27 Oct 2005

ALBRIGHT: Berlioz's Semi-Operas

This book examines two of the more interesting musical pieces of the Romantic movement: Romeo et Juliette (1839) and La damnation de Faust (1846). Both were composed by Hector Berlioz (1803-69), and were very much constructed in a Gesamtkunstwerk mode where literature, music, and the other arts are fused together in a hybrid style that defies genre and categorization.

In most of his large-scale works, Berlioz usually followed traditional forms and genres; in these two semi-operas, as the author calls them, experimentation with form and presentation are much more obvious, and this book assists the reader in following the literary and musical adaptations through history of these two texts by Shakespeare and Goethe, illustrating how Berlioz followed and built upon the composers and authors who set these two texts prior to his own compositional settings.

The author realizes that the term semi-opera refers to English opera of the later seventeenth century (according to Henry Purcell’s contemporary Roger North), but there just doesn’t seem to be another genre-term that comes closest to Berlioz’s style in these two compositions: drama that has been wrestled into music, through a strange array of disconnected scenes, where the composer has taken parts of the literary text that stimulated his creative thought and set them to music either vocally or as orchestral pieces. Berlioz, and the French public as well, had a hard time with Shakespearean and German drama. Berlioz was willing to experiment with the challenges of dramatically moving these texts into French theatre and opera, and as a result produced a kind of hybrid music drama that perhaps comes closer to the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk than even Wagner was able to do.

The book takes three chapters each to examine the histories and settings of these two texts. Romeo and Juliet is explored first, looking at Shakespeare’s background and inspiration for this text; the work is then discussed in relation to its expression from the time of Shakespeare up until the nineteenth century; finally the text is discussed in relation to Berlioz’s dramatic manifestation and musical composition. Goethe’s Faust is approached in the same way, from its creation, through the time period up until the nineteenth century, and then Berlioz’s realization of the text through music and drama.

This is a wonderful, concise, and compact discussion of two interesting and complex musical works of the Romantic period, exploring the historical and dramatic backgrounds of two of the more popular literary stories in human history. While written from the scholarly perspective, this book is easy to read and not overly technical in its presentation.

Dr. Brad Eden
University of Nevada, Las Vegas