“For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera for which I would write both the words and the music… I am resisting the temptation of carrying out this project, and I hope I will resist to the end” (Berlioz. Mémoires, 1854)
“Alas, no, I have not been able to resist. I have just completed the poem and the music of Les Troyens, an opera in five acts. What is going to happen to this vast work?” (Ibid. Footnote added in 1858)
Thank goodness he did not resist the temptation otherwise we should have been denied one of the greatest operatic masterpieces and surely Berlioz’s crowning glory.
The musical world is eagerly awaiting the first performances of Les Troyens, Berlioz’s great epic based on Books I, II and IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, at the Royal Opera House for 40 years (25th June – 11th July). It has not been given there in its entirety since Colin Davis’s performances in September 1969 (in French) and September 1972 (in Edward Dent’s English translation). There is also a concert performance by the ROH at the Proms on Sunday July 22nd.
Berlioz never saw Les Troyens performed complete: only the last three acts, divided into five, renamed Les Troyens à Carthage, with several cuts, were first performed on 4th November 1863 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris. However, the purpose of this post is not to discuss the work itself (there are others who do that far more eloquently than I could possibly hope to), but to provide an overview of the resources here at the UL and in the Pendlebury which are available should you wish to immerse yourself in this unique work. Me? I love it: unreservedly, wholeheartedly, the music is sublime, original, astonishing.
Sound recording and DVDs
Background reading and analysis
David Cairns’ definitive 2 vol biography of Berlioz is an excellent starting point: Vol 1 M517.c.95.339 and Pb.570.80B.C3; Vol.2 M517.c.95.340. Berlioz’s own accounts in the original French or in translation are found through his letters: M517.c.95.282 and Pb.570.80B.Z17 or M470.c.95.130-136b, and his memoirs: M517.c.200.12 and Pb.570.80B.Z18 or M517.d.95.105. For in depth discussion of the opera, you could do no better than CUP’s opera handbook Les Troyens edited by the late Ian Kemp: M704.c.95.34 and Pb.700.80B.T1. Journal articles and reviews can also be explored either by searching JSTOR (subscription required for article full texts) or consulting the volumes of music periodicals on the first floor South Corridor of the UL.
The New Berlioz Edition is available in both the UL and the Pendlebury which includes Hugh MacDonald’s full score of Les Troyens (the first ever published). Pa.200.80B.B2A-C at the Pendlebury and M200.a.64.2a-c at the UL.
Then it gets a little more complex.
The various manifestations of the Choudens vocal scores of La Prise de Troie and Les Troyens à Carthage reflect the sad history of “productions” of Berlioz’s original conception, sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism. Invaluable background on these scores by Hugh MacDonald is presented in Appendix C (p.212 ff) of the Cambridge Opera Handbook on Les Troyens already mentioned above.
The Choudens 1899 vocal score of La Prise de Troie is available in the Pendlebury at Pb.261.80B.P7 and the UL at M260.b.95.401. The UL also has the Kalmus reprint from the early Breitkopf complete edition: M200.a.79.7.
The Choudens 1899 vocal score of Les Troyens à Carthage is also available in the Pendlebury at Pb.261.80B.T1 and the UL at M260.b.95.402 (but be aware of the errors listed by MacDonald – see above). The Breitkopf complete edition reprint is in the UL at M200.a.79.8.
Of considerable historical interest is a copy of the first 1863 Choudens edition of Les Troyens à Carthage held at the Pendlebury at XRb.261.80B.T1. It contains many of the cuts listed by MacDonald reflecting performances of the time, much to Berlioz’s distress.
We can offer a little 20th century performance history context: as a legal deposit library, the UL receives programmes from the Royal Opera House and so has those for the 1969 and 1972 performances. We also have, in our concert programme archives in the Music Department, programmes as follows:
- Michaelmas 1950: Oxford University Opera Club, conductor Jack Westrup. A performance to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Club.
- June 11th 1957: Royal Opera House. Conductor Raphael Kubelick (in English, translation by E. J. Dent). Programme from the Edith Coates/Harold Powell-Lloyd archive. A landmark occasion.
- May 12th 1963: Cambridge Guildhall. Trojans Part I. Chelsea Opera Group, conductor Colin Davis. Concert performance (in English, translation by E. J. Dent)
- May 10th 1964: Cambridge Guildhall. Trojans Part II. Chelsea Opera Group, conductor Colin Davis. Concert performance (in English, translation by E. J. Dent). Both these COG programmes include excellent background notes (probably by David Cairns, although they are not signed).
- October 30th 1977: Cambridge Guildhall. Trojans Part I. Chelsea Opera Group, conductor Roger Norrington. Concert performance in French. Handbill only.
- October 22nd1978. Cambridge Guildhall. Les Troyens, Acts III. IV and V. Chelsea Opera Group, conductor Roger Norrington. Concert performance in French. (This time, David Cairns has signed his notes).
- Sept – Oct 1987. Leeds. The Trojans at Carthage. Opera North, conductor David Lloyd-Jones (in English). Informative background notes together with quotations from Virgil (in English translation).
If you would like to look at any of these, just ask in the Anderson Room at the UL.
I began this post with a quote from M. Berlioz himself, I can think of no better way to close than with one from Sir Colin Davis, who has done so much to reawaken our understanding and appreciation of Berlioz through performances he has conducted:
“There is no other music like it. I don’t know a moment when Berlioz is ever plodding or pedestrian. He always comes up with some startling new idea which still surprises me, still gives me immense pleasure.” (Sir Colin Davis interview with David Cairns in 2000)
See you there!