Roméo et Juliette

Louis-Hector Berlioz

Roméo et Juliette

H79, Op. 17

About this work

Roméo et Juliette employs orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists and lasts more than 90 minutes. Yet it is by no means an opera; Berlioz tends to musicalize the mood of each scene rather than set the details. He sometimes makes much of minor episodes (notably the famous "Queen Mab" scherzo), and interpolates scenes not found in Shakespeare. Berlioz devised the text himself, engaging Emile Deschamps to set it to verse. The work falls into three large sections subdivided into smaller numbers.

Part I consists of an introduction ("Fighting; Tumult; Intervention of the Prince") followed by a prologue. The fast introduction, starting in the violas and building through the orchestra, depicts the combat between the Montagues and Capulets. The prologue begins with a choral recitative (with contralto) briefly describing the conflict between the families and offering a plot synopsis up through Romeo's arrival at Juliet's balcony, complete with previews of melodies that will be more fully developed later. Next, the contralto, accompanied by harp, woodwinds, and eventually cellos, describes the lovers' rapture. This section ends with a brief scherzo in which Mercutio (solo tenor) and the chorus tease Romeo about his infatuation.

Part II, widely excerpted for orchestral concerts and recordings, begins with a depiction of Romeo's solitude and erotic yearning at the Capulets' ball ("Romeo alone; Sadness; Distant noises of music and dancing; Great feast at the Capulets'"). The oboe, with assistance from the clarinet, is prominent in this passionate music over a restless bass line, competing with waltzing dance music. Next, a long movement in which the chorus enacts the end of the Capulets' feast on a peaceful night is followed by a love scene without voices ("Love Scene: Serene night; The Capulets' garden silent and deserted; The young Capulets pass"). The section ends with the quicksilver, Mendelssohnian scherzo "Queen Mab, or the dream fairy."

Part III skips ahead to the play's tragic conclusion, beginning with a slow fugue representing Juliet's funeral procession, and a brief choral contribution. "Romeo at the Capulet's Tomb" presents the hero's frantic arrival, with cold chords leading to a bleak if sometimes convulsive last scene between the dying lovers, including bereft wind and brass chorales and recollections of Romeo's oboe music and Juliet's clarinet theme. The chorus returns for the finale, as in the prologue commenting on the action, but now representing the Montagues and Capulets, who learn the full truth from Friar Laurence (a bass); appalled, they work toward reconciliation.