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Berlioz called his Roméo et Juliette (1839) a ‘dramatic symphony’. Besides a large orchestra, it requires three soloists, small choral groups, and a full chorus for the finale, and is ninety minutes long. Although he also called it a ‘choral symphony’, much of it is purely orchestral, including the energetic ball scene, the fantastical scherzo (‘Queen Mab’), and the heart of the work, the ‘Love Scene’. So it is not surprising that Berlioz himself initiated the practice of extracting individual movements, rather than insisting on performing the whole work or nothing.
Berlioz justified his preference for instrumental representation of Shakespeare’s balcony scene by reminding us that the work is a symphony, not an opera. ‘The greatest composers have produced thousands of vocal duets; it seemed prudent as well as original to do it some other way.’ The sublime quality of this love makes musical depiction perilous; the composer needs freedom of invention without the limitation of sung words and, Berlioz concludes, in such circumstances ‘instrumental music is richer, more varied, less restricted, and thanks to its very vagueness, incomparably more powerful.’ Elsewhere Berlioz wrote with some distaste of an Italian opera in which Romeo was sung by a woman, but his views on tenors, the obvious voice type for a Romeo, had been coloured by the inadequate performance of the title-role in his opera Benvenuto Cellini.
That opera’s failure in 1838 seems an obvious cause for Berlioz’s decision to resort to symphonic treatment, because rather than depending on the resources of the theatre, he could arrange performances himself. But there is evidence that he thought of a Roméo symphony many years earlier, in 1827, when a troupe of actors came to Paris and performed Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in English. Berlioz instantly fell in love with Harriet Smithson, who played Ophelia and Juliet. By 1839, when he composed his own Roméo et Juliette, they were married, and dependent on Berlioz’s journalism for a living. The symphony might never have been composed but for a generous gift from Paganini which allowed Berlioz enough peace of mind and financial flexibility to tackle it and mount three performances. It was one of his greatest artistic triumphs but not very profitable (‘large-scale music is ruining me’).
The ‘Love Scene’ comes third, after a prologue and the ball where Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love. Berlioz offered no detailed programme, but headed the movement ‘Serene night: Capulet’s garden, silent and deserted’. In a short choral section, normally omitted in performances of the scene on its own, young (male) revellers going home sing the praises of Veronese women. The supremely beautiful orchestral ‘adagio’ is sub-headed ‘Juliet on her balcony and Romeo in the shadow’. The prologue tells us a little more: Juliet confides her love to the night, Romeo reveals himself, and the flame of their love blazes forth. The ‘adagio’ begins as a dialogue. Murmuring strings suggest nocturnal rustling; a line for clarinet and cor anglais is added, hesitant at first; then a yearning phrase (cellos and horns) emerges in the tenor register an operatic Romeo would have used, with a cadence that recurs throughout the movement. Juliet’s soliloquy resumes Juliet’s response is an agitated variation of her melody (allegro), soothed by Romeo in a cello recitative.
After this Berlioz may have followed Shakespeare’s scene as he composed, but he revised the movement thoroughly, for musical reasons, and its original form is lost. We can hear the rest as expressing the essence of the lovers’ feelings, rather than the practical matters they also discuss (such as how to meet again and get married). The ‘adagio’ resumes with a long-breathed melody on flute and cor anglais, at first a little sombre, anxious, but succeeded by a new phrase (violins) that culminates in Romeo’s cadence. The remainder of the movement consists of departures from and returns to this phrase, exploring a rich variety of tonal areas, instrumental colours, and, surely, the lovers’ feelings. When the main theme is transferred to the clarinets there are abrupt interruptions from the violins. This could represent a surge of eroticism, but some have suggested that it is Juliet’s nurse calling from within: ‘Madam!’; Juliet responds ‘I come anon …’. She goes inside and re-emerges: ‘Hist, Romeo, hist! … I have forgot why I did call thee back’. Perhaps some of this is reflected in a complete bar of silence, followed by the most passionate, daring, change of key, and a final upsurge of the main melody and its cadence. But the lovers must part, so Berlioz breaks his musical ideas into wistful fragments and a lingering close mainly from clarinets and cellos.
Roméo et Juliette is a tragedy, no less poignant when represented by the delicacy and passion that inform Berlioz’s music. Perhaps this is why he modified Shakespeare’s final scene by emerging from the ‘vagueness’ of instrumental sounds into a frankly operatic treatment of the reconciliation of the warring families, brought about not by the worldly power of the prince of Verona (as in Shakespeare), but by the eloquence of Friar Lawrence and the power of the Catholic Church. Berlioz matched that splendid finale in his other choral and dramatic works; but within his output, indeed within the whole of 19th-century music, his orchestral ‘Love Scene’ stands alone.