Berlioz entered five times for the Prix de Rome awarded by the French Institute, for which the reward was a period in the eternal city and financial support for five years. At the third attempt, in 1828, he was awarded second prize, and recent precedent meant that he could reasonably expect to win in 1829. So confident, indeed, was he, that he wrote too well for his own good. The final stage of the competition required candidates to be locked away, to produce a dramatic cantata on a text prepared for the occasion. In 1829 the author was one Pierre-Ange Vieillard de Boismartin (1778–1862); so by 1829, aged over 50, and expressing himself in fustian verse, he may have seemed to the candidates to live up to his name (Vieillard: old man). Berlioz, however, set to work with the intention of creating a piece of truly dramatic music, and to modern ears he succeeded. Unfortunately the Institute’s jury did not possess such ears.
The judgement was based on a performance with piano accompaniment, hardly ideal for a composer with Berlioz’s colourful orchestral imagination. Stage one was a jury of musicians; in 1828 they had not wanted to give Berlioz even the second prize for his fine cantata Herminie. But the second stage was a jury representing all the arts, and though Berlioz was later to mock this system, it was this larger jury of poets, painters, sculptors and engravers that insisted on awarding him second prize in 1828. In 1829 the musicians were no less alarmed by Berlioz’s music, and this time the larger jury did not overrule their verdict. A contributory factor was the performance. In 1828 Berlioz had succeeded in engaging a singer from the Paris Opéra, Louise-Zelmé Dabadie. She agreed to sing again in 1829, and did so before the music jury. But the Opéra’s rehearsal schedule unexpectedly prevented her from singing before the larger jury, and instead she sent her sister, Clara Leroux, then a student, lacking experience, and with little time to learn music which, it must be said, she could be excused for finding difficult. One cannot help wondering what might have happened if Mme Dabadie had delivered a performance of Cléopâtre of comparable dramatic splendour to those we hear today. Berlioz would have gone to Rome later in 1829, and quite possibly he would never have embarked on his next big project, none other than the Symphonie fantastique. Mercifully for the reputation of the Institute, Berlioz finally won the prize in 1830. The Institute kept copies of Herminie and Cléopâtre, but Berlioz took away his 1830 cantata, Sardanapale, and only a fragment survives.
Cléopâtre follows a pattern traditional in Prix de Rome cantatas based on the operatic pairing of recitative and aria. In Herminie there were three arias, but in Cléopâtre only two, which did not prevent Berlioz taking liberties with the text. The first recitative outlines the protagonist’s situation; the aria looks back to happier times. The second recitative points ahead to the protagonist’s next action, and the final aria should have brought the cantata to a brilliant conclusion, displaying the virtuosity of the singer with passage-work and a well-placed high note near the end. That at least was the understanding of the other candidates; Berlioz had other ideas. The Queen of Egypt has lost her lover Mark Anthony and been unable to seduce the conquering Octavius Caesar (later the Emperor Augustus); she is haunted by a sense of her own unworthiness in the eyes of her ancestors, and resolves on suicide. Berlioz’s artistic integrity, as well as over-confidence (everyone assumed he would win the first prize), demanded that he take this tragedy seriously; and the result is a composition fully worthy of a budding master of dramatic music.
The instrumental introduction grabs our attention with disjointed gestures from the strings and dark-hued wind chords, building to a brief climax cut off for a plaintive wail from an oboe. The main motive of the introduction punctuates the first recitative, which moves rapidly through the spectrum of tonalities; and when she describes herself as the daughter of all the Ptolemies, the Queen ascends majestically to a high note, the final bars of the recitative covering a range of two octaves. In the intense introduction to the first aria, an aspiring violin figure melts into a beautiful melodic sequence suggestive of the nostalgia Cleopatra feels for her days 15 of glory and of love; this also figures in the aria. Berlioz later used it in Benvenuto Cellini (it is most familiar today from the overture Le carnaval Romain). But the aria’s opening phrase breaches decorum, plunging from a clear E flat major to the unrelated D flat of ‘tourment de ma mémoire’. The aria is in ternary form, the middle section recalling her humiliation in and after the battle of Actium, and the reprise of the first section rising to an expanded and magnificent climax.
At least Berlioz had so far followed the expected form, however bold the content. But now he curtailed the second recitative by taking some of its text (‘Grands Pharaons …’) as a ‘Méditation’, better described, perhaps, as an invocation. He also, cheekily, placed a quotation from Shakespeare (in English) at its head: ‘How if when I am laid into the tomb …’: words of Juliet when she contemplates waking from a death-like sleep in the family vault. There is an evident parallel with Cleopatra’s situation, and it has been suggested that Berlioz had already written this music, perhaps with a setting of Romeo and Juliet in mind. It was probably this superb passage, with its groping harmonies and throbbing rhythm, that most upset the musician-jurors. Berlioz used it almost unchanged in Lélio, his sequel to the Symphonie fantastique, associating it there with the ghost’s speech in Hamlet.
The following allegro comes closer to what the judges expected, especially when its agitated opening gives way to gentler thoughts at ‘Du destin qui m’accable’ – this to a melody Berlioz recycled the following year in his orchestral fantasy on The Tempest. The mood of agitation returns as Cleopatra contemplates the ruin of her empire, and Berlioz might have pulled it together musically, if not dramatically, with the obligatory top note. Instead, as a realist and fanatical admirer of Shakespeare, he shatters classical decorum once and for all; growling double basses just about hold together disjointed gasps from Cleopatra and serpent-bites represented by the violins. Like the protagonist, the music seems to die in agony, a gesture of tragic nihilism surely suggested more by Shakespeare than by Vieillard.
from notes by James Rushton © 2013
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