Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is cruel as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it. (Song of Solomon)
Hector Berlioz’s ”Requiem” impressed the critics, but it could not make the walls of the Paris Opera come tumbling down, and only by mounting a successful assault in that quarter could Berlioz hope to become self-supporting as a composer. Casting about for an operatic plot that would give him a chance to compete with Mayerbeer, he came up with a Renaissance autobiography that had recently been published in a new translation: the ”Memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini Written by Himself”. Horace Walpole had pronounced it ”more amusing than any novel I know.” Berlioz too, felt an instant affinity for the swashbuckling sculptor and set about recasting the book into a theatre mold.
Though the figure of Cellini dominates the proceedings, Berlioz also contrived to put the Roman populace onstage, in crowd and carnival scenes that anticipated ” Die Meistersinger” and ”Boris Godunov” by more than thirty years. Liszt says that in this brawling, turbulent score ” the common people speak for the first time with their mighty and resounding voice.” But it was the subscribers to the Opera who had the last word. ”Benvenuto Cellini” was ”dragged to execution” , as Berlioz put it, partly because it was sabotaged by a backstage cabal, and partly because it was too dazzling, too difficult, to fit into any of the established operatic categories. Even today, when everyone agrees that Cellini is a great opera , it is still the odd-man out of the French repertoire.
The fiasco drove him back to the concert hall. Thanks to Paganini’s princely gift of twenty-thousand francs, he was able to take time off from article writing and concentrate his energies on the ”sublime and ever novel theme ” of Romeo and Juliet It was his first breathing spell in five years. ”I worked seven months at my symphony, not leaving off more than three of four days out of every thirty on any pretense whatever. And during all that time, how ardently did I live!”
The result is a ”dramatic symphony” in which the classicism of his sound and the romanticism of his subject are perfectly counter balanced. It is a work of pure music , without scenery or costumes; an opera for the imagination, rather than a literal reconstruction of the play. Written for a generation that had rediscovered Shakespeare as the essence of romantic fantasy, it conveys mood and character by translating the story into a series of musical metaphors. ”So you know nothing of Romeo?” Berlioz chafed one of his friends. ”I do ask you sit down patiently and hatch out the adagio, and if sooner or later you don’t see Shakespeare’s two lovers come forth, if you don’t see the moonlight shining through the trees in Capulet’s garden, if the duet sung by the violins and cellos, if the interminable farewells at the end, if all the palpitations, if all the embraces, if the devastating forte in E in double chords, do not wring your heart- strings, then the truth is you are a triple bound member of the Institute.”
Meanwhile, at home in Montmartre, Berlioz and the erstwhile Juliet were acting out the familiar tragicomedy of the aging wife and the handsome husband whose career puts him in easy reach of temptation. Harriet, grown plump and alchoholic, pursued her husband with a jealousy born of despair. At last he slipped off on a tour of Germany, where he thought his music would do better than in Paris, leaving a note on the mantlepiece. ”But I did not go alone, ” he confesses sheepishly. ”I had a traveling companion.”
Marie Recio, his French-Spanish mistress, was a singer in her twenties whose figure was more admired than her voice. “She yowls like a cat,” Berlioz once told the pianist Ferdinand Hiller in strict confidence. ”That would not altogether be a misfortune if she had not the unhappy ambition to sing at all my concerts.” To keep the peace, he was obliged to make a place for her on his programs. ”And to sing what?” asks Legouve maliciously. ”To sing his music, his melodies! And he had to give way; he who was driven mad by one false note, who was made really ill by one false rhythm; he had to consent to hear his own works misrepresented, to conduct the very pieces in which he was being assassinated as a composer.” Yet her other qualities were evidently more endearing, and after Harriet’s death Marie became the second Madame Berlioz.
”The failure of Benvenuto Cellini at the Paris Opéra in September 1838 was a major setback in Berlioz’s career – henceforward the doors of the Opéra were more or less closed to him, and one of his most vital and inventive scores was never again performed in Paris in his lifetime. Subsequently his friend and champion Liszt staged the work successfully in Weimar in 1852 and again in 1856, but in a revised version. The modifications that Berlioz made for these performances contained some improvements but also sacrificed some fine music from the original version, and considerable changes were made to the sequence of scenes of the original second Act (which now became Act III, while Act I was subdivided into two Acts).
The overture, published separately already in 1839, is dedicated to Berlioz’s friend Ernest Legouvé; as Berlioz relates in his Memoirs, Legouvé had provided Berlioz with a loan of 2,000 francs at a crucial moment in the composition of the work, and this enabled him to complete the opera. The overture became quickly a successful concert piece which Berlioz performed in Paris and in his concert tours abroad, including a performance at St Petersburg in November 1867 during his last trip to Russia. It was the most brilliant concert overture he had written so far, remarkable for its imaginative and varied orchestral writing, its rhythmic vitality and its abundant melodic inspiration. The version known nowadays represents the result of rewriting by Berlioz – there survives a copy from the archives of the Paris Opéra of an earlier version, similar to the final version but with numerous differences in detail and orchestration, and longer by nearly fifty bars. As often, Berlioz’s second thoughts were more effective by being more concise.” ( hberlioz.com)