Daniel Harding conducts Berlioz’s “Roméo et Juliette”

14 Sep 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniel Harding

Kate Lindsey, Andrew Staples, Shenyang, Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Hector Berlioz
    Roméo et Juliette, Dramatic Symphony, op. 17 (106 min.)

    Kate Lindsey mezzo-soprano, Andrew Staples tenor, Shenyang bass baritone, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars chorus master

  • free

    Daniel Harding in conversation with Sarah Willis (23 min.)

“My dear friend, Beethoven being dead, only Berlioz can make him live again; and I who have heard your divine compositions humbly beg you to accept, as a token of my homage, twenty thousand francs.” None other than the violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, often described by his contemporaries as miserly, addressed these lines to Hector Berlioz in 1838. He in turn felt honoured and pleased – in his time, he was notoriously broke. He was above all glad about the considerable financial donation. “After paying off my debts, I was still left with a large sum of money, and I thought only of using it for musical purposes,” the composer chronicled in later years. “After hesitating for quite some time, I settled on a symphony with chorus and vocal soloists.”

Thus the idea of Roméo et Juliette was born. For seven months, according to his own testimony, Berlioz worked on the piece inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy, which he named a “Symphonie dramatique” after completing the score. In fact, the composition does not constitute a cantata or opera concertante, but rather is aligned by Berlioz with the tradition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: as a cyclical instrumental composition that expands classical boundaries by using vocal voices. Thus, one can read in the foreword to the score of Roméo et Juliette: “The reason there is singing almost from the start is to prepare the listener’s mind for the dramatic scenes where the feelings and passions are to be expressed by the orchestra.” Putting it simply, one could say today: the programme is not to be read in an accompanying brochure, but rather is composed into the work in the form of solo voices and choir. This also explains why key moments of the Shakespearean action, such as for instance the famous balcony scene, are structured not as operatic vocal numbers, but as instrumental atmospheric pictures. In his memoirs, Berlioz pointed out the difficulties “inherent in the form and in the style” and emphasised that for a performance of Roméo et Juliette one would need above all “first-rate performers”.

And these will without a doubt be mustered when Daniel Harding, who was promoted as a young man by Sir Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado and is now acclaimed on all concert stages around the world, brings Berliozʼs unique composition to life at the Musikfest Berlin with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Rundfunkchor Berlin and renowned vocal soloists.

Descend, o night of love

Some observations on Hector Berlioz’s dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette

Love? There is nothing more wonderful, better, more sublime. Love is the only real thing in real life and, even if it were imaginary, the – in Hegelian terms – true whole and thus also the whole truth: the goal of all earthly striving, being and becoming. The problem with this is that one does not necessarily always fall in love with the right person. That was also true of the most famous case in literary and dramatic history, William Shakespeare’s play with the wonderfully melodious title An Excellent conceited Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, first published in 1597. It is a primal tale of sorts: two people love each other with all their innocent, pure hearts. But fateful social circumstances dictate that their union dare not and will not have a future: the Veronese families of Montague and Capulet are such bitter enemies that reconciliation has no chance, much less any form of affection. Unless it is a love that ends in death.

A new form of imaginary theatre

The subject matter is naturally a perfect opportunity for the opera and ballet stage; it is no wonder that several composers took on the tragic story and adapted it as they saw fit. Hector Berlioz chose an entirely different approach: he planned his version of Romeo and Juliet as a “dramatic symphony, with choruses, vocal solos and prologue with choral recitative”. The work on this opulent, 100-minute opus, which dragged on for several months in 1839, must have made enormous demands on its composer; at least that is how the relevant passage in his extravagant and dazzlingly colourful literary Memoirsreads: “I worked on my symphony for seven months, not leaving off for more than three or four days out of every thirty on any pretence whatsoever. And during all that time how ardently did I live! How vigorously I struck out in that grand sea of poetry caressed by the playful breeze of fancy, beneath the hot rays of that sun of love which Shakespeare kindled, always confident of my power to reach the marvellous island where stands the temple of true art.”

Formally, Roméo et Juliette is a seven-movement work which exhibits several robust tendrils and ornate garlands within this structure, however. The somewhat Janus-faced entrée is an instrumental overture (Introduction) in gloomily shadowed B minor, during which important strands of the plot are vividly depicted through purely musical means. The fighting between the feuding parties, an energetic fugato at the opening, develops into a veritable Grand Guignol – a grotesque horror show; the intervention of the prince is a massive brass chorale in the vigorously luminous key of B major. It is followed by an expansive, delicately scored choral recitative (Prologue), which not only anticipates the main themes of the subsequent instrumental sections, but also assumes an important dramaturgical function within the overall plan. Basically, the entire story is outlined here as in a musico-dramatic narrative, including the social conflict situation – the hatred between the Montague and Capulet families –, the burning love of the young Romeo for the equally youthful Juliet and the hopelessness of their naively sentimental venture. The symphonic spirit of the work is expanded in the second movement, first in the form of a chromatically tinged symphonic poem entitled “Romeo alone” (Andante), later ending with the brisk vehemence, strong accents and lively banter of the “Festivities at the Capulets” (Allegro).

At the beginning of the third movement, the voices of the high-spirited Capulets fade away on the streets of Verona (double chorus offstage) before the magnificent three-part “Love Scene” is heard: a string Adagio of almost Mahlerian character with a conspicuously subdued, only rarely brightened fundamental mood, suggesting the tenderness and vulnerability of the bond between the two lovers. Like icing on the cake of a fantasy in the spirit of E. T. A. Hoffmann, the fourth movement is a wild orchestral scherzo (Queen Mab), which not only thematically but also habitually and semantically is clearly reminiscent of Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon and Felix Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

From here the story takes a giant leap directly into the tomb of the Capulets. During the following three movements, we first witness a solemn procession to Juliet’s supposed burial (Funeral Cortège). If we imagine this moment not only as musical, but also staged reality, this passage seems to be an extremely daring turn of events, since Juliet is still alive at this point. The musical idiom of the vocal-instrumental intermezzo closely resembles the character of the Prologue; psalm-like tones dominate and noble pathos prevails when the chorus leans, as it were, over the (seemingly) dead Juliet and expresses its sympathy: “Cast down flowers for the dead maiden! Follow our beloved sister to the grave!”

The sixth movement of the choral symphony, described by its composer as an “instrumental scene”, is set in that very place, at the grave: “Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets”. A passionate, fiery introduction is followed by an Invocation in C sharp minor, which through purely musical means vividly depicts Romeo’s dismay at the sight of the supposedly dead Juliet, then evokes her awakening (the song of the clarinet recalls the first meeting of the lovers in the love scene) as well as the resulting, almost wild, ecstasy (Delirious joy), which moments later turns into overwhelming despair. With a grand gesture, Berlioz then portrays the horrible mortal fear of the two lovers until the scene inevitably ends with the heart-wrenching love-death.

The oratorio within the symphony begins, in a sense, with the seventh movement, at this intersection and ostensible end. As in the Introduction, the divided chorus (on one side the Montagues, on the other the Capulets) takes the reins and carries on an expansive dialogue with Friar Laurence, finally joining in a great paean to the power of reconciliation. Berlioz unleashes all the available forces here; in this transfiguring apotheosis Roméo et Juliette definitely resembles an oratorio, but in its structure is also clearly reminiscent of the finale from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. There as here, humanistic idealism prevails, and if one did not know that the composer of this solemn oath – with the kind permission of William Shakespeare – was Hector Berlioz, one might well assume that the lines were written by Friedrich Schiller. In any case, the bond of “tender love and brotherly friendship” is sealed. But divine help is apparently needed to burn the solemn oath into the hearts of the former enemies forever, as the penultimate sentence of the dramatic symphony declares: “And God, who holds the scales of future judgement, will write this oath in the book of forgiveness!”

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Daniel Harding, born in Oxford in 1975, began his career assisting Sir Simon Rattle at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he himself conducted for the first time in 1994. He later worked as Claudio Abbado’s musical assistant, and in 1996 became the youngest conductor to appear at the BBC Proms in London. That same year he also made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Berlin Festival, conducting works by Berlioz, Brahms and Dvořák. After appointments with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in Norway and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, he served as music director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (1997 – 2003), principal conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (2003 – 2011), music partner of the New Japan Philharmonic (2010 – 2016) and principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (2006 – 2017). Since 2007 Harding is music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. From September 2016 until summer 2019 he took on the same role with the Orchestre de Paris. In constant demand in the world’s leading centres of music, he has appeared with many internationally acclaimed orchestras and conducted opera performances in houses as prestigious as the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, Milan, the Vienna, Berlin and Munich State Operas and the Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. In 2002 Daniel Harding was awarded the title Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government and in 2012 he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra honoured him with the lifetime title of Conductor Laureate. In 2018 he was named artistic director of the Anima Mundi Festival in Pisa. As a guest conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Daniel Harding last appeared in March 2019, when he conducted three concerts with works by Charles Ives, Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler.

Kate Lindsey, born in Richmond, Virginia, studied at Indiana University and is a graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the New York Metropolitan Opera. The American mezzo-soprano, a regular guest at the world’s most prestigious opera houses, has appeared in recent seasons in the title role of Miranda (freely adapted from Shakespeare and Purcell) in the production of Katie Mitchell and Raphaël Pichon at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, as Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier) and the Prince (Cendrillon) at the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, and as Nerone in the highly acclaimed new production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea under the musical direction of William Christie at the Salzburg Festival. She also made her role debut as Sister Helen in Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking and took on the role of the Muse/Nicklausse (Les Contes d’Hoffmann) at LA Opera and at the London Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. As Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro), she returned to the Wiener Staatsoper. She also sang Hänsel in Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel at De Nationale Opera in Amsterdam and Dorabella in a new production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Aix-en-Provence festival. In addition, Kate Lindsey has performed at the Wiener Staatsoper, Santa Fe Opera, Los Angeles Opera, at the Opéra de Lille, at the Bayerische Staastsoper in Munich and at the Glyndebourne Festival. As a concert singer she has appeared with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Baroque and Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, and worked together with well-known conductors such as James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Emmanuelle Haïm, Jérémie Rhorer and Franz Welser-Möst. Her numerous awards include the Richard F. Gold Career Grant, the George London Award, the Lincoln Center Martin E. Segal Award and a Sullivan Foundation Grant. In these concerts, Kate Lindsey makes her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Andrew Staples sang as a boy in the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London before studying music at King’s College in Cambridge. With a grant from the Britten Pears Foundation, he continued his studies at the Royal College of Music in London and at the Britten International Opera School. With a repertoire which includes works by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Britten and Tavener, Andrew Staples is a guest artist at leading opera houses and concert halls, and at renowned festivals. At the Royal Opera House in London he has appeared as Jaquino (Fidelio), Flamand (Capriccio), Tamino (Die Zauberflöte), Narraboth (Salome) and Artabenes (Arne’s Artaxerxes) among other roles there. He has also sung at the National Theatre in Prague, the Hamburg State Opera, Lyric Opera Chicago and at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni) at the Salzburg Festival. He also sang Tamino for the Lucerne Festival and in Drottningholm with Daniel Harding and most recently at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. On the concert stage, Andrew Staples has sung with orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, working with conductors such as Semyon Bychkov, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Robin Ticciati. In Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, where the singer made his debut in early February 2009, Andrew Staples was last heard in March 2019 in performances of Bach’s St John Passion, conducted by Simon Rattle.

China-born bass baritone Shenyang attracted international attention in 2007 when he won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition at the age of only 23. After studying at the conservatory in Shanghai, he graduated from the Juilliard School in New York and went through the Salzburg Festival’s Young Singers Project. He then completed the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the New York Metropolitan Opera, where he appeared in the roles of Masetto (Don Giovanni), Garibaldo (Rodelinda), Colline (La Bohème) and as the Speaker of the temple (Die Zauberflöte). As Alidoro in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, he made his debuts at the Glyndebourne Festival, at Bayerische Staastsoper in Munich, at Oper Zurich and at Washington National Opera. He also starred in the title role in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts and subsequently at Seattle Opera. Shenyang also made two critically acclaimed role debuts last season: in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden, he took on the role of Gunter for the first time; he also sang Jochanaan in concert performances of Strauss’ Salome, accompanied by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Alexander Liebreich. As a concert singer, Shenyang has performed with the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome. He has worked with conductors such as Alan Gilbert, Michael Tilson-Thomas, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Daniel Harding and Sir Antonio Pappano. Valery Gergiev invited Shenyang as a guest soloist at the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg. In addition, he is a dedicated lieder singer and has been awarded the Alice Tully Vocal Arts Award, which led to his much acclaimed New York debut in 2009 at the Lincoln Center. In concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the singer can now be heard for the first time.

With around 60 concerts annually and international guest performances, Rundfunkchor Berlin (Berlin Radio Choir) is one of the world’s foremost choruses. The exceptional breadth of its repertoire, its stylistic versatility, delight in experimentation and richly nuanced sound have made it the chosen partner of major orchestras and conductors. In Berlin the choir has long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards, document its work. With its experimental project series, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: The “human requiem”, an interactive scenic version of Brahms’s German Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig and a team of Sasha Waltz & Guests, became a milestone, with guest performances in Europe, New York, Hongkong and Australia. For its project »LUTHER dancing with the gods« the choir cooperated with director Robert Wilson in October 2017. With annual activities such as the Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people or the education programme SING! the choir invites people of various walks of life to the world of singing. Academy and Schola support the next generation of professionals. Founded in 1925 the ensemble was shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe, Robin Gritton and Simon Halsey (2001–2015). With the 2015/16 season Gijs Leenars took over as principal conductor and artistic director. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the end of August 2019 in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony conducted by Kirill Petrenko.

musikfest berlinIn co-operation with Berliner Festspiele/Musikfest Berlin

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