The Kennedy Center

La Mort de Cléopatre

About the Work

Image for Berlioz Composer: Hector Berlioz
© Richard Freed

Berlioz composed the solo cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre (“The Death of Cleopatra”) in 1829, to a text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard; it was not performed until many years later, when Berlioz conducted it in several of his concerts in Germany, and did not begin to be heard at all widely until about 40 years ago. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

In addition to the solo mezzo-soprano, the score calls for 2 flutes and 2 piccolos; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Approximate duration, 21 minutes.

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This dramatic scène lyrique, as Berlioz labeled it, bears no opus number because he did not acknowledge it in his own catalogue of his compositions, and it was not published until many years after his death. It is only in the last 40 years or so, in fact, that the piece began to circulate, and it is still far from being a part of anybody's notion of “standard repertory.” Berlioz composed La Mort de Cléopâtre in 1829, as third bid for a Prix de Rome. He was then 25 years old and had already composed his Eight Scenes from Goethe's “Faust,” the concert overtures Waverley and Les Francs-Juges, some fairly well received songs, and a number of other choral pieces. He had tried for the Rome Prize two years earlier with his monologue and bacchanal La Mort d'Orphée, but that effort was aborted by the pianist assigned to prepare a piano reduction for the jury: he simply declared the music “unplayable” and that was that. In 1828, however, Berlioz got as far as second place with Herminie, another scène lyrique, with a text by the same Vieillard who was to provide the one for Cléopâtre, and this emboldened him to make a very rash assumption the following year in composing the present work. As it had become an established custom to give the first prize each year to the winner of the previous year's second prize, Berlioz felt free to “follow my own feelings and my natural style” instead of adjusting to the conservative jurors' norms. This reasoning proved faulty when, despite the favorable votes of Cherubini and Boïeldieu (both of whom rising above their declarations that they simply did not understand such music), the jury as a whole was so frightened by the “audacity” of the work that no prize at all was awarded for 1829. The somewhat chastened Berlioz finally got his Grand Prix de Rome the following year with his more judiciously written (but far less inspired) cantata La Mort de Sardanapale, to a text by Jean-Baptiste Gail. (What irony there is in noting that 1830 was the very year also of the Symphonie fantastique.)

Although Berlioz had taken the predictably fatal risk of following his own style in Cléopâtre, he chose not to force the issue by trying to get the work performed once it failed to win him a prize. He withheld both it and the earlier Herminie from publication, salvaging from them what he could for use in other works, as he did with other unfinished or unpublished scores. From Herminie he drew the motif that became the idée fixe in the Symphonie fantastique; from Cléopâtre he took one that served for the Chorus of Shades in the symphony's curious sequel, Lélio, and another which found its way into the opera Benvenuto Cellini and the Roman Carnival Overture. As already noted, his Cléopâtre waited years to be heard, and longer still to begin circulating, but Berlioz found the subject congenial and he was clearly pleased with his treatment of it. In his Memoirs he recalled his original motivation:

The subject was “Cleopatra after the Battle of Actium.” The Queen of Egypt clasps the asp to her bosom and dies in convusions; but before dying, she invokes the spirits of the Pharaohs and in holy fear demands to know if she, a queen of crimes and dissipations, may hope to enter those mighty vaults erected to the shades of monarchs distinguished for their fame and virtue.

Here was an idea worth expressing in music. I had often in my imagination conceived a musical equivalent of Juliet's wonderful monologue, “How if, when I am laid into the tomb,” a passage that had something in common, at least in its sense of dread, with the feelings contained in the invocation which our French rhymester had put into the mouth of Cleopatra. I was mad enough to write [that line from Shakespeare], in English, at the head of my score. This for a start was an unpardonable crime to such Voltairean academicians as my examiners.

(Berlioz continued, in his Memoirs, to recount having run into Boïeldieu the day after the judges announced that there would be no prize. When Boïeldieu remarked that “The prize was in your hands and you simply threw it away,” Berlioz of course assured the senior musician he had done his best, and was not terribly surprised to receive the response, “That is exactly what we have against you. You ought not to have done your best. Your best is the enemy of the good. How can I be expected to approve of such things when you know that what I like most is soothing music?”)

Vieillard provided a more than respectable poem, to which Berlioz was able to respond as imaginatively as to a text of his own or an adaptation of Shakespeare. Following the lamentation that makes up the first half of the piece, there is a superb invocation of the Pharaohs, a section Berlioz himself described as possessed of “noble character, with a rhythm of striking originality, whose enharmonic progressions seem to have a solemn, funereal sound, and whose melody unfolds dramatically in a long drawn-out crescendo.” He headed this section “Méditation,” and it was actually at this point in the score that he inscribed the line spoken by Juliet. The end of the work—in which, having reviewed her state of dishonor and apostrophized the Pharaohs of old, Cleopatra summons her remaining pride and chooses a “vile reptile” for the instrument of her death—that is probably the part that frightened the elders of the Conservatoire the most; and that indeed is what Berlioz intended, in a broader and not at all academic sense. (He pointed out to Boïeldieu that “it's a little difficult to write soothing music for an Egyptian queen bitten by a poisonous snake and dying a painful death in an agony of remorse.") This is not an elegant, patrician valediction, but an unreservedly anguished, terribly realistic, flesh-and-blood death scene, in which the emotion suggested in Vieillard's words is made starkly and unmistakably real in Berlioz's music.

As late as 1860 Berlioz's enthusiasm for the subject led to his considering an opera on the ill-fated Egyptian queen, in which he might or might not have made use of material in the cantata. Instead, the cantata has come to be regarded as a sort of “study” for the most ambitious of all his works, the opera Les Troyens (composed in 1856-58), whose heroine, Dido, another legendary Middle Eastern queen involved with a Roman, meets a somewhat similar (if less agonizingly violent) end. What Berlioz left for the public to discover a hundred years later in the way of a musical portrait of Cleopatra is in no wise less than complete, and it might be argued that its very conciseness makes the dramatic impact at once more intimate than an extended stage work, and no less powerful.