Skip to main contentText Only version of this page
Access keys help
Where I Live
A-Z Index

Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage
BBC Music


Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!


Meet the Phil 2005/06

BBC Philharmonic in Studio 7
SESSION F - Thursday 6 th April 11.30-1pm , Studio 7, New Broadcasting House�

Romeo and Juliet �- Berlioz (1803 - 1869)

The creation of a choral symphony on Romeo and Juliet had long been an aim of French composer Hector Berlioz. After attending the triumphant 1834 premiere of Berlioz's orchestral work Harold in Italy , violin virtuoso Niccol� Paganini gifted the composer the sum of 20,000 francs, enclosing the message 'Beethoven is dead, and Berlioz alone can revive him.'

Berlioz used the money, firstly to pay off his debts, before turning his attentions once more to music. 'I would give up everything else and write really important work...some splendid on a grand and original plan, full of passion and imagination, worthy to be dedicated to the glorious artist to whom I owed so much.' The product of this inspired period of composition was Romeo and Juliet.

Initial inspiration for the work had come some seven years previously when Berlioz attended a production of Hamlet with the beautiful Irish actress Harriet Smithson playing the role of Ophelia. As well as being overwhelmed by the genius of Shakespeare, Berlioz also became smitten with the young actress, who was to become something of an obsession in subsequent years.

Berlioz responded to Shakespeare's richness of imagery, his vast range of feeling and mood, his varied poetic invention and his formal freedom. Romeo and Juliet was therefore a deeply personal act of homage to the respected playwright, his new god "The English are quite right to call Shakespeare the supreme creator, after the good Lord"

Unmoved by the pettiness of the Parisian opera scene, Berlioz chose to side-step traditional theatrical conventions, instead taking Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with its choral finale, as his model for Romeo and Juliet. Drawing inspiration from Beethoven's use of vocal and dramatic elements in a symphonic work, Berlioz decided to express the emotions of the characters of Romeo and Juliet instrumentally, whilst assigning the narrative elements to voices.

Split into seven parts, the main body of the symphony is given to the orchestra, with voices used sparingly until their full deployment in the Finale. Unity is achieved through constant thematic links. This further nod to Beethoven can be seen in the theme of the trombone recitative at the Introduction, representing the Romeo's rebuke to his families, which is formed from the notes of the family's angry fugato. Also, the last solo notes of the oboe which follow Juliet's suicide echo a phrase from an earlier funeral procession when she was thought to be dead.

Berlioz enlisted the services of author Emil Deschamps to write the libretto. Between them they left out the character of the nurse, added a brief, waking reunion of the lovers in the tomb and expanded Shakespeare's brief mention of the two families' reconciliation into a substantial vocal finale. Berlioz dedicated the score to Paganini who sadly died before Romeo and Juliet made it to the stage.

Paris was abuzz before the first performance. In rehearsals, Berlioz pioneered the practice of orchestral sectionals, rehearsing the different sections of the orchestra separately to prepare them for the many challenges of the work. 200 musicians took to the stage for the premiere in front of a capacity crowd at the Paris Conservatory. Although reactions to the movements were varied, it was widely acknowledge that Berlioz had scored a major triumph, a 'tour de force such as only my system of sectional rehearsals could have achieved.'

About the composer

'To render my works properly requires a combination of extreme precision and irresistible verve, a regulated vehemence, a dreamy tenderness, and an almost morbid melancholy.'

The overwhelming majority of Romantic composers were pianists. Many, such as�Chopin and Liszt, were virtuoso performers as well as composers. Hector Berlioz was a notable exception to this rule. In fact, he never studied piano. Berlioz was born to a well-to-do family and as a child learned flute and guitar and managed to teach himself the rudiments of harmony from his reading of textbooks. His parents sent him to Paris in 1821 to study medicine (his father was a doctor), but after two years (miserable years by Berlioz's account) he left his studies behind to attend classes at the conservatory.

During his studies at the conservatory, Berlioz competed for the Prix de Rome four times, finally winning it in 1830. It was in this same year that he wrote his most famous piece, the Symphonie fantastique . During this period, he was profoundly influenced by the music of Beethoven (whom he later championed as a critic) and the writings of Shakespeare, Goethe, and the English Romantics. He also came under the spell of the famous Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson; the story behind the Symphonie fantastique is in part a reflection of his uncontrollable feelings for her. He married her after his return from Rome , but it was a short-lived and troubled marriage. Nonetheless, these years were marked by a string of exceptional and original works, including the programmatic works Harold in Italy and Romeo and Juliet (the first essentially a viola concerto, the second a symphony), his gigantic Requiem and the opera Benvenuto Cellini .

These works were perhaps too original. They did not receive their just recognition and Berlioz turned to musical journalism to support himself. He also began extensive tours as a conductor. Despite the demands of this schedule, he also produced a series of mature masterpieces, among them the operas Les Troyens and B�atrice et B�n�dict , the dramatic choral work The Damnation of Faust , and the oratorio L'enfance du Christ . His final years were marked by personal tragedy. This was compounded as Berlioz saw the ideals of French Romanticism overtaken by the growing influence of the new German school led by Wagner and others. He died at the age of sixty-seven.

Berlioz stands out for his innovative approach in almost all areas of composition. His Symphonie fantastique , for example, transformed the abstract form of the symphony into a fully dramatic one. His Requiem infused the ancient text with a new and purely nineteenth century meaning. It was, however, in the area of orchestration that he made his most important mark. His original manner of using and combining instruments was based not on tradition, but on an intuitive sense of what was possible and how it could be most effectively realized. He left for future generations not only the example of his works, but the first textbook of orchestration, resources that have served musicians for well over a century.�


Return to Meet the Phil Home

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy
Advertise with us