MASTERWORKS VIII: A Shakespearian Evening
Hector Berlioz 1805-1869
Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz
Selections from Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17

Dramatic Symphony after Shakespeare’s Tragedy

Introduction (Fighting, tumult)
Romeo alone
Festivities at the Capulets

As if literature’s quintessential star-crossed lovers didn’t present enough Sturm und Drang, Hector Berlioz’s personal life added a subsequent entanglement to their legend. Around 1827, Berlioz attended productions in Paris of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, performed by the great British actor, David Garrick, and the apparently somewhat less talented actress, Harriet Smithson. Despite the fact that the young composer didn’t know English, he fell madly in love with Smithson, developed an obsessive fixation on her that inspired the Symphonie fantastique, and married her six years later, ultimately making both of them miserable.

The popularization of Shakespeare by the French Romantics in the beginning of the nineteenth century created an impact nothing short of overwhelming. Like most matters artistic in France, it also created controversy. Early translations, all in rhyming hexameter couplets, adapted the plays to Ancient Greek dramatic constraints traced back to Aristotle’s Poetics. The three “unities” required that plays take place in the same location, within 24 hours, with no subplots nor – gods forbid – mixing of comedy and tragedy. Gone, therefore, were many of the qualities that for English theatergoers and readers make Shakespeare Shakespeare.

On the other hand, for Victor Hugo, the father of French literary Romanticism, and Berlioz, Shakespeare was the nearest thing to God. Nearly all of Berlioz’s music was based on or inspired by literary or personal narrative. He used a number of Shakespeare’s plays as texts or models for his music: the opera Béatrice et Bénédict (from Much Ado about Nothing), Overture to King Lear, Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet, La mort d’Ophélie, and Roméo et Juliette.

In selecting Romeo and Juliet, Berlioz said that the play belonged to the body of secular scripture that every educated man should know by heart. In the process, he continued to develop new ways of combining music and poetry, creating a “dramatic symphony, with chorus, soloists, and a prologue in choral recitative, after Shakespeare’s drama.”

The work has the form of a four-movement drama, with most of the vocal sections in the first and fourth movements. It is a carefully calculated mixture of genres, incorporating elements from opera, cantata and symphony, with a vocal prologue (as in the play) that sets the stage and introduces the story to the audience and a choral epilogue that summarizes the moral of the tragedy. A master of orchestration and instrumental innovation, Berlioz called at the premiere for forces of 200 musicians, including three soloists, two choirs, and an expanded orchestra. Performances of the complete work have always been rare, but orchestral excerpts are frequently performed.
The instrumental Introduction portrays the enmity and violence between Capulets and Montagues as a fugue. Example 1

Romeo Alone opens Part II. After a chromatic, wandering recitative-like passage, Example 2 it continues with a series of lyrical melodies reflecting the romantic, but somewhat confused adolescent Romeo’s feelings standing in the Capulet’s domain where he will first see Juliet. One of them, ends with the motive symbolizing the tragic lovers. Example 3 Throughout this scene, Romeo’s voice is portrayed by a solo oboe. The “soliloquy” leads into the rowdy Festivities at the Capulets’ ball. Example 4
Roméo et Juliette was premiered in Paris in November 1839, under the composer’s direction, before an audience of artists and intellectuals whom novelist Honoré de Balzac as “the brain of Paris.”
William Walton 1902-1983
William Walton
William Walton
Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario

Arr. Christopher Palmer

In June, 1923, the young William Walton burst on the English musical scene with his tongue-in-cheek Fašade, a witty and eccentric setting for reciter and chamber ensemble of poems by Edith Sitwell. While Fašade gave him the notoriety of an enfant terrible, Walton went on to compose a steady stream of works in all genres, but by and large, far more conservative. They earned him many honors, a knighthood and medals.

Walton’s most enduring works are the oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast and the violin and viola concertos. He also composed 14 film scores, four of them to Shakespeare’s plays. The first was As You Like It in 1936; the other three: Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III, were for the Laurence Olivier films. He also wrote the score for a stage production of Macbeth. In all his Shakespearean film scores, Walton showed himself a master of mirroring in music the emotional tenor of the moment.

During the Middle Ages, there were no set boundaries between countries. Everybody in the European high nobility intermarried to acquire and control additional territory – nobody more so than the French and the English. As one of Shakespeare’s more upbeat history plays, in which the young King Henry V (1386-1422) makes his contribution to the Hundred Years War by smashing the French at the battle of Agincourt, the plot called for music brimming with optimism, pageantry and even a little romance. Filmed in 1943, its tone of victory resonated with the British audience.

In 1988, British composer Christopher Palmer (1946-1995) arranged nine musical sequences from the film, interspersing original passages from the play. The Chorus (actually a single narrator), verbally paints the imagery allowing the theater audience to visualize Henry’s assault on the French. Palmer also has his narrator recite several of Henry’s important speeches.

Much of Walton’s music supports scenes of battle and preparation for the final victory at Agincourt, he sets the stage with music fanfares and flourishes Example 1 and incorporates the style of the fifteenth century. Example 2 Of course, the longest musical segment in the film and the suite is the Battle of Agincourt. While the actual battle was a stunning defeat of the home team through Henry’s brilliant military leadership, Shakespeare’s Henry wins the stage battle with oratory; his words are his weapons. Example 3 Example 4

It should be noted that Henry V is the fourth in a six-play saga covering the reigns of Richard II through Henry VI. As Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I, Henry had been a dissolute teenager who hung out in taverns with Sir John Falstaff and his commoner buddies. Example 5 Upon his accession to the throne, Henry immediately turned over a new leaf and, in a touching scene, cruelly rejects his old friend, who dies while Henry is in France. Example 6
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018