A homage to love, Shakespeare and the symphonic form, Berlioz's symphony should be recognised as a triumph of drama, formal coherence and lyric beauty
At a time when Hector Berlioz's music is played more often than ever before, when performances of the Symphonie Fantastique, Les Nuits d'été, The Damnation of Faust and even the Requiem have become almost commonplace events, and his magnum opus The Trojans has at last been recognised as what Donald Tovey called "one of the most gigantic and convincing masterpieces of music-drama", it's odd that a work as beautiful and eventful as the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette should still be in need of special advocacy.
For Berlioz, it was a particularly cherished work. It was an act of homage to his own personal Juliet and to his two great mentors, Shakespeare and Beethoven.
Arriving in Paris from the provinces in 1821, a callow but hyper-imaginative youth of 17 who had never even heard an orchestra, he had steeped himself in the operas and sacred music of the classical French school. The discovery of Beethoven's symphonies six years later, coming shortly after that of Shakespeare, turned his creative world upside down. Out of those two revelations comes, a decade later, the Romeo and Juliet Symphony.
Berlioz was quite right to pooh-pooh the story that appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848 when he was conducting opera at Drury Lane: that as he left the Odéon theatre in Paris in 1827 after seeing Charles Kemble and Harriet Smithson in Romeo and Juliet he exclaimed: "I shall marry that woman and write my grandest symphony on the play." Though he went on to do both, he was (he wrote) "too overwhelmed even to dream of such things".
In particular, a symphony was the last thing that would have occurred to this disciple of Gluck and Spontini as a fitting response to Shakespeare's drama. It was only under the impact of Beethoven's Eroica and Fifth and Pastoral at the Conservatoire concerts that the symphony's possibilities were revealed to him: the symphony as a dramatic medium every bit as vivid and lofty as opera, and the symphony orchestra as a vehicle of infinite expressive power and subtlety. Music, he said, "has wings too wide to spread fully within the walls of a theatre". From then on, his aspirations turned in a new direction, towards the dramatic concert work: first the Symphonie Fantastique (1830), then Harold en Italie (1834), and finally, 12 years after the epiphany at the Odéon, Roméo et Juliette.
Wagner was at the premiere of the work, in the Conservatoire Hall, on 24 November 1839. He never forgot the impression it made on him. The full score of Tristan, that he presented to Berlioz 20 years later, is inscribed: "To the dear and great author of Romeo and Juliet, from the grateful author of Tristan and Isolde."
The gratitude was genuine. Not only does Tristan echo Berlioz's Roméo in several places, but the whole experience was vital for Wagner, revealing a new kind of music, and driving him deep within himself, to protect and assert his creative identity. His conclusion was that Berlioz's formal solution to setting the play was as wrong as his music was revelatory.
The French music critic Paul Scudo, who detested both of them, called Berlioz and Wagner "enemy brothers sprung from Beethoven's demented old age". For once there is a grain of truth in Scudo's ravings. For both composers, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was the true beginning of modern music: Beethoven had in effect recognised that the symphony as an art form had reached its ultimate stage and could go no further, and must merge into a new kind of drama. For Berlioz, on the contrary, the Ninth proclaimed the final emancipation of the symphony from its 18th-century restrictions. Anything was now possible – even a symphonic remaking of a play.
In the event, the future belonged to Wagner, not to Berlioz. Until recently, commentators have generally agreed with Wagner that the music of Roméo et Juliette may be remarkable, but the piece is wrong-headed and doesn't work.
Donald Tovey dismissed its "scheme" as "incoherent and unwieldy". In no sense could it be considered a symphony; it was nothing more than a "queer hybrid". But the same sort of thing used to be said about Mahler's multi-movement vocal-orchestral constructions ("One of us is mad and it isn't me," was the critic Hanslick's comment after hearing Mahler's Second Symphony), works that are now accepted as symphonies and performed everywhere. Perhaps Roméo et Juliette's time has come and not only its beauties but its formal coherence will be recognised at last.
The preface that Berlioz later wrote has an ironic edge: "There will doubtless be no mistake as to the genre of this work. Although voices are frequently employed, it is neither a concert opera nor a cantata but a choral symphony." If Tovey had bothered actually to examine the scheme he might have realised how logical it is.
The mixing of different elements – the legacy of Shakespeare and Beethoven – is precisely gauged. The introduction, depicting the vendetta of the two families, establishes the principle of dramatically explicit orchestral music and then, using the bridge of instrumental recitative (as in the finale of Beethoven's Ninth), crosses over into vocal music. Choral prologue now states the argument, which choral finale will resolve, and prepares the listener for the themes, dramatic and musical, that will be treated in the core of the work.
At the heart of the symphony, structurally and emotionally, is the adagio, the wordless love scene, conceived for orchestra alone. But voices are never forgotten – in the love scene the songs of revellers on their way home from the ball float across the stillness of the Capulets' garden, and the funeral procession, two movements later, is partly choral. Voices and narrative are brought increasingly to the fore in preparation for the choral finale, where the drama comes fully into the open and the feuds depicted orchestrally in the introduction are relived and then resolved.
Within this scheme is music marvellously rich in a sense of the magic and brevity of love, in "sounds and sweet airs" of so many kinds: the fleet-footed scherzo, standing not only for Mercutio's Queen Mab but for the whole nimble-witted, comic-fantastical, fatally irrational element in the play; the noble swell of the great extended melody which grows out of the questioning phrases of "Romeo alone"; the haunting beauty of Juliet's funeral procession; the awesome unison of cor anglais, horn and four bassoons in Romeo's invocation in the Capulet's tomb and the violence of the lovers' deaths (the most avant-garde music Berlioz ever wrote); the adagio's deep-toned harmonies and spellbound arcs of melody, conjuring the moonlit night and the wonder of the passion that flowers beneath it. Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette, in all its abundance of lyric poetry, waits to be discovered.
• The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Mark Elder perform Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 18 February, and extracts from the work at Reverb Festival, Camden Roundhouse, on 24 February. More information oae.co.uk
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