"I would give anything to write a really important work, full of passion and fantasy, worthy of dedication to the glorious artist to whom I owe so much!" The young Hector Berlioz made no secret of his admiration for William Shakespeare. After attending a performance of Hamlet, he fell completely under the spell of the English poet, and Berlioz also nurtured a lifelong fascination with Goethe. What connects the three artists across the ages is their blazing obsession with all that is unattainable.
In 1839, Berlioz dedicated a colossal work for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra to Shakespeare's most tragic pair of lovers with this same enthusiasm. Rarely have the evocative powers of music and literature been more intimately intertwined than in Berlioz' Roméo et Juliette. And yet: precisely at those moments in the story when love burns most brightly, the composer prefers the suggestive expression of wordless, instrumental music.
Like the composer, Roméo et Juliette is difficult to classify in a single category. Berlioz himself called his seven-part work (somewhat contradictorily) a symphonie dramatique, and in form it hovers like Schumann's Faust-Szenen somewhere in between an opera, an oratorio and a symphonic poem. This idiosyncratic and hybrid character makes Roméo et Juliette a full-blooded romantic work that can be heard as a sampler of the musical imagination.
Image: Tim Coppens