Brush Up Your Berlioz
This weekend, the Milwaukee Symphony will play the rarely heard Overture to Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict, an opera after Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Which prompted me to read up a little on the playwright’s place in the life of the composer.
Hector Berlioz pictured his life as a great drama and painted it as such in his sometimes not so reliable autobiography. He filled his life with artistic feuds — he never tired of badmouthing Meyerbeer, the chic composer of grand operas that were the toast of Paris — and tempestuous love affairs.
The most famous of those affairs began in 1827. Shakespeare was little known in France until then, because French translations of the plays were not widely available. But a British troupe came to Paris with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet and became something of a rage.
Young Berlioz (1803-1869), had just defied his physician father, by dropping out of medical school. He was composing feverishly while taking classes at the Paris Conservatory, to fill in gaps in a sketchy musical education. (He never had piano lessons, for example.) Public performances of his first large-scale works met with derision.
At this combustible moment in his life — Sept. 11, 1827 — Berlioz saw red-haired Harriet Smithson on stage as Ophelia and went a little crazy. He obsessed on her and pursued her relentlessly. He wrote in his memoirs: “The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay her dramatic genius, was equalled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted.”
The composer did everything but drop to the ground and do push-ups in front her to gain the actress’ attention. But he met with no success. She left Paris in 1829, without meeting Berlioz.
Berlioz, the quintessential Romantic artiste, was not about to let all that unrequited passion go to waste. He poured it into the Symphonie Fantastique, which Berlioz sometimes referred to as “my novel.” The more hellish bits in this musical tale of a young artist tormented by love might have to do with rumors that Smithson was carrying on with her manager.
Smithson returned to England. Berlioz won the Prix de Rome and went off to Italy for further study. By coincidence, they both returned to Paris in November of 1832, just before the Dec. 9 premiere of the complete Fantastique and its new sequel, Lelio. By an even more incredible coincidence, Berlioz rented the apartment that Smithson had vacated the night before.
Through another string of coincidences — if we can believe the composer’s memoir — Berlioz managed to convey concert tickets to Smithson. Remember now, he hadn’t even met her, but by this point all of artistic Paris knew the Fantastique was all about Berlioz’s crazy love for her. The commotion that arose when she entered the crowded hall bewildered her.
All his friends knew that the “beloved” in the score was Smithson. She started to figure it out during Lelio (or The Return to Life), a monodrama with music, in which an actor speaks these lines: “…if I could only find her, the Juliet, the Ophelia for whom my heart cries out!”
The two finally met the next day.They married Oct. 3, 1833. They were, of course, miserable, and separated in 1844.
Had they never met, Harriet still would have changed Hector’s life forever by introducing him to Shakespeare. His passion for the literature inspired the King Lear Overture; Romeo and Juliet, a vast “symphonic drama”; Funeral March for the Last Scene of Hamlet and The Death of Ophelia, both for chorus and orchestra; and, of course, Beatrice and Benedict.
I haven’t heard it before. I look forward to hearing from a gentler, better-humored Berlioz than I’ve met when the MSO plays it this weekend.
Concert times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 2-3, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. Tickets are $25-$93 at the MSO website, at the MSO ticket line, 414-291-7605, and at the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206.
Sources for the Berlioz Essay: Hector Berlioz Fantastic Symphony, An Authoritative Score with Historical Background, Analysis, Views and Comments, edited by Edward T. Cone, W.W. Norton & Co.; The Rough Guide to Opera, by Matthew Boyden, Rough Guides; Romantic Music: A Concise History from Schubert to Sibelius, by Arnold Whittall, Thames and Hudson; and the Hector Berlioz Website.