Les troyens

Louis-Hector Berlioz

Les troyens

H133, H133a, Op. 29 • “The Troyans”

About this work

"It was Virgil who first found the way to my heart and opened my budding imagination, by speaking to me of epic passions for which instinct had prepared me," Berlioz confided in his Memoirs. But only near the end of his career did the doomed city of Troy and the inexorable passion of Dido and Aeneas take hold. On a quiet stopover in Weimar to visit Liszt in the spring of 1854, the latter's mistress, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, broached the subject of a "vast opera"; with the complicity of his friends, Berlioz's resistance thus dissolved. He began the libretto in the spring of 1856 and completed it on June 26; the work was interrupted only by an irresistible urge to compose the sublime fourth-act love duet, "Nuit d'ivresse."

Though he took his story from Virgil's Aeneid, Berlioz almost wholly invented Cassandra, prophetess of the fall of Troy, and took some useful cues from Shakespeare. He not only adapted lines (e.g., "On such a night as this" from The Merchant of Venice for Dido and Aeneas' duet) but also drew some notable coups de théâtre as well: the apparition of the shades of Hector, Priam, and Cassandra, for instance, prompting Aeneas to fulfill his destiny, owes something to the tormenting ghosts near the end of Richard III. And the cynical reluctance of Berlioz's Trojan sentries to leave the comforts of Carthaginian wine and women for that dubious Italian glory -- sandwiched between moments of tremendous tension -- is Shakespearean to the core.

On June 21, 1854, Berlioz was elected a member of the Institute (an elite honorary academy, representing the five major academic disciplines), conferring recognition as one of the "immortals" as well as an annual stipend of 1,500 francs. Assured of financial security at last, he devoted himself without constraint to his vast legend, substantially completing the score on April 12, 1858. Thus, Les Troyens became an ideal grand opera, fraught with superhuman requirements, including two great singing actresses and a lyric tenor who can rise commandingly to B flat, B natural, or C above the staff -- a creature nearly as legendary as Aeneas, the demigod he is to portray. Unusual virtuosity is demanded of the chorus, too. While the work is hardly unperformable, as glib Parisian boulevardiers quipped, the peculiar constellation of forces required to bring Les Troyens persuasively to the stage is sufficiently unusual that one may expect to hear it (in E.J. Dent's apt phrase) "only at rare and solemn intervals." Les Troyens matches its subject with a richness and repletion unparalleled in Berlioz's oeuvre -- its five acts playing some four hours -- and rivaled for sheer creative reach by a mere handful of operatic works in any century.

After protracted negotiations, Berlioz allowed the Théâtre Lyrique to produce the third, fourth, and fifth acts under the title Les Troyens à Carthage. Despite stellar casting, the enthusiasm of the performers, and glowing press, cuts made to the already truncated score after its premiere on November 4, 1863, made its run of 21 performances an increasingly embittering experience for the composer. "It finished him," Gounod would write of Les Troyens. "Like his namesake, Hector, he died beneath the walls of Troy." Not until decades later was the work performed in its entirety.

The opera contains two major numbers that are often played as orchestral excerpts. The first is the "Trojan March, " which is heard in different versions in both parts of the opera, and the other is the "Royal Hunt and Storm." The latter is a brilliant orchestral movement, with striking and original offstage effects; it opens with a section including exuberant hunting horns, a pastoral episode, and a gathering and then brilliantly evocative thunderstorm. The storm occurs as Dido and Aeneas take refuge in a cave, and the rising excitement and the outbreak of the storm also musically symbolize their passion and lovemaking.