Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Symphony Preview, March 11 and 12, 2016: Berlioz stalks Shakespeare

Leonard Slatkin
Photo: Niko Rodamel
The St. Louis Symphony's month-long Shakespeare Festival comes to a grand conclusion this Friday and Saturday with a complete performance of Hector Berlioz's "dramatic symphony" "Roméo et Juliette" with SLSO Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin at the podium. Never has a stalking incident had such a musically important outcome.

The stalking incident in question isn't the fictional one in Shakespeare's play but rather the real one in the life of Berlioz. It all began in 1827 when he saw the Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia in a highly edited production of "Hamlet" by the actor Charles Kemble (who also played Hamlet) at the Odéon in Paris. Although considered a somewhat mediocre performer in Britain, she bowled the French over with her sensitive "mad" scene and completely transfixed poor Berlioz, even though he didn't understand a word of English.

"Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares," wrote Berlioz in his "Memoirs," "struck me like a thunderbolt. The lightning flash of that discovery revealed to me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest corners. I recognized the meaning of grandeur, beauty, dramatic truth...I saw, I understood, I felt...that I was alive and that I must arise and walk."

His infatuation with Shakespeare, however, was lukewarm compared to his adoration of Smithson. He sent her letters. He sent hand-delivered notes. He did everything but mail himself to her in a box like poor Waldo in the Velvet Underground's "The Gift". The depth of his obsession can be seen in a letter he sent to his friend Ferdinand Hiller (quoted on Melissa Ide and Leslie Merriman's Interdisciplinary Shakespeare site):
... today it is a year since I saw HER for the last time_________oh! unhappy woman! how I loved you...trembling I write, HOW I LOVE YOU! If there is another world shall we find each other again?...Shall I ever see Shakespeare? Will she know me?...Will she understand the poetry of my love?...oh! Juliet, Ophelia, Belvidera, Jane Shore, names that hell repeats unceasingly..."
"Oh! sublime ones! sublime ones! annihilate me! summon me to your golden clouds! deliver me!..."
"Go, go Henriette Smithson and Hector Berlioz will be reunited in the oblivion of the tomb, which will not prevent other unhappy ones from SUFFERING AND DYING."
Today he would have been hit with a restraining order. Instead, he wrote his "Symphonie Fantastique" and continued to pursue her, even going to far as to threaten to kill himself with an opium overdose if she didn't marry him. In 1833, after seeing a performance of "Lélio" (Berlioz's rarely-performed sequel to the "Symphonie Fantastique"), she finally agreed, but they did not live happily ever after. The marriage fell apart after a decade and both Smithson's health and fortunes went into decline.

Charles Kemble and Harriet Smithson
as Romeo and Juliet
By Francis (François-Antoine Conscience)
Berlioz's love affair with Shakespeare never wavered though, and "Roméo et Juliette" is undoubtedly the greatest product of that love. Composed largely in 1838 to a libretto by poet Émile Deschamps, it's a grand mashup of opera, oratorio, and symphony that both looks backward to Beethoven's monumental "Symphony No. 9" and forward to the integrated music dramas of Wagner. In fact, the latter's "Tristan and Isolde" owes quite a bit to "Roméo et Juliette"—a debt Wagner acknowledged when he sent Berlioz a copy of the "Tristan" score with the following dedication: "Au grand et cher auteur de Roméo et Juliette, l'auteur reconnaissant de Tristan et Isolde" ("To the great and dear author of Romeo and Juliet, from the grateful author of Tristan and Isolde").

"Berlioz claimed not to understand Wagner’s 'strange thing,'" writes Renée Spencer Saller in her program notes. "Nine years after the Frenchman’s death, Wagner named a pet rooster 'Berlioz.'" Sic transit gloria mundi.

But I digress.

"Roméo et Juliette" is a big piece in every possible way. It's in seven movements, runs around ninety minutes, and calls for over 100 musicians and a full chorus. It's grand in scope and brilliant and innovative in its orchestration. Which is what you would expect given that, as Ms. Saller reminds us in her notes, Berlioz "literally wrote the book on orchestration. His Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration moderne was originally published as 16 booklets beginning in late 1841."

There's no reason for me to provide a detailed description of the program of "Roméo et Juliette" here since Ms. Saller has already done a very thorough job in her notes. I'll just point out that it's an unfailingly colorful, gripping, and wholly original piece of music drama with a remarkable choral finale in which the Montagues and Capulets reconcile in a way only hinted at in the play. It's Berlioz's "Romeo and Juliet," not Shakespeare's, but no less compelling for all that.

In a video blog on the SLSO YouTube channel, Maestro Slatkin describes "Roméo et Juliette" as one of his ten favorite works to conduct "because it has all the elements that make this composer great. It's symphonic in scope. There's a chorus. There are three soloists. There are incredibly inventive sounds—sounds that were occurring just after Beethoven had died, and yet there's no comparison between these two composers musically. 'Romeo and Juliet' is one of the wonders of the musical world".

The essentials: Leonard Slatkin conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Berlioz's "Roméo et Juliette" Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., March 11 and 12. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information, visit the SLSO web site.

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