From his first experience of “Hamlet” in 1827 to his death in 1869, Hector Berlioz found William Shakespeare’s plays to be an ongoing source of almost-divine inspiration for his music. Indeed, Berlioz’s love for “the father of artists” led to the creation of what many consider to be his greatest work: the dramatic symphony, “Roméo et Juliette.”

“Shakespeare has caused a revolution in me, has brought about an upheaval in my whole being.” —Hector Berlioz, from Lélio

Hector Berlioz was twenty-four years old and living in Paris, when a troupe of English actors came to the city in 1827 and gave a performance of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Odéon Theatre. Attending the performance, the aspiring, young composer was smitten, both by the playwright and by the young, Irish actress, Harriett Smithson, who portrayed Ophelia. “The effect of her prodigious talent,” Berlioz recalled in his Memoirs,

or rather of her dramatic genius, on my imagination and on my heart can be compared only to the bewilderment into which I was thrown by the poet, whose worthy interpreter she was. I cannot say more. Shakespeare, falling thus unexpectedly upon me, dismayed and astounded me. His lightning, in opening to me the firmament of art with a sublime thunderclap, illuminated the most distant depths. I recognized true grandeur, true beauty, dramatic truth…. My heart and whole being were possessed by a fierce, desperate passion in which love of the artist and the art were interfused, each intensifying the other.

Berlioz also witnessed Smithson play Juliet in a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and he began a fevered romantic pursuit of the talented and popular actress, three years his senior, writing her letters, renting an apartment near hers so as to observe her comings and goings, and even appearing at her dressing-room door. He was rebuffed in all these efforts to meet the fetching beauty. Such was his obsession that his friends Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, and Frederic Chopin once “had to go searching for him in the fields outside of Paris, afraid that he was going to kill himself.”* Five years later, Smithson attended a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, not realizing that the work was based on the composer’s obsessive love for her. When she was told this fact afterwards, she consented to meet Berlioz. They fell in love and were soon married. Their marriage was not a happy one, with Berlioz eventually taking another lover. Yet he cared for Smithson, even as she became an invalid, and was stricken with grief upon her death in 1854, crying out to the only god he worshipped:

Shakespeare! Shakespeare! Where is he? Where art thou? It seems to me that he alone amongst intelligent beings can understand me, and must have understood us both; he alone can have had pity on us, poor artists, who loved each other and were torn asunder. Shakespeare! Shakespeare! Thou must have been humane and kind; if thou existest still, thou must receive the wretched! thou art our father; thou art in heaven, if heaven there be. God is stupid and atrocious in his indifference; thou alone art the God good for the souls of artists. Receive us into thy bosom, father, embrace us!

From his first experience of Hamlet on the stage in 1827, to his death in 1869, Berlioz found the Bard’s plays to be an ongoing source of almost-divine inspiration for his music. In 1830, during a stay in Italy, where he was competing for the prestigious Rome Prize in music, Berlioz composed a strange piece for narrator, a tenor soloist, orchestra, and chorus, called Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie (Lélio, or the Return to Life), which was intended as a sequel to the Symphonie Fantastique; indeed, it employed the idée fixe, the central theme of the Symphonie Fantastique, at the beginning and conclusion of the work. Consisting of six separate numbers separated by narrative sections in which the artist of the symphony speaks, Lélio reflects the composer’s belief in the supremacy of art over all human endeavors. It includes a monologue in which the artist-narrator praises Shakespeare (“what dazzling traces your genius left behind!”), and two Bard-inspired numbers, the five-minute-long Choeur d’ombres (Chorus of Shades)—which depicts the ghosts of Hamlet and which employs music from Berlioz’s early cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre—and the Fantaisie sur la “Tempête” de Shakespeare (Fantasy on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”), an extended piece some fourteen minutes in length, set to an Italian text and which, uniquely in Berlioz’s oeuvre, uses a piano as part of the orchestra. This work began life as the Ouverture de La Tempête, a stand-alone concert work. Both it and the Choeur d’ombres are evocative and remarkable, and it is a shame that their status as sections of the unwieldy Lélio has likely hampered their on concert programs as independent pieces.

In 1831, on the way back to Paris from Italy, Berlioz composed the fifteen-minute-long concert overture Le Roi Lear (King Lear), based on Shakespeare’s play. Like his Waverley overture, inspired by Sir Walter Scott, and his Rob Roy overture, based on Lord Byron’s novel—both were composed around the same time—Lear is what would later be called a “tone poem,” encapsulating the spirit of the play and dramatizing, if only in broad strokes, some of its action. It was a favorite of Berlioz, as he often programmed it for his own concerts.

Also, in 1831, Berlioz set a poem by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, as translated into French by Louise Belloc, to create a five-minute-long work for six-part chorus and small orchestra that Berlioz called Méditation religieuse (Religious Meditation): “This world’s all a fleeting show,” the chorus sings at the work’s opening. “There’s nothing true but Heaven!” Though the work has nothing to do with Shakespeare, Berlioz eventually published the Méditation religieuse in 1852 as the first of three works in a collection he dubbed Tristia (Sad Things). The second and third works of the collection were based on episodes in Hamlet, and Berlioz came to think of the Méditation religieuse as also related to Shakespeare’s play. La mort d’Ophélie (The death of Ophelia) is setting of a French adaptation, by Ernest Legouvé, of the Queen’s speech describing Ophelia’s drowning in Act IV of Hamlet. It was originally composed for solo voice and piano in 1842, but in 1848 Berlioz revised it for two-part women’s chorus and chamber orchestra. Surely, the memory of seeing his wife play the role of Ophelia inspired Berlioz to compose this piece.

The Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet (Funeral March for the final scene of Hamlet), for wordless chorus and large orchestra and written in 1844, is a powerful, fiery piece, a dirge-like march building to an overwhelming crescendo, complete with a volley of musketry (representing Fortinbras’ instruction to have the soldiers shoot), with the tension suddenly released as the music stops and several seconds of silence follow, after which the orchestra plays quietly for nearly two minutes. As David Cairns has suggested, the Marche funèbre was Berlioz’s response to what he saw as the tragedy of Shakespeare’s play, its “the nothingness of life, the vanity of human projects, the tyranny of chance, the indifference of fate or God to what we call virtue, vice, beauty, ugliness, love, hate, genius, stupidity.” The piece was composed for a stage performance of Hamlet that never took place. Indeed, Berlioz never heard any of the three pieces of Tristia performed.

In 1838, Berlioz began writing what many consider to be his greatest work: the seven-movement “dramatic symphony,” Roméo et Juliette. Shakespeare’s play had haunted him ever since he had witnessed his young wife play the female title role a decade earlier: “To steep myself in the fiery sun and balmy nights of Italy,” Berlioz recalled of the experience,

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—it was as though an iron hand had gripped me by the heart—I knew that I was lost.

Charles Kemble and Harriet Smithson as Romeo and Juliet

All this, despite the fact that Berlioz did not understand a word of the English being spoken by the actors. Though that was apparently the only time Berlioz saw the play in his lifetime, Romeo and Juliet continued to fire his artistic imagination. In turning a play into a symphony, Berlioz was attempting something that no other composer had tried. In some ways, by combining purely orchestral sections with sections for voices (the score calls for 100 instrumentalists and 101 singers), he was following the inspiration of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But Berlioz’s vision was unique. “Not even Mahler conceived so radical a fusion of the dramatic and the symphonic,” scholar Ian Kemp points out.

Berlioz had seen an altered version of Shakespeare’s play, one rewritten by the English actor/producer David Garrick. He followed many of Garrick’s changes in working with his librettist, Émile Deschamps. Unlike the play, for example, the symphony, whose seven movements are divided into three parts, begins with fighting between the Capulets and Montagus; this is dramatized by orchestral music, followed by sections for contralto and soloist and choir, which tell of the Prince’s putting down the warfare, a ball held at the palace of the Capulets, and of Romeo’s being instantly smitten by Juliet (in another departure from Shakespeare’s original, there is no Rosaline to distract Romeo). The tenor soloist, accompanied by choir, next sings Mercutio’s famous “Queen Mab” speech. This is followed by two orchestral sections, depicting “Romeo Alone” and the “Great banquet at the Capulets.” After a brief chorus—the Capulets singing as they leave the ball—Berlioz introduces a fifteen-minute-long orchestral section, the Scène d’amour (see the video at the end of the essay). This is the most famous part of the symphony, and Berlioz said that it was his favorite among all the music he had written. The fourth movement of the symphony is the orchestral Queen Mab Scherzo. It used to be popular to play this and the love scene as stand-alone pieces in the concert hall.

The third and final part of Roméo et Juliette opens with a somber chorus singing of the death of Juliet. Berlioz followed Garrick in having Juliet awake briefly from her apparent death to speak to the dying Romeo. Her awakening, the couple’s “frenzied joy and despair,” and the “final agony and death of the two lovers” are all depicted by Berlioz with orchestral forces. In the seventh and final movement of the symphony, Berlioz invented an ending for the drama completely different from that of Shakespeare’s original. In Berlioz’s version, the warring families assemble to discover the dead lovers, and begin again to fight, only to be interrupted by Friar Laurence, who reveals that he had secretly married Romeo and Juliet in an attempt to reconcile the families. Chastising the families for their hatred of each other, the priest makes them swear an oath “to affix between you a perpetual chain of loving charity and brotherly affection.” The symphony ends with the chorus and the bass singer representing Friar Laurence taking the oath.

Written between 1860 and 1862, Berlioz’s opera Béatrice et Bénédict, with a libretto by the composer based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, was the composer’s last work. In contrast to the grand opera style of Les Troyens, written a few years before, Béatrice et Bénédict is, in Berlioz’s words, “a caprice written with the point of a needle.” It was almost as if Berlioz was defying his critics, who caricatured his orchestration as bombastic and the emotional content of his pieces as overwrought. “The music displays more clearly than any other work Berlioz’s delicate, filigree orchestral technique,” biographer Hugh Macdonald writes. Here is a light-hearted frolic, tinged with poignancy, in the spirit of Mozart’s opera buffa. As might be surmised from the opera’s title, Berlioz focused on the relationship between the play’s main characters, eliminating several subplots and simplifying other characters. The opera, which lasts about two hours, is in two acts, and intersperses arias and ensembles with spoken dialogue. “The work is difficult to perform well, the men’s roles especially,” Berlioz wrote. “To my mind it is one of the liveliest and most original things I have done.” Indeed, the opera is replete with delights, one of which can be heard in the video at the bottom of this essay.

Berlioz was in pain from intestinal disease as he conducted the premier of Béatrice et Bénédict at the Theatre Baden-Baden in Germany. He would write the following year in his Memoirs: “I am in my sixty-first year; I have neither hopes, illusions, nor vast thoughts; my son is almost always far from me; I am alone; my contempt for the imbecility and improbity of men, my hatred for their atrocious ferocity are at their height; and at all times I say to death: ‘When you want! What is she waiting for?'” In 1869 death at last came for Hector Berlioz. There would be no deathbed reversion to the Catholic faith of his childhood; one can only suppose that he continued to worship not the Creator, but one of His creatures, the bard from Stratford-upon-Avon: “Shakespeare! Shakespeare! I feel the flood returning, I am being overwhelmed by grief, and I seek thee still…. Father! Father! Where are you?”

This is part of a series of essays commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image combines a portrait of the young Hector Berlioz by Émile Signol and the ‘Chandos portrait’ of William Shakespeare, courtesy of Wikipedia. The image of Charles Kemble and Harriet Smithson is courtesy of Wikipedia.

*Robert Reilly, “Finding Faith in the Manger: Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ

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