When I saw that a rendition of Berlioz’s choral symphony Romeo and Juliet was on the LSO calendar for November I was really excited. However, when I shared my enthusiasm with my friends I was met with deadpan expressions, and raised eyebrows: ‘Another Romeo and Juliet? Really?’ I refused to accept this, and thus I was inspired to write this article, to convince everyone why Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet is absolutely, 100%, 10/10 worth seeing.
1. He was inspired to write this after finding his very own Juliet … literally.
Berlioz’s wife, the Irishwoman Harriet Smithson, gained small amounts of fame as a Shakespearean actress. She met her future husband when she came to Paris and he saw her playing the role of Juliet. After seven years of perseverance (on the part of Berlioz) the two were wed and though the marriage ended bitterly, the period of their union saw the height of Berlioz’s reputation amongst fellow composers.
2. It had a huge influence on Wagner’s epic love story Tristan und Isolde.
After attending the premiere Wagner is reported to have written in a letter to Berlioz: ‘To the great and dear author of Romeo and Juliet … from the grateful author of Tristan and Isolde.’ It was not only Wagner who felt ‘grateful’ towards Berlioz, and the violin virtuoso Niccoló Paganini felt similarly. After watching a performance of Berlioz’s Harold en Italie, Paganini is reported to have publicly knelt before Berlioz and, before his death, Paganini gifted him the 20,000 Francs that enabled him to write his Romeo and Juliet.
3. The symphony held a special place in Berlioz’s heart.
Berlioz singled out the third movement, the Adagio, as one of his most loved sections of his own music. Berlioz composed four full-scale symphonies and a plethora of other works, so for this 13-minute sequence to be recognised as one of his greatest personal achievements is no small feat.
4. It’s just really, really hard to perform.
In rehearsals for the work, Berlioz pioneered the ‘sectional’ – the practice of rehearsing as a section of the orchestra separately, in order to more effectively confront the challenges of this piece.
5. He puts his own spin on the classic tale.
Berlioz knew that the story of Romeo and Juliet was very familar to his audience, so he made some changes to breathe life into the oft-performed tale. Firstly, he cast the orchestra as the star-crossed lovers. The soloists and choir are there to help push along the narration, and the true emotion is not for a soprano/tenor duo to convey, but for the instruments. Secondly, he takes a character – Queen Mab – who is mentioned only once, in a 40-line monologue given by Mercutio, and dedicated the whole fourth movement (a scherzo) to her. Though he did eventually cut down his Queen Mab Scherzo, this dedication to innovation is what makes Berlioz such an interesting composer.
Catch the LSO’s performance of this choral symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas on Sunday 10 November 2019.