Berlioz, Wagner, love

January 16th I promised to explore connections between Berlioz’s Les Troyens (an opera I’d been obsessing over) to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, currently sharing the Canadian Opera Company stage with Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.  When music stays inside your head it’s sometimes natural to see links with what follows, as though our experiences were a journey.

Sorry I’m late.  I wasn’t waylaid on that path, just distracted by the show I’m in.

I also associate Troyens to my current craze, namely Clemenza di Tito.  You see something you love, wondering why it wasn’t more influential.  Clemenza is another cul-de-sac rather than a seminal creation, just like Troyens.  For whatever reason, composers have looked elsewhere for influences, possibly because neither opera was presented enough to become truly popular (indeed Troyens was not presented in its completed form in the century after its composition).   “Classical” is a word apt for the subjects (Titus and Aeneas), the sources (Suetonius for Mozart, Vergil for Berlioz) but also the retro treatment of the materials.  Tristan of course is hugely influential and modernist rather than neo-classical.

Today will be the first of the series connecting Troyens to Tristan.  Thursday is Valentine’s Day, when we declare our love for one another with the help of the greeting card industry.  Or we could turn to one of these composers.

Reproduced with permission from

Berlioz had the oddest relationship to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  He’d seen Harrriet Smithson as Juliet, a woman who consumed him on and off for years.  This is the woman who inspired the composer to write Symphonie Fantastique, a piece celebrating an obsessive love affair.  When Berlioz composed his own version of Romeo and Juliet there’s a lot more Romeo than Juliet.  His romantic imagination celebrates the story through his identification with this tale, and I can’t help thinking that this means Berlioz sitting in the audience staring at Smithson’s beauty.

But the love music Berlioz wrote –titled “scène d’amour”—is among the most convincing non-verbal depictions of the intimate moments between lovers I’ve ever encountered in classical musical.  While there are parts of this dramatic symphony that are sung, I like the fact that Berlioz chose not to attempt anything vocal for such a delicate portrait.

Wagner? It’s hard to compare, because of course Tristan und Isolde is an opera.  Here’s a chance to hear something roughly comparable in the story, namely a moment of intimacy. 

I wrote about it awhile ago (and notice that Wagner acknowledges his debt to Berlioz).  I’d thought i would say much more here, but no, I’ve said enough.

Listen to the music.

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