Skip to page content

About this Piece

Composed: 1842

Length: 8 minutes

Orchestration: solo mezzo-soprano, piccolo, two flutes, 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle), 2 harps, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 2, 1923, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting (Queen Mab Scherzo only); December 7, 1935, Pierre Monteux conducting (Great Festivities at Capulets and Love Scene only); January 24, 1952, Alfred Wallenstein conducting, with mezzo-soprano Nan Merriman, tenor David Lloyd, bass Desire Ligeti, and the Roger Wagner Chorale (complete)

Where in Les nuits d'été we see Berlioz recognizing that his hoped-for happiness with Harriet Smithson would never be attained, in Roméo et Juliette (1839) and the song "La mort d'Ophélie" (1842), he revisits his passion for Shakespeare, and, by extension, for the woman whose renditions of Juliet and Ophelia had completely captivated him more than a decade earlier. In his Memoirs, Berlioz quoted from his friend and colleague Jules Janin's obituary of Harriet, which appeared in the Journal des débats, when he remembered his wife. "…A golden voice, pure and vibrant, a voice through which the language and genius of Shakespeare in all their rich, perennial vitality and force found superb utterance. When she moved, when she spoke, her charm mastered us. A whole society stirred to the magic of this woman. She was barely 20, she was called Miss Smithson, and she conquered as of right the hearts and minds of that audience on whom the light of the new truth shone. All unknowingly she became a new passion, a poem unheard till then, an embodied revolution. She pointed the way for Madame Dorval, Frédérick Lemaître, [Maria] Malibran, Victor Hugo, Berlioz."

Janin captures the profound effect she had on Berlioz and his cohorts. Berlioz put it more simply in his Memoirs: "It is enough to say that an English company came over to the Odéon to perform Shakespeare's plays, then entirely unknown in France. I was present at the first performance of Hamlet, and there, in the part of Ophelia, I saw Miss Smithson, whom I married five years afterwards. The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay her dramatic genius, was equaled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted. That is all I can say."

Berlioz composed the first version of "La mort d'Ophélie" for voice and piano in 1842. It begins evocatively, with the piano depicting the rippling of the brook in which she eventually drowns. The piano plays a prominent role throughout, and the vocal part, complete with Ophelia's haunting vocalise, is among the most detailed and memorable in any Berlioz song. He later revised the work for chorus (sopranos and altos) and orchestra or piano and included it in his Op. 18 collection Tristia (Sad Things), which was published in 1848.

Berlioz had also seen Romeo and Juliet at the Odéon during that 1827 Shakespeare season, and the impression of those performances was just as strong as those of Hamlet. Berlioz was overwhelmed by Romeo, and found himself unable to take any more - "more experiences of that kind would have killed me," he wrote.

Harriet and Shakespeare may have been the inspiration, but Berlioz also had the renowned violinist Niccolò Paganini to thank for bringing Roméo et Juliette into the world. Paganini, for whom Berlioz had originally composed his symphony with viola obbligato, Harold in Italy, disliked that work at first, but had since come to admire it greatly. He rewarded Berlioz with 20,000 francs, which gave the composer the freedom to create Roméo et Juliette.

Berlioz conducted the first three performances of Roméo et Juliette in Paris in November and December 1839. After hearing a performance of the work in Vienna in January 1846, he revised it thoroughly and conducted the premiere of this final version in Prague on April 17, 1846. He called the work a "dramatic symphony," a designation which hints at both its revolutionary form - a far cry from the four movements of Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven - and Berlioz' combination of words and music in his exposition of the story, something perhaps inspired by Beethoven's Ninth, which Berlioz had heard for the first time in 1833. The poet Émile Deschamps, a member of Victor Hugo's circle and a Shakespeare enthusiast, versified the text from a prose sketch by the composer.

The excerpts heard on this program present four of the five purely orchestral sections of Berlioz' score (only "Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets" is absent), as well as the "Strophes" from Part I. The Symphony opens with a bracing fugato in the strings depicting the street fight between the Capulets and the Montagues, which is silenced by the "Intervention of the Prince" (brass).

In the "Strophes," the mezzo-soprano sings the praises of Shakespeare to an accompaniment dominated by the harps. "Romeo Alone - Great Festivities at the Capulets" begins with a lengthy slow introduction, dominated by an oboe-led theme filled with longing, depicting the solitary Romeo. Toward the end of this slow section, sounds of a distant ball drift into the scene, calling Romeo to the "Great Festivities." At the height of the revelry, we hear Romeo's plaintive theme again, something Berlioz had done before when he brought back the idée fixe toward the end of the "Ball" movement of the Symphonie fantastique.

In his Memoirs, Berlioz wrote that the "Love Scene" was his favorite among his works. The movement gradually builds from its atmospheric introduction (horns, winds, and strings), which evokes something of the Italian nights that Berlioz had experienced first-hand. Cellos introduce the lovers' theme, and the movement gradually builds to a rapturous climax.

The Queen Mab Scherzo - inspired by the spirit who rules dreams in Shakespeare's play - follows the "Love Scene" in the full score. It is a stunning display of orchestral virtuosity, with its shimmering writing for the strings, darting interjections from the winds, and bellowing hunting horns in the two outer scherzo sections that frame an eerily menacing trio.

Writing 15 years later, Berlioz described the fevered period during which he composed Roméo et Juliette: "Oh the ardent existence I lived during that time! I struck out boldly across that great ocean of poetry, caressed by the wild, sweet breeze of fancy, under that fiery sun of love that Shakespeare kindled. I felt within me the strength to reach the enchanted isle where the temple of pure art stands under a clear sky. It is not for me to determine whether I succeeded."

-- John Mangum holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA and is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.