Music Smashed to Pieces: The Destructive Logic of Berlioz's Romeo au tombeau

Rodgers, Stephen

Berlioz's Romeo au tombeau des Capulets, the sixth movement of his symphony Romeo et Juliette, is arguably his most controversial programmatic work and one of the most baffling pieces of program music in the repertoire. When the symphony premiered in 1839, Berlioz's instrumental setting of the tomb scene from Shakespeare's play (with David Garrick's ending, in which Juliet wakes before Romeo dies) was criticized for being incoherent because it had no conventional formal scheme, used avant-garde musical language, and boasted drastic shifts in style and mood. It was also criticized for being too literal because of its blatant musical depictions of dramatic
acts, including Romeo's drink from the vial of poison and Juliet's suicidal stab. Jules Maurel called the piece a "mistake" and argued that one would need "a stage, scenery, tombs, theatrical half-light, and people speaking and acting" to understand it (Maurel 1839).Modern listeners have been kinder than Berlioz's contemporaries. Scholars today tend to agree that Romeo au tombeau is not a "mistake" but a meaningful, if difficult, work that deserves to be taken seriously, but there is no consensus about how to make sense of it.



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Columbia University
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October 8, 2014