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The story of Les Troyens

Episode 2 — By Charles Alexandre Creton

The saga behind the composition of Les Troyens continues: after seeing how the opera enabled Berlioz to finally free himself from material contingencies and embrace the life of an artist, we propose that you ponder another aspect of the work: the composer’s relationship with Shakespeare or, in his own words, why Les Troyens is “a grand opera on the Shakespearian model whose subject matter will be the second and fourth book of the Aeneid.”


The birth of epic emotion

When he composed Les Troyens, the challenge for Berlioz was to transform the stirring emotions aroused from reading The Aeneid into a genuine work of art. In his Memoirs Berlioz evokes his passion for Virgil’s poem as a young reader. Beyond the mere memories of childhood, this writing on the self would pave the way for his grand opera. It offered the beginnings of a translation of The Aeneid which underlines both his command of the Latin poem and his profound sensitivity:

How often have I felt my heart throb and my voice quiver and break when presenting the fourth book of The Aeneid to my father!... One day, I was intensely affected by the sound of my voice uttering the translation of the line:

At regina gravi jamdudum saucia cura

I struggled on bravely until I came to the crisis—where Dido expires on her funeral pyre with the gifts and weapons of Aeneas, her betrayer, heaped around her, and, alas, the familiar couch bathed in her blood; but when I came to the despairing cries of the dying queen, “thrice rising on her elbow and thrice falling back” and had to describe her wounds and the anguish of her heart rent with its fatal passion, the cries of her distraught sister and nurse, and all the tortuous details of her death which moved even the gods to pity, my lips quivered and I could scarcely stammer out the words1

What initially may have seemed like a lively exercise in reading was in fact the beginning of a translation of The Aeneid and would become the precursor for the composition of Les Troyens. This writing on the self again allows Berlioz to merge with his subject, as demonstrated in the phrases directly translated from Virgil’s work which highlight the distress of the young Hector even more intensely than the agony of the Queen of Carthage.

Lettre d'Hector Berlioz à Humbert Ferrand, 5 novembre 1863. Manuscrit autographe
Lettre d'Hector Berlioz à Humbert Ferrand, 5 novembre 1863. Manuscrit autographe © BnF

To accurately transcribe his youthful emotion, Berlioz had to translate Virgil’s text with the same precision. The critics however, were not so enamoured with his translations. Indeed, some saw the work of a schoolboy: “At the time, Berlioz’s evil genie told Berlioz: You will copy me five thousand verses of The Aeneid to teach yourself how to write a libretto! And that’s how he gave us detention lines for an opera2”.

And yet, far from being a mere text for a preparatory literature class, the libretto for Les Troyens is a true poetic tour de force which works to combine the epic with the dramatic. This desire to reconnect with the dramatic dimension of the saga can be observed in certain translation choices, specifically, in the second act when Hector’s ghost appears and says: “Ah!… flee, son of Venus! The enemy holds our walls3, which Berlioz translated from “Heu fuge, nate dea, teque his, ait, eripe flammis, // Hostis habet muros (he said, flee goddess son and save thee from the fury of this flame // Our enemies now are masters of the walls).4” If Berlioz does not take account of the entire verse, he does seem to offer a more accurate translation of certain expressions than his contemporaries. Case in point: “hostis habet muros” (Our enemies now are masters of the walls) which Félix Lemaistre translated in 1859 in the second edition of his translation of The Aeneid with “The enemy is inside our walls.5” An action verb of the subject “hostis” (enemy), the verb “habeo” (to have) assumes an epic connotation with Berlioz that is linked to the notion of a battle which allows him to dramatize the action. This nuance in the translation also allowed Berlioz to introduce the irreversible journey of the Trojans as they marched towards their destiny. The state of siege leaves him little alternative other than to flee and settle in Italy.

Première représentation, au Théâtre-Lyrique, de l'opéra
Première représentation, au Théâtre-Lyrique, de l'opéra "les Troyens " (La mort de Didon). Estampe [s.d.] © BnF
“Virgil Shakespearianised”

If, for Berlioz, Virgil embodies the epic passion of childhood, Shakespeare is synonymous with the major upheavals of the composer’s career. One cannot determine by reading the twenty-eighth chapter of his Memoirs whether Berlioz fell in love with Harriet Smithson or Shakespeare himself when he went to the Odéon to see Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in its original language. The Elizabethan playwright became a model of dramatic creation for the composer of symphonies who would henceforth refer to Les Troyens as “a grand opera on the Shakespearian model”. The composer mobilises everything which in Shakespearian tragedy goes against the rules of propriety and plausibility governing classical tragedy. Thus, at the climax of the tragedy, when Dido prepares to kill herself, Berlioz introduces the ludicrous duet of two Trojan sentries (“By Bacchus! They are mad with their Italy!”). Berlioz seizes on the Trojan women’s tragedy-tinged bemoaning about the length of the journey (the fifth book of The Aeneid) and turns it into a duet of bacchanalian lamentations, offering some comic relief before returning to the drama. Under Berlioz’s pen, Virgil and Shakespeare become contemporary. Which is how the famous duet between Dido and Aeneas “Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinite” came to be: “I’ve just finished the duet of the fourth act. It’s a scene which I have taken from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and I’ve Virgilized it. Those delightful, sweet nothings between Jessica and Lorenzo were lacking in Virgil. Shakespeare created the scene, I’ve borrowed it and endeavoured to combine the two.6

More romantic than he seems when you listen to his work, Berlioz sought to make grand opera the manifestation of a primary emotion. His “Virgilian grief7” once charged with the power of Shakespearian love at first sight becomes a hybrid emotion that sustained and enlivened both the composition of Les Troyens and its reception. By “plagiarising Virgil and Shakespeare” who for him become two singers8, Berlioz finds the voice which enables him to find fulfilment in the genre of grand opera.

1. Hector Berlioz: Memoirs, “Chapter II” MacMillan and Co. 1884
2. ]Firmin Gillot (engraver) in La vie parisienne in 1863
3. Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens: Act II, first tableau N°12
4. Virgil, The Aeneid, Book II v-689-690
5. Œuvres de Virgile French translation from the Panckouke collection by M. Félix Lemaistre. Tome 1. Garnier Frères, libraires-et éditeurs. 1859 p.
6. Berlioz to Ernest Legouvé, circa June 10, 1856, Correspondance générale, vol. V
7. ]Hector Berlioz: Memoirs, “Chapter II” MacMillan and Co. 1884
8. "It is odd that he, the poet from the North, played a role in the masterpiece of the Roman poet. […] What singers, the pair of them!!!…” Hector Berlioz to Ernest Legouvé, June 10, 1856, Correspondance générale, vol.5    

  

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