Romeo & Juliet: A Night in Verona

Maison symphonique de Montréal
Ticket Prices
$47* to $158*
Concert dates
Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - 8:00 PM Done
Thursday, September 11, 2014 - 8:00 PM Done
Kent Nagano, conductorchef d’orchestre
Clémentine Margaine, mezzo-soprano mezzo-soprano
Isaiah Bell, tenorténor
Nicolas Testé, baritonebaryton
OSM ChorusChœur de l’OSM
Andrew Megill, OSM chorus masterchef de chœur de l'OSM

Presentation of the concert

Berlioz, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17

Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette, based on Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, is unquestionably one of the composer’s greatest accomplishments. Inspiration for what Berlioz called a “Dramatic Symphony” came from a performance he attended of the play starring Harriet Smithson, who also served as catalyst for the same composer’s Symphonie fantastique. Roméo et Juliette, a symphony with choruses, is music of rare power that draws on a wide range of emotions, formal procedures and poetic impulses. “While voices play a role almost from the start,” explained Berlioz, “their purpose is to prepare the listener for the dramatic scenes in which feelings and emotions are expressed by the orchestra.” Here is your chance to relive the adventures of the Veronese lovers in a different mode.

Throughout his life, Berlioz turned to Shakespeare for musical inspiration no fewer than seven times. Best-known of his Shakespeare music is surely the “Dramatic Symphony” Roméo et Juliette for chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra. In this ambitious work, lasting nearly two hours, Berlioz sought not to give a continuous setting of the play, but rather to choose selected scenes and to elaborate them in musical, mostly instrumental terms. The result was neither opera in concert form, oratorio, cantata or any other known genre. It was something new – “a symphony with choruses” Berlioz called it. It can only be described as a series of unconnected passages drawn from the play, to which are added episodes not even in Shakespeare at all. In the searing drama, Berlioz’ musical instincts were fired with its expressive richness, intense emotions, magic of romantic illusion and sheer musicality of the verse. Into his score Berlioz poured his superb command of orchestral color and technique: the bickering, quarrelsome Capulets and Montagues in the confused opening fugal passage; the mercurial, elusive character of Queen Mab; Romeo alone, lost in thought; the sublimely beautiful love music; the brilliant ballroom where guests are dancing a waltz; and much, much more.


Hector Berlioz

Born in La Côte-Saint-André (near Grenoble), December 11, 1803

Died in Paris, March 8, 1869


Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17


Beethoven referred to him as his “idol.” Verdi preferred him to all other dramatists.  Tchaikovsky, in spite of his intense dislike of the English, found room in his heart for him. And Berlioz called him the greatest genius who ever lived – “the supreme creator, after the Good Lord.” This genius and idol is, of course, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), whose plays and sonnets have inspired more music from more composers, great and small, than any other single literary figure.             


Berlioz’ awakening to the power of Shakespeare came in September of 1827, when he attended performances given by John Kemble’s English Company, which was bringing Shakespeare to the French stage (in English) for the first time. The impact of Shakespeare on the young man was an overwhelming experience. As he described in his Mémoires, “Shakespeare, bursting upon me so unexpectedly, was like a thunderbolt. His lightning flash opened the entire heavens of art for me with a sublime tumult, illuminating its most distant depths. I recognized, I grasped true grandeur, true beauty, true dramatic truth.” Berlioz did not at the time understand English, but “the power of the acting, especially that of Juliet herself, the rapid flow of the scenes, the play of expression and voice and gesture, possessed me with the ideas and passions of the original as the words of my pale and garbled translation could never have done.”


Berlioz first thought about setting Romeo and Juliet to music as early as 1821, six years before he had even seen the English stage production. Yet it was not until 1839 that he could devote time to his own interpretation of Shakespeare’s immortal play. The catalyst that set the cause in motion was a gift of 20,000 francs from Nicolò Paganini, who, after hearing a performance of Berlioz’ Harold in Italy, proclaimed him to be the worthy successor to Beethoven. With this munificence in hand, the hugely grateful composer plunged into the work with sails streaming. Berlioz quite understandably dedicated his Roméo et Juliette to Paganini. The first performance was given in Paris’ Salle de Conservatoire on November 24, 1839, with Berlioz conducting some two hundred musicians. So touted was the event that not only was every seat sold but two additional performances were scheduled in the following weeks, leading historian Jacques Barzun to note that this was “the first time in the history of French music that anyone had dared to give the same symphony three times in close succession.”


Berlioz’ “symphony” departs in numerous ways from the standard model, yet the listener can, if he or she wishes, discern an organically unified four-movement scenario, at least in general terms corresponding roughly to first movement, slow movement (Love scene) , scherzo (Queen Mab) and finale, plus prologue and epilogue. However, these four “movements” do not correspond to the “Parts” indicated in the score. Furthermore, the texts are not exactly Shakespeare’s; they constitute an adaptation and translation into French by Berlioz’ friend Émile Deschamps.


The music begins with a brief, lively fugal passage that represents the feuding of the rival houses of Capulets and Montagues. Stern, recitative-like passages for trombones indicate the intervention of the Prince of Verona and his commands to stop the fighting. A small chorus and a mezzo-soprano soloist then present a summary of the story to follow.


Next come the three extended orchestral passages often presented as “Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet.”  In a slow introduction, we hear a vivid character portrait of Romeo – alone, sad, contemplative, moving about as if in a dream. In a particularly memorable passage, we hear the simultaneous statements of the slow Romeo theme (oboe) and the noisy Capulets’ ballroom music.  Romeo wanders into the ballroom and is engulfed by the festive sounds and dance rhythms.


The Love Scene (Adagio), is the emotional centerpiece of the entire score. Berlioz himself regarded it as the best music he had ever written. Here, Berlioz depicts all the sensuous warmth and sounds of the perfumed Italian night, with hearts throbbing in rapture and lovers ardently expressing their feelings and responses.       Then comes the exquisite music known as the “Queen Mab Scherzo,” suffused with elfin delicacy, rarely rising above pianissimo, sparkling like light on a dragonfly’s wing. Its inspiration comes from Mercutio’s lines in Act I, scene IV: “ She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes / In shape no bigger than an agate-stone … she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love.”


The chorus returns to prominence in the finale, which begins with “Juliet’s funeral procession”. The Capulets express grief over what they believe to be her death. Chorus and orchestra take turns intoning a dirge on a single note. Alone in the tomb with Juliet, Romeo demonstrates his frenzied disbelief in a purely instrumental passage. Juliet revives, and the lovers pour out their hearts in fragmented statements of the love music, “as if in the distorted memory of a dying brain.” (Berlioz follows the Garrick version of the play, in which Juliet wakes before the poison has killed Romeo.) In an epilogue, Friar Laurence explains everything and persuades the feuding houses to make a vow of reconciliation, encouraging the sentiment that the lovers have not died in vain.




© Robert Markow

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