5 April 2011
Music History II Research Paper – Les Nuits d’Ete
Dr. Christina Reitz
An Analysis of Hector Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Ete
Born in 1803, in the village of La Côte-Saint-André, France, Hector Berlioz produced some of the most invigorating and exciting music of the Romantic period (Holoman, 1, 6). Romanticism primarily focused on subjectivism, therefore people were concentrating more on their emotions and spirituality and less on logical explanations for the problems of humanity. Those of the Romantic period valued nature and depended upon the creativity of artists in order to gain a deeper and different outlook on the world, one that was not strictly rational. Of all the Romantic art forms, music, especially instrumental, were highly favored because it promoted abstract thinking and allowed for listeners to open their imaginations to be exposed to intriguing emotions (Bonds, 365). Berlioz’s career began in 1830 with his famous composition of Symphonie fantastique and composers such as Franz Liszt and Niccolò Paganini agreed that Berlioz was indeed the true successor to Beethoven (Holoman, 1). Berlioz desired to be remembered for his limitless love of art and for his faithfulness to compose music that unified him as a composer, conductor and a music critic (Holoman, 2). According to D. Kern Holoman in his book Berlioz, Berlioz was often found quietly weeping, after a concert of his work, over the beauty he had just heard, overwhelmed by music’s power over the spirit (Holoman, 8).
During the Romantic period, author, critic and fellow Frenchman, Théophile Gautier, was a great admirer of Berlioz’s music (Turner, 220). In November 1840, two songs composed by Berlioz, with settings from Gautier’s collection Poésies diverses entitled Absence and Le Spectre de la Rose were announced to be performed on concerts (Macdonald, 38). Months earlier, Berlioz had already composed another song, Villanelle, and by September 1841 six songs for mezzo-soprano or tenor and piano had been composed (Macdonald, 38). The cycle became Les Nuits d’Ete. As a child and adolescent, Berlioz was strictly educated by his mother to be a devout Roman Catholic, until he became a Romantic and free thinker, then Berlioz’s infatuation with Shakespeare began to replace spiritual zeal (Reichert). Berlioz was often inspired by Shakespeare for his compositions, including Les Nuits d’Ete. The title for the song cycle, translated as Summer Nights, corresponds with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Les Nuits d’Ete was originally composed and published in 1841 with piano accompaniment, but in 1856 Berlioz published the orchestral version of what came to be his best-known cycle (Dickinson, 110). The first song of the cycle, Villanelle, is a foreshadow of joyous fellowship between two lovers that consists of a repetitive strophe (Dickinson, 110). Placed in the key of A major, the accompaniment is comprised of chords in the root position and first inversion that are set to a rhythm of constant, staccato eighth notes. The accompaniment is played by soprano and alto woodwinds and strings. A simplistic yet lively accompaniment allows the vocalist to demonstrate the joyous emotion of the text with a more legato style that contrasts from the orchestra (Berlioz, Les Nuits d’Ete).
The second movement of the cycle is titled Le Spectre de la Rose (The Spectre of the Rose) which is undoubtedly the most elaborate of the collection (Wotton, 126). The remarkable poetry is not sung from the same point of view as the character in Villanelle but is portrayed by the character that is described in Villanelle. The character singing has just passed away and is angelically telling her abiding loved one that her ghost will remain with him eternally. Though saddening, Le Spectre de la Rose, is set in the key of D major, occasionally modulating to the dominant, which provides a feeling of hope and comfort because the tonality...
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