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Composed: 1839
Length: c. 95 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (2 = English horn), 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani (4 players), percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle), 2 harps, strings, vocal soloists (alto, tenor, and bass), and SATB chorus
First complete Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 24, 1952, Alfred Wallenstein conducting, with mezzo-soprano Nan Merriman, tenor David Lloyd, bass Desiré Ligeti, and the Roger Wagner Chorale

Berlioz’ first symphony was the Symphonie fantastique (1830), an autobiographical drama taking Beethoven’s concept of the symphony far into the realm of passion and personal confession. His second symphony, Harold en Italie (1834), was also personal, part reminiscence of Berlioz’ own travels in Italy, part exploration of the Byronic spleen from which the whole Romantic generation loved to suffer. For his third symphony, Roméo et Juliette (1839), Berlioz turned to his greatest literary passion, Shakespeare, drawing once again on his own most fervent experiences.

His discovery of Shakespeare at the Odéon Theater in 1827 had been overwhelming not only for the dramatic force of the poetry and drama (instinctively grasped even though Berlioz knew no English), but also because the leading actress of the company, Harriet Smithson, immediately won his heart. She became for him the personification of Ophelia and Juliet, and although he never mentioned writing any music as a response to the “thunderbolt” (as he called the doubly forceful experience), it is very probable that his immediate response was to set certain scenes from Romeo and Juliet, perhaps as instrumental music without voices. There seems to be a lost work, perhaps titled “Four Scenes from Romeo and Juliet,” which was soon set aside and absorbed into various works composed in the next three years. The cantata Cléopâtre, of 1829, for example, has an “Invocation” addressed by Cleopatra to the shades of the Pharaohs that Berlioz likened to the vault scene in the play Romeo and Juliet, probably because that’s what it originally was.

In 1830 he decided to compose a drama that featured not the role of Juliet, which Harriet Smithson had played in 1827, but Harriet herself. The first movement of the Symphonie fantastique depicts the artist’s burning passion without any object until the beloved walks into his life – exactly the scenario of the first scenes of Romeo and Juliet in the version that Berlioz saw. Its second movement depicts a ball, just as in Act I of the play.

At all events, the subject underwent a long fermentation in his creative storehouse, where Goethe’s Faust and Virgil’s Aeneid were also awaiting their eventual fulfillment as major compositions. A hearing of Bellini’s I Capuletti ed i Montecchi (an opera Berlioz detested) in Florence in 1831 strengthened his determination to do something worthy of Shakespeare. In his report of this opera he sketched out the outlines of an operatic conception of his own:

“ ‘God! What a fine subject,’ I said to myself, shivering with pleasure in advance, ‘How it lends itself to music!’ To begin with, the dazzling ball at the Capulets’, where amid a whirling cloud of beauties the young Montague first sets eyes on ‘sweetest Juliet,’ whose constant love will bring her to the grave; then those furious pitched battles in the streets of Verona, with the fiery Tybalt presiding like the personification of anger and revenge; the glorious night scene on Juliet’s balcony, where the lovers murmur the music of tender love, as sweet and pure as the watchful moon smiling down upon them; the dashing Mercutio and his sharp-tongued, fantastical humor; the cackling nurse; the stately hermit, even in his cell caught up in the tragic conflict of love and hate, and striving to resolve it; and then the catastrophe, extremes of joy and despair drained to the dregs in the same instant, passion’s heat chilled in the rigor of death; and, at the last, the solemn oath sworn by the warring houses, too late, on the bodies of their children, to abjure the feud which shed so much blood and so many tears. My eyes streamed to think of it.”

The plan stayed in the back of his mind, awaiting the opportunity to compose such a work and a binding idea that would give it external form. The opportunity came with Paganini’s famous gift of 20,000 francs at the end of 1838, and the formal shape came, indirectly, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The new symphony was also to be a choral symphony, using a double chorus to represent the two warring families and solo voices as secondary characters (Mercutio, Friar Laurence, and the contralto soloist as commentator). The lovers themselves were to be represented purely by the orchestra. The symphony does not enact the drama in detail and many episodes are omitted, but the resources of voices and orchestra allowed Berlioz to combine the dramatic immediacy of sung words with the infinite expressive power of instrumental music. In particular Berlioz felt it was necessary to explain in his Preface why he did not set the famous balcony scene as a love duet, perhaps for soprano and tenor soloists. His reasons were threefold: first, this is a symphony and not an opera; second, love duets already exist in profusion while programmatic symphonic movements were new; and third, words are too precise to express the very sublimity of this love; only music can attempt to paint its true intensity.

The verses, which never actually reproduce Shakespeare’s lines, were provided by another devotee of Shakespeare, Émile Deschamps, and the score was composed in the spring and summer of 1839. Berlioz recalled this period thus in his Memoirs: “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 serene under a clear sky.”

In the autograph manuscript Berlioz noted the date of completion, September 8, 1839. By Berlioz’ side, perhaps contributing her own understanding of Shakespeare, was Harriet Smithson, who had become his wife six years before. Berlioz had only ever seen the play that first and only time in 1827, but he had forgotten nothing of the experience and had read and re-read the play a thousand times.

The symphony follows the version of the play Harriet Smithson had herself acted, not Shakespeare’s original. Devised by the 18th-century English actor David Garrick, this version suppressed the character Rosaline, so that Juliet is Romeo’s first and only love. The symphony’s Introduction presents an outline of the drama, with snatches of music as a foretaste of what is to come. Fighting in the streets of Verona and the Prince’s intervention are clearly represented in the orchestral fugato and the declamatory brass. Then the narrative is presented by a semi-chorus singing recitative – a very original concept – breaking off for a hint of the Queen Mab scherzo from the tenor soloist, a few bars of the love scene, and a strophic song from the contralto soloist invoking the pains and delights of young love.

There follows a sequence of three symphonic movements, beginning with an allegro with a slow introduction, representing Romeo’s solitary thoughts before the ball and then the festivities themselves, during which the lovers meet for the first time. This is followed by the long and glorious love scene and the Queen Mab scherzo suggested by Mercutio’s speech “O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.” Garrick’s version included a funeral procession for Juliet (who is not truly dead), Berlioz’ fifth movement. This version is crucially different from the real Shakespeare text in the sixth movement, set in the Capulets’ vault. Here the orchestra depicts, in turn, Romeo’s fight with Paris at the entrance to the vault, his sense of awe within the vault, his “Invocation” as he contemplates Juliet’s beauty for the last time, his taking the poison (descending cellos), Juliet’s awakening (clarinet), a frenzied, desperate love scene, Romeo’s collapse, and Juliet’s suicide (in Shakespeare Romeo dies before Juliet awakes). Garrick ended the play there, but Berlioz restored a final scene in which Friar Laurence explains the tragedy and extorts an oath of reconciliation from the warring families in a grand symphonic finale.

The symphony was given its first three performances at the Paris Conservatoire at the end of 1839, with Berlioz conducting. It was a pinnacle of French Romanticism and a brilliant example of Berlioz’ orchestral mastery, as many then present were aware. One of those listeners was Wagner, who had recently arrived in Paris for the first time and who was deeply impressed by it. Berlioz was never able to present the full symphony again in Paris; the only other complete performances in his lifetime were given abroad: in Vienna and Prague in 1846, in St. Petersburg in 1847, and in Weimar in 1852. But he often extracted the instrumental movements (Nos. 2, 3, and 4) for his concerts in Paris and abroad, a practice that still allows those movements to be more frequently heard than the complete work.

Hugh Macdonald is Avis Blewett Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published books on Scriabin and Berlioz, and his book of essays Beethoven’s Century appeared in 2008. He has translated a number of operas for singing, and is a committed advocate of opera and song in English.