symphony.
published in the
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 7 December 1839
© British Newspaper Archive
Berlioz conducted the première of Roméo et Juliette on 24 November 1839 at the Concert Hall of the Paris Conservatoire. This page presents a review of the performance published a few days later in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, on 7th December.
We are most grateful to the British Newspaper Archive for granting us permission to transcribe the review from the image of the paper on their website and to reproduce it on this page. All rights of reproduction reserved.
We have preserved the original spelling and syntax of the text but have corrected obvious type-setting errors.
See also a review of the same concert by Jules Janin elsewhere on our site.
BERLIOZ’S NEW DRAMATIC SYMPHONY.
An extraordinary degree of excitement has been produced in the Parisian musical world by the performance of a colossal work, which may be said to be of a new species in music. For though it resembles, in some measures, the great symphonies of Beethoven, yet Berlioz has gone further than even Beethoven in rendering an instrumental orchestra the organ of descriptive and poetical language.
On the 24th ult., “Romeo and Juliet, a dramatic symphony, with choruses, vocal solos, and prologue in harmonic recitative, founded on the tragedy of Shakespeare,” was performed in the concert-room of the conservatoire by a hundred instruments and a hundred voices. The impression produced on a crowded audience was immense, and the Paris journals have been vieing with each other in giving elaborate criticisms and descriptions of this extraordinary production—all of them agreeing, however, in pronouncing it a work of astonishing power and genius.
In order to obviate the objection to descriptive music, derived from its vagueness, Berlioz introduces his symphony by a prologue, consisting of a chorus in what he calls “harmony recitative,” because it is written in three or four parts, which recites the argument of the poem, and serves as a key to the instrumental movements which follow. The effect of this is described as very impressive ; the more so as the words of this recitation, notwithstanding the number of the voices, were so well articulated as to be perfectly understood. The subject of the first instrumental movement is the mutual hatred of the Capulets and the Montagues. It opens with a rapid and energetic fugue, which rises to a climax of tumult and confusion ; there is a sudden pause ; the grave and majestic notes of the trombones announce the appearance of the prince, and the instrumental storm gradually subsides into a calm.
The fete given by old Capulet, with the first meeting of lovers, is represented by the andante and allegro, in which a delicious strain, breathing tenderness and passion, is blended with the gay and brilliant music of the ball. The festivities seem to draw to a close ; the sounds wax faint ; but still the love-breathing strain is heard, mingled with snatches of the joyous airs which the youthful guests are singing to themselves as they depart. The scene (as it may be called) was received with three rounds of applause, and acclamations of delight. Then there is the scherzo, embodying Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab ; and the movement is described as most fantastic and singular, but at the same time exquisitely delicate and charming. This concludes the first part of the symphony, or (in other words) the first act of this new species of musical drama.
The second part, like the first, is opened by a prologue. It is shorter and less varied than the first part. It consists of Juliet’s burial, expressed by a fugued funeral march ; the tragic scene at the tomb of Juliet, and the concluding chorus of the whole voices and instruments representing the reconciliation, at the exhortation of Friar Lawrence, of the hostile families, over the lifeless remains of the lovers. The finale is described as being full of power and grandeur.
Such is this gigantic work, which will probably form an era in the history of music. Berlioz appears to have made good the opinion of Paganini, who accompanied his princely gift of twenty thousand francs to the young composer, with the declaration that, since the death of Beethoven, it was on Berlioz alone that his mantle had descended. It is a striking circumstance that Berlioz, though struggling with adversity when he received that gift, has made use of the greatest part of it in defraying the enormous expense of bringing out this work, and paying the host of vocal and instrumental performers employed in it. Till now, the merits of Berlioz have not been acknowledged ; his efforts have been chilled by neglect and thwarted by hostility. His faults have been mercilessly magnified, and his talents either wholly denied or coldly and partially admitted. But the full tide of success appears now to have swept away all impediments in his road to greatness. “The terrible game,” says Jules Janin, in the Journal des Débats, “which Berlioz has had to play, is won. Those who abandoned him, betrayed him, treated his opera with contempt, those who neither understood him nor felt for him, the great singer who was not manly enough to support him, and left him by the way side, what will they say now ? All that they can say is, ‘I bite my thumb,’ like the Capulets to the Montagues.”
[The London public as yet know nothing of Berlioz ; and for this (we repeat what we have long ago said) our professional body are greatly to blame. The Philharmonic Society, especially, ought long ere now to have performed one of his great works with all the care of which they are capable. Berlioz may perhaps not deserve his reputation, but he has gained it ; and it is the duty of such an establishment as the Philharmonic Society to enable the public on this point to judge for themselves. The Parisians, moreover, are excellent judges ; and their judgment, so emphatically given, on this occasion, creates a presumption almost amounting to a proof of the transcendent merit at all events, of his latest work. Of his former compositions we have heard but little ; but that little has been sufficient to impress us with a high idea of his genius. Sun.]
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 1 January 2014.
© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.
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