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Cleopatra tragica


  • 28 May 2012, 11:00


ROBERT SCHUMANN Overture to Julius Caesar in F minor, Op. 128 (1851)

HECTOR BERLIOZ La Mort de Cléopatre (1829)
Scène lyrique for Soprano and Orchestra, H 36
Text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard

JOHANNES BRAHMS Rinaldo (1863/68)
Cantata for Tenor, Male Choir and Orchestra, Op. 50
Text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


End approx. 12:40.

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Cleopatra tragica

In his memoires, Hector Berlioz recalls his third attempt to win the famous Prix de Rome in 1829: “The set topic was ‘Cleopatra after the battle of Actium’. The Egyptian queen let the viper bite her and died in convulsions. Before committing suicide, she prayed to the Pharaohs’ ancestors in religious fear; she asked whether she, the sacrilegious and wasteful queen, could be admitted into the monumental graves erected to the souls of honorable and virtuous rulers. This was an opportunity to express a grand thought.” And thus, Berlioz decided not to compose in the style and taste of the jury, but to submit a cantata “of decided idiosyncrasy”. His “punishment” was not long coming: the opera composer François-Adrien Boieldieu, whom Berlioz despised, but who enjoyed great success in Paris, stated: “I am not a great master of harmonics, but I am unable to follow your unearthly chords.” The text of the cantata by Pierre-Ange Vieillard describes the last moments of the Ptolemaic queen, who had become a prisoner of war of Octave after the defeat of Marc-Antoine at Actium. Berlioz found unusual and moving notes to express Cléopâtre’s sorrow and self-accusation, her painful memories of past times and her tragic decision to suffer death through a snake-bite. His daring harmonic sequences, idiosyncratic rhythms, the extreme vocal lines as well as the risky orchestra effects, sinister chords in the winds and sharp dissonances met with perplexity and distress from his contemporaries. It was left to later eras to discover the greatness of this composition.