Béatrice et Bénédict: Berlioz’s Neglected Comedy

Hector_Berlioz,_Béatrice_et_Bénédict_score_title_page_-_RestorationBéatrice et Bénédict, Hector Berlioz’s two act opéra comique adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, isn’t exactly a staple of the modern opera repertoire. It gets occasional performances, but is commonly overshadowed by more famous Shakespeare-based operas: Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, and Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

But Béatrice et Bénédict was a smash hit when it premiered at the the Theater der Stadt in the German spa town of Baden-Baden on August 9, 1862. Berlioz referred to the opera as “A caprice written with the point of a needle.” Its sparkling score comes to life with a uniquely vivacious energy. At the same time, the forward motion of the plot occasionally gives way to atmospheric moments of serene, otherworldly beauty. Berlioz biographer David Cairns writes, “Listening to the score’s exuberant gaiety, only momentarily touched by sadness, one would never guess that its composer was in pain when he wrote it and impatient for death.”

The opera’s libretto, written by Berlioz, simplifies Shakespeare’s play, eliminating subplots in order to emphasize the relationship between the title characters. As the first act opens, the citizens of the Sicilian town of Messina have gathered to welcome home the victorious army of Don Pedro of Aragon, following a successful battle campaign against the Moors. Héro eagerly awaits the return of her fiancé, Claudio. Meanwhile, Béatrice greets the returning Bénédict in a strikingly different way. The two take great pleasure in trading insults, masking their mutual attraction. In the opening of Berlioz’s Overture we can hear the couple playfully hurtling verbal barbs at one another. It’s a musical cat and mouse game which is constantly throwing us witty curve balls. We hear this “needling” opening motive throughout the overture, sometimes as teasing and taunting background interjections (listen around 4:12 and 6:13). The music which follows suggests the farcical trickery of the plot, which includes “accidentally” overheard conversations. But we also get a sense of the supernatural lurking underneath…the mystery and eternal beauty of a still summer night and a hint of Nuit paisible et serene! (“Peaceful and Good Night!”), the nocturne duet which concludes the first act.

Here is Colin Davis’ 2005 recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle:

Kathleen Battle battle sings Je vais le voir, Héro’s quietly majestic aria from the opening of the first act. Héro awaits the return of Claudio, their marriage and their trouble-free life ahead:

Sylvia McNair and Catherine Robbin sing Nuit paisible et serene! (“Peaceful and Good Night!”), the nocturnal duet of Héro and Ursule at the end of the first act. The duet embodies a “French sound” which seems to subtly anticipate everything from Léo Delibes’ Flower Duet from Lakme (1883) to Gabriel Faure’s Pavane, Op. 50 (1887).

Human follies evaporate as Héro and Ursule comment on the serene, moonlit night, the faint hum of insects in a nearby meadow, and the gentle sound of wind rustling through the trees. From the brief opening recitative, which strangely suggests the vocal purity of baroque opera, Berlioz’ orchestration draws us into the stillness of the night. As the curtain falls on Act 1, the music fades into the night…

  • Find Colin Davis’ recording of the Béatrice et Bénédict Overture with the Dresden Staatskapelle at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Kathleen Battle’s recording, French Opera Arias at iTunes, Amazon
  • The third clip, featuring Sylvia McNair and Catherine Robbin comes from a recording of the entire opera with John Nelson conducting Opéra de Lyon. Find at Amazon.

Schubert’s “Great” Ninth Symphony

schubertChairSymphony No. 9…Throughout music history, this title has occupied a mythic place in the collective imagination. The symphonic output of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvořák, and Mahler culminated with a ninth symphony. In one way or another, all of these works, written in the final years of their composers’ lives, move beyond the ordinary into strange, mysterious and transcendent territory. They stand as awe-inspiring musical revelations.

To be fair, some of these composers wrote slightly more or less than nine symphonies. Anton Bruckner died without completing the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Yet, as the final, soft chords of its “Farewell to Life” Adagio fade away, the symphony feels strangely complete. When Franz Schubert died at the tragically young age of 31, he left behind a piano score for what would have become his Tenth Symphony. Sketched during the final weeks of Schubert’s life, the score wasn’t authenticated until the 1970s. Brian Newbould attempted to complete and orchestrate the symphony (listen here). Gustav Mahler completed the first, haunting Adagio movement of a Tenth Symphony before he died in 1911.

Arnold Schoenberg captured the mythic aura of the “ninth symphony” in this excerpt from an essay about Mahler:

It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.

Which brings us back to Schubert’s Ninth…Sketched during the summer of 1825, a year after the completion of Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony, the “Great” C major Symphony was a radical departure from the small-scale elegant charm of Schubert’s earlier classical symphonies. The nickname, “The Great” was intended to differentiate the work from the “Little” Symphony No. 6 in C major. Schubert’s Ninth rose to the new, heroic scale of Beethoven’s symphonies. But while Beethoven’s music developed in bursts of short motivic cells, Schubert, the composer of over 600 songs, tended to perceive music melodically.

Perhaps due to its length and the technical demands it placed on musicians, the Ninth Symphony was neglected in the immediate years after Schubert’s death. It wasn’t until 1838, ten years after the composer’s death, that Robert Schumann discovered the manuscript and brought it to Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted a performance at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on March 21, 1839. Schubert’s Ninth Symphony would serve as a profound inspiration for Schumann’s own symphonic aspirations.

A Brief Listeners’ Guide

The first movement opens with an expansive introduction which contains a miniature exposition, development and recapitulation, suggesting Sonata form within the movement’s larger Sonata form structure. The opening theme, which returns triumphantly in the culminating bars of the coda, first emerges as a solitary line played by the horns. As the music develops, allow your ear to drift down to the pizzicato pulse in the low strings. Feel the motion. Stay tuned to the increasing complexity of this sparkling underlying rhythmic motor and the occasional “three against two” rhythms.

Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is full of musical conversations between groups, or “choirs” of instruments. Listen to the way the theme is passed around the orchestra between 0:56 and 3:32 in the clip below. Consider the personas suggested by each group of instruments. The trombones, long associated with the supernatural, rise to a new level of prominence in this symphony. Up until this point, trombones had usually remained in the background, outlining chords. In the Ninth Symphony, for the first time, the three trombones function melodically, adding a powerful and heroic new voice to the mix (6:24, 8:10 and 11:45 in the recapitulation).

Key relationships are also important in this music. In Schubert’s case these often involve modulations built on thirds. Listen for those incredible moments when we’re suddenly whisked off to a surprising new key (the exposition’s second theme at the 5:14 mark, the beginning of the development section at 5:15 and the passage between 10:38 and 10:47).

Here is Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden:

  1. Andante. Allegretto ma non troppo, Più moto (0:00)
  2. Andante con moto (14:42)
  3. Scherzo. Allegro vivace -Trio (30:36)
  4. Allegro vivace (41:33)

The second movement begins with a jaunty melody which alternates between A minor and C major. But just beneath the surface, an interesting drama is about to unfold. The music suggests a subtle sense of impending conflict and danger. At 16:19 we hit a “brick wall” and the music falls back into line. This musical stop sign occurs throughout the movement and each time the music retreats…until it doesn’t. The intense conflict comes to a head at the movement’s climax (23:48), where we’re suddenly thrust over the edge into new, ferocious territory. At this moment, we hear sounds which would have been unimaginable in an elegant classical symphony. When it’s over there’s a terrifying moment of silence…and then the music resumes. As you listen to the conclusion of the second movement, consider whether this ominous sense of conflict has been resolved, or if it has simply subsided to return another day.

The final movement opens with flourishes which may bring to mind the trumpet calls of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Keep listening and you may hear echoes of the Ode to Joy from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony…a fitting spiritual connection for two earth shatteringly powerful ninth symphonies.

Featured Recordings

Here are a few prominent recordings of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Please share your thoughts about the music and your own favorite recordings in the comment thread below.

Rienzi in Dresden

Last year, conductor Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden gave this electrifying performance of Wagner’s Rienzi Overture. Take a moment and listen:

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I love the way this overture grows out of a single trumpet call. The music slowly awakens, searching for a direction forward. Then, suddenly it opens up into one of Wagner’s most noble and majestic melodies (1:19).

Premiering in Dresden in 1842, Rienzi was Wagner’s first big hit as an opera composer. Seeds of his more mature works can be heard here, as well as the influence of Carl Maria von Weber (Overture to Euryanthe). In 1859 Franz Liszt wrote a Fantasy on Motifs of Rienzi for solo piano.

Learn more about Rienzi and read the synopsis here.

Dresden-Altstadt von der Marienbruecke-II