Hugh Wolff, New England Conservatory's Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras, has written these notes for his December 11 concert with the NEC Philharmonia. The program consists of two works: Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto and an instrumental suite from Hector Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet—works written a century apart, while both composers were still in their twenties.
Britten and Berlioz
In the spring of 1939, with Europe at the brink of another catastrophic war, the English composer Benjamin Britten set sail for America. This self-imposed exile of the twenty-five year-old ardent pacifist turned out to be artistically fruitful. Among the uncompleted works Britten brought along was a violin concerto. A few months later, he described it to his publisher as “without question my best piece. It is rather serious, I'm afraid.” Upon finishing the concerto just weeks after the outbreak of World War II, he wrote, “it is at times like these that work is so important – that humans can think of things other than blowing each other up!”
The concerto follows the unconventional form pioneered by Prokofiev in his First Violin Concerto: a warm and lyric first movement, a sarcastic and driven scherzo, and a finale of weight and power, yet ending quietly. A cadenza links the scherzo and finale. The latter is a passacaglia, a set of variations on a melody first heard ppp in the trombones under the violin at the cadenza’s end. The variations culminate in a D major apotheosis, which dissolves into a strikingly beautiful coda. A gentle pleading chorale of winds and plucked strings alternates with impassioned solo violin phrases. Unable to resolve this conflict, the violin rises to a final trill of F and G-flat (F-sharp) over D and A in the orchestra, creating an exquisite ambiguity of major and minor as the music fades out.
In 1827, an English theater troupe arrived in Paris to perform Shakespeare. Among the actors was Harriet Smithson, playing the leading roles of Ophelia in Hamlet and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. In the audience, twenty-four year-old Hector Berlioz was immediately smitten with Smithson, much as Juliet becomes smitten with Romeo in the play’s masked ball. The courtship, marriage and divorce of Berlioz and Smithson are a dramatic and colorful story for another time; Shakespeare remained a life-long passion for Berlioz.
The incentive to write something unusual and large scale came from Niccolò Paganini. After hearing Berlioz’s epic opera Benvenuto Cellini in 1838, Paganini sent Berlioz twenty-thousand francs, no strings attached, with a note reading, “Beethoven is dead, and Berlioz alone can revive him.” Freed from debt and able to let his fertile imagination wander, Berlioz embarked on an astonishingly original version of the Romeo and Juliet story. Calling his work a symphonie dramatique, he eschewed the obvious model of an opera. (He had been bitterly disappointed in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi.) So although it is a vocal work, the only singers are Friar Laurence, who sings just in the epilogue, and a chorus of Montagues and Capulets, who, like a Greek chorus, comment on the action throughout. The two protagonists and other important characters are represented by the orchestra alone. This extraordinary conceit is a precursor of Wagner’s leitmotif style, in which the orchestra helps reveal the characters’ inner feelings. In fact, the twenty-six year-old Wagner, present at the work’s 1839 Paris premiere, was overwhelmed by what he called the “completely new world” of the music. (Surely the first phrase of Tristan and Isolde is modeled on the beginning of Berlioz’s Romeo Alone movement.)
It is important to know that Berlioz based his Roméo et Juliette not on the original Shakespeare, but on the 1748 adaptation by David Garrick that was performed in Paris. This version differs from Shakespeare’s in two crucial ways. In the Garrick, Romeo is already in love with Juliet as the play begins. She is unaware, when they first meet at the Capulet’s ball, that Romeo is there to introduce himself and impress her. Even more striking, in the Garrick, Romeo is still alive when Juliet awakens in the graveyard after taking sleeping potion. Thus that scene includes Romeo’s astonishment as Juliet awakens, a wildly passionate moment of reunion, Romeo’s death from poison ingested before Juliet awakens, and her suicide. This movement is so unconventional—a through-composed fantasy that skirts the edge of atonality—that Berlioz himself recommended omitting it unless the audience is “familiar in every respect with the tragedy … and endowed with a highly poetic mind.” “Once in a hundred times” this may be the case, Berlioz wrote.
Tonight, we will perform only the orchestral music from Berlioz’s dramatic symphony—it contains all the key elements of the drama—and we will conclude with the movement Berlioz warned about. In order to guide you through it all, the music will be accompanied by surtitles with brief explanations of the action and lines from the Garrick version of the play. In this way, I hope to put Berlioz’s worries to rest!