Berlioz’ “Roméo et Juliette”: Scène d’amour

In 1827, Hector Berlioz witnessed a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at Paris’ Odéon Theatre. The cast included Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who became Berlioz’ first wife and creative muse, as well as the inspiration behind Symphonie fantastiqueShakespeare’s tragedy had a visceral effect on the composer, who did not understand English but was affected by the pure sound of the poetry and the power of the acting. In his Memoirs he wrote,

… to steep myself in the fiery sun and balmy nights of Italy, to witness the drama of that passion swift as thought, burning as lava, radiantly pure as an angel’s glance, imperious, irresistible, the raging vendettas, the desperate kisses, the frantic strife of love and death, was more than I could bear. By the third act, scarcely able to breathe…

Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette, described as a symphonie dramatique, was completed in 1839. The sprawling choral symphony was a significant influence on Wagner, who attended the premiere. In his 1973 Norton lecture, The Delights and Dangers of AmbiguityLeonard Bernstein shows how close the “love-sick sighs” of the opening of Berlioz second movement (Romeo Alone) are to Wagner’s Tristan und Isoldecompleted twenty-five years later.

In this Memoirs, Berlioz singled out the third movement of Roméo et Juliettethe “Love Scene,” as his favorite among his works. With conversing instrumental voices, this music feels like an opera without words. It is pure color and atmosphere, evoking a shimmering, nocturnal magic. It unfolds with the free-flowing, ephemeral quality of a dream. The theme which represents the two lovers first emerges breathlessly in the cellos (3:14) and builds to an ecstatic climax. Innocence and impending tragedy hang in air amid the shadows of the night.

Recordings

  • Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette, Op.17, Scène d’amour, Seiji Ozawa, San Francisco Symphony Amazon

Featured Image: “Romeo and Juliet” by Francis Bernard Dicksee, 1884

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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