Length: 21 minutes
Orchestration: SSAATTBB chorus, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, 6 snare drums), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Tristia is a compilation of three works written at different times and published as a set in 1852. Berlioz assembled them in London in 1848 under a title borrowed from Ovid meaning 'sad things.' Like Ovid exiled from Rome, Berlioz felt exiled from Paris by the 1848 riots and by his disenchantment with all musical affairs in his home city.
The Méditation religieuse was one of the few pieces he composed in Rome during his stay in 1831. It is a setting of a poem by Thomas Moore for six-part chorus and small orchestra which makes particularly telling use of a solo horn at the end against fading strings.
La mort d'Ophélie is a setting of a poem by Berlioz's friend Ernest Legouvé. It was originally composed in 1842 as a song for solo voice and piano. In February 1848 he announced a Shakespearean concert to be given at Covent Garden to include this new version for women's chorus and orchestra, but the concert was not given. For the first time in his life Berlioz wrote for the low contralto voices which he admired in English choruses but had never encountered in France. The poem is a free paraphrase of Gertrude's account of Ophelia's death in Act IV of Hamlet ('There is a willow grows aslant a brook'). Ophelia was the role that Harriet Smithson, later Berlioz's wife, had played in 1827 when he discovered Shakespeare for the first time.
The Marche funèbre for the final scene of Hamlet was probably composed in 1844, when there was some prospect, never realized, of a production of the play in Paris with music by Berlioz. This solemn funeral march, one of Berlioz's finest pieces, enacts Fortinbras's command 'Go, bid the soldiers shoot' with a volley of musketry at the climax. The piece ends with a few bars of cavernous silence and some drooping phrases of infinite sadness. The chorus, intoning 'Ah!' from time to time, hold on long after the orchestra has disappeared into silence.
Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.