Chicago Symphony Orchestra – Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet

Snow in April in Chicago, something more than flurries, is not unheard of; but it’s not that common either. The same could be said of complete performances of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). But both occurred on April 8 of this year; the swirling snow on Michigan Avenue after the concert felt like the natural complement to the excitement generated inside Orchestra Hall. The audience repeatedly called Maestro Riccardo Muti and the soloists back to the stage with their applause. Famed Berlioz scholar Jacques Barzun writes that a successful performance of Berlioz requires “ice and fire,” that is, “great precision” and “forward drive.”[1] That this performance had both was evident in the response of all who heard it.

Berlioz’s Symphonie dramatique is scored for both full and small orchestra, three soloists, and full and semi-chorus. It is divided into three parts in which the mezzo-soprano and tenor appear only in the first and the bass and full chorus only in the third. The semi-chorus sings on stage in the first part and off-stage in the second; the second is almost exclusively orchestral. Berlioz divided each part into sections or movements for which he supplied descriptions of actions from the play. The CSO program numbered these one through seven across all three parts. The second, orchestral part consists of movements two through four, the second scored for full orchestra and the third and fourth for small orchestra. These three movements are often played separately from the rest.[2]

In his Memoirs Berlioz writes of his Romeo and Juliet symphony, “As regards execution, it presents immense difficulties of all sorts inherent in its form and style and only to be overcome by long, patient, and well-directed study” (italics in the original).[3] The phrase “well-directed study” reflects Berlioz’s experience as a conductor and implies high praise for Maestro Muti’s role in the evening’s performance. For on April 8 all parts of this massive ensemble performed their roles with the greatest skill and energy.

After an orchestral “Introduction” depicting the fighting of Montagues and Capulets (a rapid fugue) and the Prince’s intervention (stately trombones), Berlioz gives us a “Prologue” in which mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova and the semi-chorus, together and separately, tell the story of the lovers highlighting the moment when Juliet “confides her love to the night” and Romeo professes his love for her. A recitative follows which Ms. Gubanova sang superbly. Following this, tenor Paul Groves sang Berlioz’s rendition of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech (1.4.53-95) with half the lines echoed by the semi-chorus. This was light, airy, rapid, very pleasing and all over in a moment. The semi-chorus concludes the first part, treated as a single movement, by narrating the rest of the story: the death of the lovers and how it causes the families to “renounce the hatred” that divided them. Apart from the Queen Mab it is the equivalent of Shakespeare’s “Prologue.”

The second part contains Berlioz’s musical description of the balcony scene, already mentioned as part of the first part’s narrative. Romeo hears Juliet, unaware of his presence, profess her love for him and he responds in kind. Just before, as a foil to this moment of intimacy, Berlioz has the semi-chorus off stage play the role, in his description, of “young Capulets leaving the feast” in what Roger Fiske calls “the most nearly operatic effect in the whole work.”[4] But the lovers’ encounter Berlioz depicts without human voice because, as he writes in the “Preface” to the score, “he preferred to give a wider latitude to his imagination than would have been possible with words.”[5] The love theme he composed is beautiful and the CSO’s performance of it that night was exquisite. With strings, wind, and horn it rivaled in music Shakespeare’s poetry: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep; the more I give to thee/ The more I have, for both are infinite” (2.2.133-35). When Juliet calls to her beloved softly in the dark, Romeo responds in a way that acknowledges the expressive power of music: “It is my soul that calls upon my name./ How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night,/ Like softest music to attending ears!” (2.2.164-66). Berlioz makes palpable for the theatergoer or reader the meaning of these words. More extravagantly, Berlioz attributes to Shakespeare’s poetry a power possessed by no other. In the recitative for solo mezzo-soprano of the first part he compares “first love” to “that very poetry/ Of which Shakespeare alone knew the secret.”

After the Intermission the space above the stage filled with the 140 members of the full chorus. The third part consists of three movements of which the second is the purely instrumental depiction of the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. In the first and third movements, the full chorus sings, first mourning the supposed death of Juliet and then, divided into Montagues and Capulets, brawling over the bodies of the two lovers. At a moment in this brawl, comparable to the arrival of the prince in the “Introduction,” bass Dmitry Belosselskiy stood and, as Friar Laurence, began the recitative “I will unravel the mysteries.” In this and the three arias that followed, Mr. Belosselskiy dominated the hall with the authority of his physical presence and the power and beauty of his voice. After his last aria, the full chorus joined him for a grand conclusion to the symphony which brought the whole audience to its feet in applause.

Berlioz’s symphony does not so much set the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to music as use that story to give a lesson in the power of love. It begins with the two families fighting; it ends with their reconciliation. In between we see the son and daughter of Montague and Capulet respectively fall in love and die because of their fathers’ feud. Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other bridges the gulf of hatred that divides their families. The families renounce their hatred because it has killed those they respectively love. In this way, it seems faithful to Shakespeare’s intent expressed in the “Prologue”: to enact the story of two star-crossed lovers whose deaths “bury their parents’ strife.”

Berlioz emphasizes the fact that the love of Romeo and Juliet is “first love.” Never mind Shakespeare’s Rosaline; the David Garrick adaptation of the play with which Berlioz was working had excised her. In any case, that was not reciprocal love. Also, Berlioz gives us the Queen Mab speech twice. In the first movement the tenor soloist, though he is not named by Berlioz as Mercutio the way the bass is named Friar Lawrence, sings Berlioz’s version of Mercutio’s speech; the fourth movement, the conclusion of the second part, sets the speech instrumentally. Queen Mab, a depiction of dreaming, brackets the love scene. Is “first love” a kind of dreaming? If so, how firm a foundation is that for the reconciliation depicted in the finale? Berlioz makes a representative of the Church the agent of reconciliation, not the state in the person of the prince, as Shakespeare does. Moreover, he has Friar Lawrence call upon the feuding Capulets and Montagues to “swear all of you by the holy cross.” But the most powerful kind of love for Berlioz seems to be “first love.” Less than a decade after his Romeo and Juliet symphony, Berlioz wrote in his Memoirs of his own first love, at the age of twelve, for Estelle Duboeuf, six years older than him and he ends his Memoirs with a selection of correspondence with the old Estelle, now the widow Madame Fournier.[6] The last words of the Memoir are “Stella! Stella! I can now die without anger or bitterness.”[7] Following this, as a kind of epilogue, he adds Shakespeare’s lines from Macbeth:

Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Julie Sanders cites Jonathan Bate on “the deep influence of Romantic readings of Shakespeare.”[8] Surely anyone who was fortunate enough to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance in April of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet with its beautiful love theme would conclude that this work has contributed greatly to that influence.

[1] “Fourteen Points about Berlioz and the Public,” in Berlioz: Past, Present, Future, ed. Peter Bloom (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2003), 198. [2] For some of the detail of this description I depend on the excellent piece by Roger Fiske, “Shakespeare in the Concert Hall,” in Shakespeare in Music, ed. Phyllis Hartnoll (London: Macmillan, 1964). [3] Hector Berlioz, Memoirs, trans. Rachel (Scott Russell) Holmes and Eleanor Holmes, rev. Ernest Newman (New York: Dover, 1966), 231. [4] Fiske, 191. [5] Jacques Barzun, Berlioz and the Romantic Century, 3rd edition, two volumes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 1:322. [6] Berlioz, 8-9, 519-30. [7] Ibid., 531. [8] Julie Sanders, Shakespeare and Music (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007), 50.

Joseph Alulis is a professor of politics and govern­ment at North Park University, Chicago. He earned his PhD in political science from the University of Chicago with a dissertation on Alexis de Tocqueville. He has published a number of articles on Shakespeare as a political thinker, most recently, “The Very Heart of Loss” (2012) on Antony and Cleopatra, and is co-editor of a collection of critical essays entitled Shakespeare’s Political Pageant (1996). He is also an instructor in University of Chicago’s Graham School, Continuing Liberal and Profes­sional Studies.