Aside from being a beautiful and strikingly original work, Roméo et Juliette is a monument in European cultural history. Written and premiered in 1839, it was probably the first major musical composition inspired by a Shakespearean play, as well as being an important contribution to the history of the Romantic movement on the continent.
First, a few words about the Bard on the boards. Only in recent times have historically authentic performances become the rage. The Shakespearean oeuvre has suffered from revision and bowdlerization through the ages, even and especially in Britain. Productions of Shakespeare to accommodate contemporary and local sensibilities is a scholarly field in and of itself. It took until the end of the 19th century to get back to killing off Cordelia at the end of King Lear. And Garrick in the 18th century had Juliet wake up before Romeo expired so that they could have a farewell scene together.
Across the channel it was worse. As late as the beginning of the 19th century, the French were still ossified in the rules of their neoclassical drama of le grand siecle, by now more than 100 years away, which demanded that any theatrical work adhere to the three dramatic unities first prescribed by Aristotle--of time, place and action. In short, all plots could take no longer than a 24-hour time span and had to represent all action in a single location. Moreover, all the dramatic action had to focus on a single story line: no subplots, no comic relief, just straight stuff. When translations of Shakespeare finally reached the French stage, the old guard was horrified by what they regarded as an aesthetic travesty (you don't even want to know what the French translators did to force Hamlet into a Gallic straitjacket). The new Romantic avant garde, however, led by their most eloquent spokesperson, Victor Hugo, saw Shakespeare as a universal genius more gifted at revealing and expressing the emotions than any poet of any era.
In music, the young, largely self-taught Hector Berlioz was creating his own artistic chaos, inventing new musical forms and utilizing strange and "incorrect" harmonic progressions, all to capture in sound his own wild and erratic romantic spirit. Berlioz was caught up in the Shakespeare craze more than most artists. After seeing a performance of Romeo and Juliet in English--of which he did not understand one word--he fell passionately in love with the leading actress, Harriet Smithson, and thereafter committed a significant portion of his creative output to Shakespearean themes. He also became one of her groupies, mooning around and fantasizing about her for years until he finally got her to marry him (with predictably disastrous results).
Roméo et Juliette, Symphonie dramatique d'apres la tragédie de Shakespeare, was the first of Berlioz's major Shakespearean works. This composition is an incredibly creative effort and stands as one of the monuments of early French Romanticism. It combines orchestra, chorus and soloists, much like an oratorio or cantata, but incorporates them into the expanded forms of the classical symphony. Given that his audience was not necessarily familiar with the original play, Berlioz wrote a Prologue in which orchestra, chorus and soloist review the plot as well as introduce the important musical themes of the rest of the work. The symphony sets to music four of the important scenes in the play, but does not retell the story in a programmatic sense: Romeo at the Capulets' ball; the balcony scene; Mercutio's Queen Mab speech; the funeral of Juliet; the revelation of Friar Lawrence and the reconciliation of the Capulets and Montagues.
The chorus is more of a Greek chorus, reacting to and commenting upon the action. The solo parts are narrative, the exception being the character of Friar Lawrence. Both Romeo and Juliet, or rather their passion, is portrayed solely by the orchestra.
In his programmatic Symphonie fantastique Berlioz had invented the device of the idée fixe (now a psychological cliché) to represent the obsession with the beloved, a musical motif that reappears throughout the symphony as a dramatic and unifying force. In Roméo et Juliette, the composer expands the use of musical motives to represent the key emotionally loaded events in the drama. The most important of these first occurs in the Prologue to the narrator's purple prose, "Roméo palpitant d'une joie inquiete/Se découvre à Juliette/Et de son coeur les feux éclatent à leur tour" (Romeo, trembling with anxious joy, reveals himself to Juliet, and from her heart, the fires leap forth in response). When we next hear this motive in the balcony scene and later in the final movement, we know exactly what is happening dramatically and how to respond emotionally. Richard Wagner, who incidentally was in the audience at the first performance of Roméo et Juliette, revealed his admiration and debt to Berlioz many times over in his system of leitmotifs. Berlioz also employs motives to portray the mutual hatred of the warring families and the Capulet's ball.
It is difficult in this multimedia age to grasp how startlingly innovative a work like Roméo et Juliette is. We are accustomed to mixing and matching the arts to such a degree that we forget figures like Berlioz and Wagner, who trailblazed the way toward an integration of the arts. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Berlioz's work is that it is not, like opera, simply a musical setting of a drama. It is something entirely different, a reinterpretation--even a reinvention--of the universal truths captured so transcendently by a playwright of another culture and another age.
For lovers of music, Shakespeare and the history of the arts, go out and pick up a CD of Roméo et Juliette. Sir Colin Davis, one of the great interpreters of Berlioz, has recorded the complete symphony on Philips, and there are several other recordings. While you may have missed the experience of Zimmerman's live orchestral excerpts, an evening with a recording of the complete work can be a rewarding substitute.