Berlioz’ Méditation “Grands Pharaons, Nobles Lagides” from “La Mort de Cléopâtre”: Jessye Norman

It was only after four unsuccessful attempts that Hector Berlioz won the Prix de Rome.

The prestigious prize, awarded by Paris’ Academie des Beaux-Arts and funded by the state, guaranteed five years of financial support for studies in Rome. By the time Berlioz finally took home the prize in 1830, he had already completed the Symphonie fantastique, a piece far more groundbreaking and consequential than his winning entry, the cantata Sardanapale. 

Berlioz was the ultimate rule breaker. His 1829 Prix de Rome entry, the dramatic cantata, La Mort de Cléopâtre (“The Death of Cleopatra”), so shocked and incensed the jury that they awarded no first prize that year. Described by the composer as “a lyric scene” for soprano and orchestra, the cantata depicts the Egyptian queen’s final moments after inducing a cobra to bite her. It is set to a text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard, which was provided to Berlioz, in keeping with the rules of the competition.

Perhaps it was the aria, (Méditation) Grands Pharaons, Nobles Lagides which most shocked the jury. It begins with a sinking harmonic progression in the cloudiest register of the orchestra. Pizzicato in the low strings evokes the incessant drumbeat of a funeral procession. It is a procession which goes nowhere. With a haunting sense of stasis, the music becomes lost in a psychological maze. Berlioz described it as a piece of “noble character, with a rhythm of striking originality, whose enharmonic progressions seem to have a solemn, funereal sound, and whose melody unfolds dramatically in a long drawn-out crescendo.”

In La Mort de Cléopâtre, Berlioz erased the distinction between recitative and aria, shattering the formal conventions of the cantata which had existed since the Baroque period. What should have been pure recitative emerged as the ghostly prayer, Grands Pharaons, Nobles Lagides. Additionally, the words relate, not to Vieillard’s text, but to an epigraph from Juliet’s monologue by Shakespeare: “How if, when I am laid into the tomb, I wake before the time that Romeo Come to redeem me? There’s a fearful point.”

Here is the aria’s text:

Mighty Pharaohs, noble Lagides,
Will you without wrath watch her enter,
To rest in your pyramids,
A queen unworthy of you?

This recording features Jessye Norman with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra:


  • Berlioz: La mort de Cléopâtre, H. 36 – Méditation “Grands Pharaons, nobles Lagides,” Jessye Norman, Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra Amazon

Featured Image: “The Death of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt” (1881), Juan Luna

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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