The first round of the competition involved writing a four-part fugue to prove compositional skill; the four chosen candidates were then sequestered for three weeks while they each wrote a large-scale dramatic cantata for voice and orchestra. These were performed with piano accompaniment and judged by members of the Académie des Beaux Arts. Berlioz’s attitude to the Prix has been recorded in his Memoires and other writings: the rules were too strict, the texts old-fashioned, the examiners incompetent, and the manner of judging ridiculous. Nevertheless, motivated primarily by financial needs, he threw himself into the competition, and his cantatas have come to be seen as early examples of his resistance to musical conservatism, evident throughout his career.
Berlioz’s first cantata for the Prix, La mort d’Orphée (1827), failed outright: he created a truly dramatic work, responding to the tragic subject matter, adapting and adding to the text, and creating a range of powerful orchestral and harmonic effects – all of which challenged the Prix’s unspoken rules of decorum and tradition. For his second attempt, Herminie (1828), Berlioz made concessions to the expected style and achieved second place. With his third submission, La mort de Cléopâtre (1829), confident he would win – it was usual for the second-placed contestant to be the prize winner in the subsequent year – he secured support from the composer academicians (with the exception of Henri Berton, who considered Berlioz to be a hopeless case: ‘Beethoven has turned his brain’). Yet he forgot the important lessons learned from previous years, and produced an original and imaginative piece that unnerved and confused the judges. It was only with his fourth attempt, the modest Sardanapale (1830), that he secured the Prix de Rome.
The subject of La mort de Cléopâtre appealed to Berlioz as ‘an idea worth expressing in music’. Indeed it seemed to have specific personal resonances for him: the central ‘Méditation’ is introduced in the score with a (mis)quote from Romeo and Juliet: ‘What if when I am laid into the tomb’. Berlioz had seen the English theatre troupe perform Shakespeare’s play in Paris in 1827, and had been immediately smitten with the actress Harriet Smithson (the inspiration for the Symphonie fantastique (1830) and for his symphonie dramatique Roméo et Juliette (1839) – and his future wife). The affinities between Cleopatra and Smithson’s Juliet may have added impulse to his creativity, as the heightened passions of the heroine are at the heart of the work and they dictate its musical form. They are conveyed through daring modulations and juxtapositions of key and mood, and evocative sonorities, as Cleopatra remembers past events and gradually comes to terms with her present situation. In the opening recitative she expresses the shame of her failure; this gives way to a strong lyrical aria with a confident animato as she remembers her past conquests and victories. However, she betrayed Egypt and is now without family or country and has nothing left but death. In the mesmerising ‘Méditation’ that follows, she is fearful of how the Pharaohs will receive her guilty soul: sotto voce, con terrore, she is accompanied by sombre orchestral timbres and insistent rhythmic repetition in a slow 12/8 form. This section famously bemused the composer François-Adrien Boieldieu, who stopped Berlioz in the street the following day to give him a debriefing (‘what extraordinary harmonies… I understood nothing!’). Then, in her dying moments, Cleopatra finds a resurgence of confidence (‘vous me fuiriez avec horreur’ – you would run from me in horror), before her voice finally grows weaker as she fades away, realising that in death she will at last be worthy of Caesar.
The work left the judges in a predicament: they felt that Berlioz had made it impossible for them to award him the prize with his audacious writing, but none of the other candidates should be ahead of him. In the end, no first prize was awarded at all. A friend had given Berlioz some advice beforehand: ‘You should have yourself bled in all four limbs and go on a milk diet for two weeks’, and Daniel Auber said afterwards ‘the best advice I can give you is to try to write tamely’ – it was only with his fourth attempt that he succeeded in doing this, though Cléopâtre is a wonderful snapshot of his early talents and passions, and has proved a popular showpiece for modern singers.
© Sarah Hibberd 2013
More pieces by Berlioz
- L'enfance du Christ: Selection
- Le carnaval romain