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Severance Hall
December 5 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

December 6 – Friday at 11:00 a.m.* 
December 6 – Friday at 8:00 p.m. 
December 7 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 

Overture to Béatrice and Bénédict

Hector Berlioz  (1803-1869)
composed 1860-62

At a Glance
Berlioz wrote his opera Béatrice et Bénédict between 1860 and 1862, on a commission for a work to open the new theater being constructed in Baden-Baden.  Berlioz wrote his own libretto, based on Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing.  The overture was completed last, in February 1862, utilizing themes from the already finished opera.  The work was premiered in Baden-Baden on August 9, 1862, under the composer’s direction.  (This was the last musical piece that Berlioz completed.)

This overture runs not quite 10 minutes in performance.  Berlioz scored it for flute, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, cornet, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed the overture to Berlioz’s Béatrice and Bénédict in October 1948, under the direction of George Szell.  It has been presented only a few times since then, most recently in April 2009 led by Colin Davis.

About the Music
During France’s Second Empire, when Napoleon’s ambitious nephew ruled France, no spa in Europe was more fashionable than Baden-Baden, that small, infinitely tranquil little dukedom on the northwest edge of the Black Forest.  Every summer season, the aristocracy of a dozen nations gathered there to take the waters, to gamble, to gossip, to flirt, and to see and be seen.  Although the town was in German territory, Russian and French visitors predominated, and French was the language spoken everywhere.  “For four months of the year,” the local paper announced, “the little town of Baden-Baden is truly the capital of Europe.”

But it was the capital of art-lovers and Philistines.  Musicians, writers, journalists, and caricaturists mingled with gamblers, gourmets, and princes.  The spa’s uncrowned king was Edouard Bénazet, manager of the casino, who plowed his profits back into artistic enterprise.  

Bénazet’s most enlightened act was to engage Hector Berlioz to give full-scale concerts every year.  The therapeutic effect of these visits on the composer cannot be overestimated.  Locked into Parisian music by his obligations as a music critic, Berlioz had become deeply embittered by musical politics in the capital, and was particularly despondent about the prospects of ever seeing his great masterpiece Les Troyens [“The Trojans”] staged there.  It was about his summer visits to the spa that he wrote some of his most picturesque and amusing essays. 

So when Bénazet decided to build a brand-new theater in Baden-Baden and commission an opera from Berlioz, the composer responded with vivacity.  His passion for Shakespeare had drawn him principally to the great tragedies, Hamlet, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet.  But he loved the comedies, too, and he selected Much Ado About Nothing as the basis for a bright little opéra-comique for which he wrote the libretto himself.  At first this was to be in a single act, but it soon expanded to two.  In February 1862, he completed the opera, with the overture composed last, adding the words “The End” (in English) under the closing measures.  It was to be his last work. 

The first performance inaugurated the new theater in August 1862, conducted by Berlioz himself.  At the second performance, he was suffering so badly from his chronic neuralgia that he conducted “better than usual,” with the opera and his exertions perhaps taking his focus off the pain.  The opera was not performed in Paris until 1890.

This music displays more clearly than any other work Berlioz’s delicate, filigree orchestral technique.  “It is a caprice written with the point of a needle,” he once said.  The overture introduces a number of extracts from the opera.  Its main material is derived from the closing duet for Béatrice and Bénédict, when the two lovers forswear their constant arguments in favor of peace — at least for a while.  A slow section gives Béatrice’s aria in Act II to the clarinet and impassioned unison strings.  Then the Allegro section returns, brilliantly evoking the tone of a piquant comedy set in Sicily in the 16th century.

—Hugh Macdonald © 2019