Saturday, October 1, 2016

Berlioz: La Mort de Cléopâtre (Colorado Symphony, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Beethoven we watched a 2012 film clip of the Colorado Symphony under conductor Andrés Cárdenes performing Berlioz’ La Mort de Cléopâtre (“The Death of Cleopatra”) with singer Michelle DeYoung, who isn’t exactly the most gorgeous or glamorous woman of all time but who gets the job done vocally. La Mort de Cléopâtre was the third of Berlioz’ four contest entries for the final of the Prix de Rome, a contest sponsored by the French government every year from 1663 (when it was established by the Sun King, Louis XIV, the one who famously said, “L’état c’est moi,” which means, “I am the state”) to 1968 (when de Gaulle’s minister of culture, André Malraux, abolished it as part of the political ferment of that year that finally brought down de Gaulle’s regime). It was initially a contest for painters and sculptors, which as Berlioz mentioned in his autobiography actually made sense because aspiring artists in those media could learn a great deal from living in Italy for three years and getting to see the masterpieces of the Renaissance in their original habitat. In 1720 a Prix de Rome for architecture was established, and music was added in 1803 and engraving in 1804. As Berlioz noted, it made no sense to send aspiring musicians to Italy as an award — not when the center of classical music (as opposed to opera) was Germany and composers could conceivably learn more from the homeland of Bach and Beethoven than from that of Leonardo and Michaelangelo — but he entered the contest anyway four times, every year from 1827 to 1830.

The rule in Berlioz’ time was that there was a separate but related contest for poets, and as soon as the poetry judges decided on the winner, the finalists would be given the award-winning poem and locked in a room, where they would set it for voice and orchestra. (Later the texts given the aspiring composers would include parts for two or three people, and the result would be more like a short opera than the cantata for single voice and orchestra the entrants were expected to come up with in Berlioz’ time.) One of Berlioz’ complaints was that, though the composers were supposed to write for orchestra, the judges would see only a voice-and-piano reduction of the orchestral score — which, Berlioz felt, handicapped him because he was proud of all the cool orchestral effects he’d thought up and which no one would ever hear unless he won, in which case as part of the prize the winning piece would be performed publicly. For his first year the text Berlioz got was La Mort d’Orphée (based on the Greek legend of the musician Orpheus, subject of some of the earliest operas ever composed), and the next year he got a piece called Herminie from which he later recycled a theme as the famous “idée fixe” (recurring theme) in his breakthrough work, the Symphonie Fantastique. Orphée failed but Herminie won second prize. His third entry, in 1829, was La Mort de Cléopâtre, which he ended unconventionally by adding a fairly long (though not particularly bombastic) orchestral coda after Cleopatra actually croaks, and that apparently put off the judges. So did his invocation of Shakespeare — at one point in the margin of his score he wrote in a quote from Romeo and Juliet, suggesting to one modern critic that as long as he was writing a piece about the death of Cleopatra he would much rather have taken his text from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra rather than the poem by Pierre-Ange Vieillard he was stuck with according to the contest rules. That may have put off the Prix de Rome judges, too; after Berlioz submitted his entry, it was rejected and no prize at all was awarded that year, one of the judges came up to Berlioz and said, “Why did you do it? We wanted to give you the prize!”

Berlioz’ own comment on the incident was a remark to his friend Adolphe Adam, composer of the ballet Giselle and the well-known Christmas song “O Holy Night,” “If they wanted us to write music for pastry cooks and dressmakers, why did they give us a text about the Queen of Egypt and her solemn meditation on death?” One Fanfare critic, reviewing a CD on which all of Berlioz’ Prix de Rome entries (or at least as much of them as survives) were included, wondered about the morbid sensibilities of the judges of the poetry contest, since three of the four winning poems the years Berlioz competed for the price had titles beginning with “La Mort de … ” — an indication of the Romantic sensibility, in which one of the things they romanticized big-time was death. Berlioz finally won the damned thing in 1830 with what music historian Carter Harman called “a craftily conventional cantata” called La Mort de Sardanapale (about the successful siege of the city of Sardanapolis in ancient times), and when he got his public performance of the winning work he followed it with the world premiere of the Symphonie Fantastique, as if telling the Paris concert audience, “That was the work I wrote for the Prix de Rome judges — and this is the piece I wrote for me.” La Mort de Cléopâtre is a work that hints at the mature Berlioz — in the August 2015 Opera News reviewer David Shengold said, “Judges to the contrary, it’s a truly remarkable piece — showing his debt to Gluck for classical grandeur and unorthodox orchestration — and an important way station to creating his Cassandre and Didon three decades later” — though it was a bit difficult to follow in this performance because, even though it was an American orchestra and soloist, there weren’t any English subtitles to give us the text. But DeYoung’s performance was quite appealing and the orchestra’s performance supported her well, even though my favorite version remains the one Jennie Tourel recorded with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein (most sources say in 1961, though the Wikipedia discography of the piece says 1950 — he might have done it with her twice, a mono original and a stereo remake).