Berlioz, Hector


Berlioz, Hector

Les Troyens (in two volumes with French libretto)

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Hector Berlioz – Les Troyens

(b. La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, 11 December 1803 – d. Paris, 8 March 1869)

The classical works of literature assimilated in the nineteenth century included not only those by recent or contemporary authors, but quite naturally the writings of Antiquity. Just as the imitation of ancient models formed part of academic training at art academies, a deep and profitable engagement with similar subjects took place in music, at least from the Classical Period and well into Post-Modernism. The legends surrounding The Iliad and The Odyssey regularly received musical settings, whether instrumental or vocal. But as these subjects gradually disappeared from general education, so did the corresponding works vanish both from the consciousness of the population and from the world’s music programs.
One work that did not have to share this fate was Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Even as a child, Berlioz developed a passion for Virgil’s Aeneid. The characters in this epic – Dido, Aeneas, and Cassandra – accompanied him throughout his life as companions in spirit. Again and again he toyed with the thought of writing an opera on the fall of Troy and the birth of Rome. But for a long time he baulked at the thought, doubting that such a work would ever be accepted at the Paris Opéra. In 1855, buoyed by the success of his oratorio L’enfance du Christ, he visited Weimar, where he found an advocate for his Virgil project in Franz Liszt’s lady-friend, Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein. Full of enthusiasm, Berlioz promptly set to work in the early part of 1856 and completed it on 12 April 1858 (once again, as with Béatrice et Bénédict, he was his own librettist). The next two years were spent refining and perfecting the score. However, he only experienced parts of the work in performance. When the work was premièred at Paris’s Théâtre-Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet on 4 November 1863, under the title Les Troyens à Carthage all that was heard were Acts III to V, augmented by a new Prologue and with Act III severely abridged. Nonetheless, the work achieved considerable success with a run of twenty-two performances, enabling the composer to abandon his taxing work as a music critic. Yet he had to live with an almost unbearable compromise: he had written his work for the Opéra, the only theater in Paris with adequate stage machinery and décor. “The theater,” he wrote to his friend Humbert Ferrand on 4 June 1863 in the runup to the première at the Théâtre-Lyrique, “is neither large nor wealthy enough to stage La Prise de Troie.” The première of Acts I and II did not take place until some fifteen years later, when they were given at the Cirque d’Hiver on 7 December 1879, albeit in concert performance. It was a good twenty years after Berlioz’s death that Felix Mottl finally presented the complete opera at the Court Theater in Karlsruhe, but even then it was spread over two evenings (6 and 7 December 1890). There it remained in the repertoire for ten years, alongside Berlioz’s other two operas, Benvenuto Cellini and Béatrice et Bénédict. The first performance of the opera on a single evening took place in Stuttgart on 18 May 1913.
It was only after the Second World War that the victory march of Les Troyens actually got underway. In 1947 Sir Thomas Beecham made the first complete recording of the opera at the BBC, with Jean Giraudeau as Aeneas and Marisa Ferrer in the double role of Cassandre and Didon. Ever since the 1957 revival at Covent Garden (conducted by Rafael Kubelík), the first uncut performance under Alexander Gibson (Glasgow, 3 May 1969), and the first gramophone recording under Colin Davis (1969), the opera has been considered a masterpiece. The work’s final breakthrough came in 1969-70 with its publication in the New Berlioz Edition. The first complete staging in France took place in Lyons (1987), followed at long last by Paris, where it opened the Bastille Opéra in 1990.
Berlioz took his material for Les Troyens from Virgil’s Aeneid, using Aeneas’s account of the downfall of Troy in Canto II for the first two acts, and the tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas in Canto IV (with Dido’s suicide) for Acts III to V. Neither of the opera’s two heroines, Cassandre and Didon, form the main focus of Virgil’s epic; instead, Berlioz, not being beholden to patrons or commissions, designed his own highly personal view of the end of the Trojan Wars and the founding of the “new Troy,” Rome. In Les Troyens, Aeneas appears mainly as a driven man and less as a figure of action. Just how far his heroism had departed from the standard audience can be seen in Jacques Offenbach’s La belle Hélène, an opéra-bouffe premièred in December 1864 in direct response to Berlioz’s opera. It depicts the backstory to the Trojan Wars in a manner far removed from the way Virgil or any other contemporary author might have presented it.

Translation: Bradford Robinson

For performance material please contact the publisher Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden.Reprint of a copy from the Musikbibliothek der Münchner Stadtbibliothek, Munich.

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