Love and Death, Berlioz and Wagner

Berlioz - Roméo et Juliette, ‘Romeo Alone: Grand Banquet Scene’

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde, ‘Prelude and Liebestod’

The connection between the two works here has made music history. In 1839, a 26-year-old Wagner heard Berlioz conducting Roméo et Juliette in Paris, and in his own words, he felt like a “little schoolboy next to Berlioz”:

“For me this was a new world, and while under the impression I wanted to formulate a completely objective view of the work. The power and virtuosity of the orchestra were something I had never dreamed of, and at first I was completely stunned. The fantastic daring, the sharp precision, the boldness of the combinations, almost tangible in their immediacy, all this impressed me, and my own ideas about the musical and poetic experience were brutally forced back in me. … What is certain is that at that time I felt like a little schoolboy next to Berlioz” (Mein Leben)

The interactions between the two contemporary masters is excellently documented here. In short, Wagner maintained his acknowledgement of Berlioz’s genius and his influence on Wagner’s own compositions throughout much of his life. Berlioz, on the other hand, almost deliberately distanced himself from his German counterpart of “unsound mind”. There is not much point in asking why that is the case, as so many personal and non-musical factors are at play here, resembling the dynamics between Strauss and Mahler nearly half a century later.

One thing is certain, though: after the opening phrase of Tristan und Isolde, there is no question where this comes from - it was copied almost bar for bar from the ‘Romeo Alone’ scene from Berlioz’ opera. The similarity doesn’t stop here. The later ‘Adagio’ (‘Love’ scene) of Roméo et Juliette also anticipates the leitmotif Wagner used throughout his opera. Wagner himself wasn’t shy about the borrowing, and he sent a copy of the Tristan score to Berlioz in 1860 with the following inscription:

“To the dear and great author of Roméo et Juliette

- from the grateful author of Tristan und Isolde.”

Sadly, Berlioz, despite having studied the score in great detail, didn’t really leave any comment on the apparent influence of his own work upon it, and that was the end of the matter. He died in 1869, 3 years before Wagner laid the inauguration stone of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. He therefore would never have foreseen or, to put it bluntly, have wanted to see how much of an influence Tristan would have on virtually every major composer that came after Wagner. It was held up as the “peak of operatic art, the opera of operas, the incunabulum, the key work”, to borrow Christian Thielemann’s words (Thielemann is one of the foremost Wagner conductors today and a regular contributor to the Bayreuth Festival).

The stories of the two works are strikingly similar. Both have the eternal themes of love and death woven through them; both start with a young lady already engaged to a powerful man, only to discover her true love with a surprise newcomer almost on first sight; in both, the male protagonist dies first, followed shortly by the female protagonist (although whether Isolde died or not is still debatable); and both finish off the show with some sort of reconciliation and transfiguration. Of course, neither of the composers wrote the stories themselves: Berlioz had been much taken with Shakespeare since his youth, and Wagner was inspired by Gottfried von Strassburg’s re-telling of the medieval legend (and his own affair with his patron’s wife, Mathilde Wesendonck).

No less importantly, both works exerted a heavy toll on the poor orchestral musicians who had the bad luck of premiering them. Berlioz invented the practice of sectional rehearsals on the occasion of Roméo’s premiere at the Paris Conservatoire; Wagner would spend more than 5 years lobbying for resources to stage his opera, which was only made possible by the arrival of his saviour, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The “power and virtuosity of the orchestra” that Wagner felt in Berlioz can be traced back to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which provided the model of the choral symphony for Berlioz. Both composers are excellent orchestrators and put the huge force to best use to create colour and narrative for the drama.

The so-called ‘Tristan chord’ that first appears in the ‘Prelude’, which is extensively discussed on the Internet (e.g. here and here), was not Wagner’s invention but was nevertheless an important byproduct of the opera that indicates the master’s inclination to chromaticism. Once again it has its shadow in the opening phrase of the ‘Roméo Alone’ scene, but obviously this time Wagner went a step further; instead of resolving it immediately in the ‘Prelude’, Wagner only releases the tension 4.5 hours later at the end of the opera, in the ‘Liebestod’. This kind of suspension of harmony was unheard of in Wagner’s time and paved the way for Mahler, Strauss, and Schoenberg to come.

Wagner (sitting centre left) and friends around the time of the premiere of  Tristan und Isolde . While Hans von Bülow (standing behind Wagner) was relentlessly rehearsing the ensemble for the opera partially inspired by Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck a few years ago, Wagner himself was having another affair with Mrs. Bülow, better known as Cosima Wagner later in music history. Talk about drama...

Wagner (sitting centre left) and friends around the time of the premiere of Tristan und Isolde. While Hans von Bülow (standing behind Wagner) was relentlessly rehearsing the ensemble for the opera partially inspired by Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck a few years ago, Wagner himself was having another affair with Mrs. Bülow, better known as Cosima Wagner later in music history. Talk about drama...

Oh, did we mention that Berlioz wrote another major piece inspired by the same Shakespeare play? The Fidelio Orchestra will be playing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique in November 2019. Stay tuned!