MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Berlioz’s The Trojans: “A Virgilian Opera on the Shakespearean Plan”

My essay on San Francisco Opera’s upcoming new production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens is now available online:

“For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera,” wrote Hector Berlioz at the end of the first edition of his Memoirs, in 1854. This oblique reference to the still-to-be-written The Trojans suggests that the composer, then just 50 years old, intuited the difficulties awaiting him. “I am resisting the temptation, and trust I shall continue to resist it to the end.”


It wasn’t birth pangs per se he feared. Within an astonishing two years (1856–58), Berlioz composed both the text and the music for The Trojans, working with intense focus as he sustained a high pitch of inspiration. What he feared was the agony of getting his work produced— a struggle that, sadly, turned out to be even more bitterly disappointing than he foresaw. Fortunately, the impulse to create The Trojans proved strong enough to override his early anxieties. However improbably ambitious an undertaking, Berlioz’s magnum opus at the same time represents the inevitable culmination of his life and thought as an artist.

If the stakes seemed impossibly high for Berlioz, the same could be said of his source material. Virgil himself allegedly complained to the Emperor Augustus that he must have been “mad” to have undertaken the Aeneid. According to tradition, the dying poet (he lived from 70–19 BCE) indicated that he wanted the manuscript to be burned, for it lacked his finishing touches. Not only was Virgil competing directly with the Homeric epics venerated as the foundation of literature (to his contemporary Romans, Homer was a quasi-divine poet, already several centuries older than Shakespeare is in relation to ourselves): with the Aeneid he attempted nothing less than to rewrite the national narrative. By depicting the sufferings and victories of the Trojans, Virgil’s epic aimed to make sense of a period of cataclysmic social and political transformation.

continue reading [in pdf format]

Filed under: Berlioz, essay, San Francisco Opera, Virgil

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Michael says:

    I’m a still-burgeoning Berlioz fan, swayed as I have been by the high regard in which he was held by my foremost hero in all things critical, musical, and writerly, Jacques Barzun. I’ve listened quite a bit to recordings of Berlioz compositions, including parts of Les Troyens, but I don’t *know* even the Fantastique as well as I know, say, the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky violin concertos. In light of all this, I enjoyed your narrative of the historical and intellectual climates in which HB came to write and perform (if only in part!) Les Troyens. I especially relished your discussions of the rift in the musical outlooks of Berlioz and Wagner, the recurring brass theme in Les Troyens (“the epic through line”), and the ways that Berlioz’s “sound world” (a fabulous description of what Berlioz, specifically, creates) can be said to mirror aspects of Virgil’s Aeneid. Not having spent time with David Cairns, I have to ask, can his Berlioz truly be *the* canonical English bio? It’s hard to imagine anyone coming within range of Barzun’s accomplishments in research, intellectual sympathy, musical acuity, contextual mastery, and storytelling. His two-volume Berlioz and the Romantic Century is a delight. But I do have some built-in bias there. Hurrah for San Francisco Opera’s finally taking on all of Les Troyens! I’m tempted to head down from Seattle for it. And great job, Thomas, setting the stage, as it were, for everyone who attends.

    • Thomas May says:

      Thanks for your comments, Michael. I’ve noticed it’s not uncommon to assume there was only one really important “progressive” strain in 19th-c European music – alors, the triumph of Wagnerism – whereas Berlioz wonderfully disrupts that simple narrative.
      Sure, Barzun’s book is a trove of insight and an extremely important contribution to Berlioz reception, but it does have its flaws (mostly issues of perspective when less was known about HB). Anyway, David Cairns is pretty indispensable when it comes to a more up-to-date view of Berlioz.

  2. […] on Two Women. Having the opportunity to see SF Opera’s current production of Berlioz’s The Trojans probably intensified my negative reaction to Tutino’s new opera, since the plight of women […]


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