Hector Berlioz's Greatest Opera:
"Les Troyens"

Written by Dieter Schoop


"Les Troyens" or "The Trojans" is certainly one of the most gigantic and convincing masterpieces of music-drama. This opera is Berlioz at the height of his powers. 

In 1858 when - after two years of composing - he had almost finished his monumental work, he wrote to his sister Adèle..
"I assure you that the music of "Les Troyens" is noble and grand, and that it has a poignant truthfulness...".

In the early 1990s I saw and immensely enjoyed a performance of this awe-inspiring and thrilling opera in Zurich, Switzerland. The duration of this cathedral of an artistic work is about four hours. 

The first one and a half hours depict the Trojans celebrating the end of the Greek siege of Troy that lasted for 10 years. The sound in this part is austere, electric and possessed. The scenes show how the people of Troy pull the famous Trojan horse with Greek soldiers inside it, into their city - despite the ardent warning of Cassandra - and the ensuing fall of Troy. Aeneas, a Trojan leader, escapes with sailors and ships. They sail past Greece and Sicily to Tunisia.

 

 
The second part of "Les Troyens" is set in Carthage, an ancient town in Tunisia, near the capital Tunis in north Africa. The music now is a strong contrast to the first part of the opera. Here it is lyrical, sensuous, sun-drenched and star-laden

Dido, the queen of Carthage falls in love with Aeneas, the commander of the Trojan fleet. But just when his troops are happy to stay in peaceful Carthage, Aeneas is pushed to follow his original dream. Therefore he and his ships leave for Italy, while Dido the heart-broken queen, commits suicide which is depicted most dramatically in Berlioz's orchestration of that scene.

 
 

The Composer about "Les Troyens"

The letters Berlioz wrote during the composition of his monumental work express a profound sense of exhilaration and fulfillment. He was conscious that the great task of his life was upon him, because all the different strands of his art were coming together for a supreme and crowning effort.

In his "Memoires" (autobiography) he explains who gave him the final incentive to start writing the opera. It was Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittengenstein, mistress of Franz Liszt. She was a great admirer of Berlioz's music. 

But first, let's see what Berlioz wrote in his "Memoires", an impressive tome of 720 pages... 

"In Weimar, Germany, while talking with the Princess, I was drawn on to speak of the idea I had conceived of a vast opera, based on the 'Aeneid' (epic poem written by Virgil, 70 B.C. to 19 B.C.).

I added that I knew too well the miseries such an undertaking must bring me, even to attempt it. The Princess replied 'But your passion combined with this love of classical antiquity would be sure to produce something new and splendid. Come, you must write this opera!'

I continued to make objections. "Listen, " she said, "if you shrink from the difficulties this work may and must bring you, if you are so feeble as to be afraid to face everything for Dido and Cassandra, then never come back here - I refuse to see you again." Whereupon Berlioz wrote: "On my return to Paris I set to work to write the verses for my lyric poem"... which he did before composing the music.

 
   

Berlioz's Letters During The Time He Composed "The Trojans"

July, 1856 to the Princess...
"Would you believe it - I have fallen in love, utterly in love, with the Queen of Carthage I adore her, this beautiful Dido."

August, 1856 to the Princess...
"Another obstacle for me in composing the music of this drama is that the feelings to be expressed move me too deeply. This is useless - one must try to be cool when the emotions are hottest."

October 1856 to his sister Adèle...
"You do not know that an extra link has been forged between us since you began to take an interest in this thing ["Les Troyens"] that torments and exalts me, that devours me, that kills me, that makes me live."

August 1857 to his sister Adèle...
"Three days ago... I went out alone early in the morning, I took my 'Trojans' manuscript, some music paper and a pencil. The landlord arranged a table for me in the shade, with a bowl of milk, kirsch, and suger, and I worked there peacefully, with the splendid landscape spread out before me, till nine in the evening. I was writing a chorus [the opening of the third act], the words of which were appropriate to the scene: 'Has such a day been seen before after so terrible a storm? What a gentle breeze!'"

November 1857 to the Princess...
"I live in my score like La Fontaine's rat in the cheese, if you will pardon the comparison. I am about to begin the fifth act and go at it with a concentrated passion which seems to grow the more it is satisfied. What value will it all be given in the end?... Only God knows. Never shall I forget, Princess, that it is to you and to you alone that I owe the extraordinary pleasure that this labour of composition has brought me."

February 1858 to his son Louis (serving in the French merchant navy)...
I have added a character piece which is intended to contrast with the epic, passionate style of the rest. It's a sailor's song. [In the harbour of Carthage the sailor Hylas sings as he rocks at the masthead of a ship.] I thought of you, dear Louis, when I wrote it, and I send you the words.

April 1859 to his friend Humbert Ferrand...
Passion abounds in the score of "Les Troyens".

August 1859 to the Princess (after completing the opera in 1858)...
The stupid opposition of those idiots in charge of the Opéra (in Paris) is breaking my heart..."
 

Summary

The last sentence above explains the resistance that the genius of Berlioz encountered from the so-called "musical experts" in Paris. Berlioz mentions in his "Memoires" that he had actual enemies in the Opéra who did everything to badmouth his masterpieces. 

Even in his first Opera "Benvenuto Cellini" which was performed under the composer's direction in 1838, Berlioz's enemies disturbed the performance so that it had to be interrupted. For about 130 years his operas went into oblivion because of the Parisian badmouthing of their highly imaginative and gifted composer. 

The rejection of "Les Troyens" was the final blow in a lifetime of struggles against a largely hostile or indifferent musical environment in Paris. Not so however in Russia and Germany where Berlioz enjoyed some great successes conducting his own works.

Luckily, since 1969 when  "The Trojans" was first performed in almost its original form at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London, the Western world experienced a great revival of Berlioz's romantic compositions in general.

I hope you will be able to hear this opera live one day and I'm sure you will be moved to the center of your musical soul.

 


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