Hector Berlioz: Shakespeare Fan Club President
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is best known for his orchestral masterpiece Symphonie Fantastique (1830), which is known to be a work of profoundly autobiographical nature, in part due to a disastrous romance and marriage between the composer and an Irish actress named Harriet Smithson, famed for her portrayal of Shakespearean characters.
The connection to Smithson eventually ended, but Berlioz’ interest in Shakespeare seems to have lasted for the rest of his life. Berlioz was in fact an ardent devotee of literature, writing compositions to works by a diverse group of authors ranging from the classical Roman poet Virgil, Les Troyens, to Romantics like Byron, Harold in Italy; and Goethe, Damnation of Faust; as well as Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet and his last completed work, the opera Beatrice and Benedict (1862). In fact, Berlioz had apparently been contemplating a work based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing since at least 1833, the year he and Harriet married. Nonetheless, it would be nearly three decades before the idea came to realization, as the libretto written by Berlioz became the basis for the opera, now called Beatrice and Benedict, named for the two reluctant lovers from Shakespeare’s original story.
As dramatic as the Harriet Smithson episode was in Berlioz’ life, his music takes drama to a new level. Known for his brilliant use of orchestral color and bold, descriptive themes, Beatrice and Benedict is considered a true masterpiece, despite its relatively infrequent appearance on the operatic stage. The story, adapted from Shakespeare’s comedy, focuses on the characters of Beatrice and Benedict who enjoy taunting and torturing one another as they deny the possibility of romance between them. Of course, the story ends with the two marrying subsequent to plotting by friends and family who think the tormentors are actually destined for one another.
Following the original run of the opera in Baden-Baden, Berlioz, himself a music critic in Paris for a time, recalled that Parisian critics attending a performance obliviously commented that they “found the spoken dialogue lacking in wit. To which the composer commented: The spoken dialogue is taken almost word for word from Shakespeare’s text…” The Overture to Beatrice and Benedict, H. 138, has become a staple of orchestral concerts due to its colorful orchestration and lively character. The musical themes are derived from the opera, but the overture does not function as a kind of musical synopsis, instead Berlioz uses a few contrasting ideas to create a work that both stands alone as a concert overture and serves as prelude to the opera.