The genesis of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet was the product of complex circumstances and, although this eminently modern work marked the development of dramatic music in the Romantic period in a decisive way, it is likely that its composition was partly inspired by Berlioz’s former operatic failures.
In September 1838, the premier production at the Royal Academy of Music of Berlioz’s first opera, Benvenuto Cellini, was a fiasco: the work was slated by both audiences and the musicians themselves. This set-back left Berlioz profoundly wounded. Scarcely a few months later, however, his luck turned: on an evening in December in the hall of the Paris Conservatoire, Berlioz conducted his Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy; Paganini, present in the audience, was instantly fired with enthusiasm for his music (“Beethoven is dead; only Berlioz could bring him back to life”, he wrote the very next day) and became his patron, sponsoring him handsomely to the tune of twenty thousand francs. Thanks to this stroke of providence, Berlioz, for a time at least, was free to concentrate on composition, and accountable to no one. “It is necessary […] that I write a master work, on a new and vast plan, a grandiose work, passionate, full of fantasy, worthy of being dedicated to the illustrious artist to whom I owe so much. […] How ardently I have lived all this time!” His labours on this new work, Romeo and Juliet, were to occupy him for most of 1839.
His sources of inspiration were many. The Shakespearean myth, on the one hand, had profoundly marked him: in 1827 during the Restoration, he saw it performed by an English company in Paris, with the actress Harriet Smithson in the role of Juliet. He fell violently in love with her and married her a few years later. At the same period, he had been galvanised on hearing Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 with its unprecedented use of chorus and soloists in a symphonic work. Thence sprang his Romeo and Juliet, a “symphonie dramatique” for orchestra, chorus and soloists, in which the chorus’ function is to comment on the action whilst the emotions are expressed through instrumental music; the two principal roles are not sung, the solo voices corresponding to secondary characters who emerge but little from the orchestral texture. This use of music as an expressive language complete in itself, as well as the striking structural originality of the work, which illustrates the story of Shakespeare’s two lovers with a series of episodes rather than in a continuous drama, delighted romantic artists and was to have a formative influence on the development of programme music in the 19th.To what extent was this masterpiece, a sort of hybrid between symphony and oratorio, a reaction on Berlioz’s part against music for the stage in the wake of the resounding failure of his first opera? The idea of bringing the myth of Romeo and Juliet to the operatic stage had already crossed his mind, and it is conceivable that he would have adopted this path had the Paris Opera not closed its doors to him. The first edition is inscribed with the phrase: “There will doubtless be no mistaking the genre of this work. Although voices are used, it is neither a concert opera nor a cantata, but a symphony with chorus”. In the manuscript, the episode of Romeo at the tomb of the Capulets bears the following, rather amusing, heading, in which one can detect a certain resentful irony on Berlioz’s part towards both the audiences and performers who had treated Benvenuto Cellini so harshly: “The public has no imagination; pieces that address solely the imagination have no public. The instrumental scene that follows is a case in point, and I think it should be cut whenever this symphony is performed unless for an elite audience […]. That is to say that it should be removed ninety-nine times out of a hundred. Besides which it presents immense difficulties for any conductor wishing to conduct it”. Beneath this proud and independent spirit, and in spite of the almost unanimous success of his Romeo and Juliet, Berlioz reveals himself to be very sensitive to voices of criticism, like that of a commentator who accused him of not having understood Shakespeare: “Toad puffed up with nonsense! If you can prove that to me…” Moreover, he reworked the score of his symphony a number of times, and never, it seems, entirely rejected the idea of transposing it to the stage: “Oh! Yes!” he wrote to Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1859, “Romeo would make a marvellous opera alongside the symphony”.