Sunday, December 11, 2005


Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet

The third symphonic epic of Berlioz, known as the Dramatic Symphony, in B, Op.17, was written in 1838. It is based upon Shakespeare's drama Romeo and Juliet, and carries the same title. It is his largest and most pretentious symphonic creation. In it he aims to widen still further his sphere of vivid musical expression by adding the human voice to his orchestral apparatus.

The Symphony embraces eight Numbers, or Movements, to which the titles are given: 1. Introduction; 2. Prologue; 3. Ball scene; 4. Garden scene; 5. Queen Mab; 6.Juliet's Burial; 7. Romeo at the Grave; 8. Finale.

The first Number (orchestral) is not an Introduction in the accepted sense, but prefigures the opening Scene of the Tragedy---the feud between the houses of Montague and Capulet. The ensuing Prologue, partly orchestral and partly vocal, consists of three Sections, which narrate in brief form the coming events of the Drama.

Hereupon follow the four actual symphonic Movements: the first Movement (Andante; Allegro) deals with a mournful soliloquy of Romeo; the appearance of Juliet; and the grand festival and ball of the Capulets'. Despite its obviously festive character, this Movement is handled with fine moderation, is noble in conception and dignified in execution.

The second Movement (the slow Movement of the Symphony) is the Garden scene, ardently emotional, but discreet---an admirable example of poetic musical expression.

The third Movement (the Scherzo) is the famous music entitled Queen Mab, the Fairy of Dreams. It is the finest and most individual episode of the whole Symphony; very few, if any, specimens of absolute music can compare with it in originality, ingenuity and tonal beauty, among all the products of the Romantic school. The form is Song with Trio.

The next two of the total eight Numbers, "Juliet's Burial" and "Romeo at the Grave," are usually regarded as included in this third Movement, although they are detached. It is quite impossible to point out, here, all the remarkable ingenious, significant, and inescapably impressive details of these Numbers. The listener will find the efforts abundantly rewarded on a careful examination of the score itself.

The Finale scarcely maintains the high standard of excellence that distinguishes all the preceding Movements. It is undisguisedly operatic, almost theatrical, in plan and execution (with its mixture of orchestral, vocal solo, and triple-chorus), and seems out of place in a work of symphonic dignity. Concerning its tremendous dramatic effect, however, there can be no question.

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