• Opera In-Depth - Les Troyens - Musical Structure

    Berlioz with friends, in Liszt's home


    Les Troyens is scored for a large orchestra, with piccolos, English horn, four bassoons, trumpets and piston cornets, six or more harps, two dozen players off-stage, and an enormous chorus.

    Technically speaking, it has the structure of a numbers opera, but Berlioz doesn't always engage in traditional recitatives and arias, but also employs freer structures such as monologue, scene, and pantomime. His dialogues and narratives are set down over orchestral movements rather than a simple accompaniment. The orchestra therefore does fill the gaps and provides imagery, which in some respects evokes Wagner's operas of the same period.

    The tableaux are presented in a sort of assertive, almost uninterrupted sequence, to make this vast epic art progress without much stagnation. Les Troyens is an opera with great pace.

    In order to link the movements, Berlioz often uses shifts of tonality, like in the rise from F to Gb between the septet and the love duet. He also shifts texture, like in the sudden a capella figure for "Châtiment effroyable."

    Les Troyens is an opera that owes a lot to Berlioz's ability to craft orchestral tone painting and symbolism. Figures that in the Symphonie Fantastique convey, for instance, heartbeats and sighs, are also used in Les Troyens, which doesn't shy away from employing stopped horns and ghostly strings to suggest the supernatural word. If one pays attention to the famous Hunt and Storm scene, one will identify an orchestral equivalent to every stage action.

    Style-wise, Les Troyens is Romantic music, adopting the thematic recall typical of this era, such as in the various transformations of the Trojan March, or in the surging string figures that convey Cassandra's distress. Berlioz also tries to reproduce what he believed were the sounds of classical antiquity, with percussion, oboes and harps.

    Another relevant characteristic of Les Troyens is its profound use of sonority. It is not coincidental that Berlioz chose the mezzo-soprano voice for each of the heroines. Moments of great sonority include the clarinet solo for the pantomime of Andromache and Astyanax, referenced also in Act III when Ascanius weeps while bidding his father farewell. Again, the bass clarinet solo during the funeral ceremony for Didon is remarkable.

    Berlioz's aesthetic doctrine dictated that music is most effective when it faithfully reflects and develops the dramatic ideas that are presented in the libretto.

    Dramatically speaking, Berlioz skipped large parts of Virgil's text, only setting to music the parts that he considered suitable to be illustrated by music (it is based on books I, II, and IV of the Aeneid). Therefore, his opera was done in a series of tableaux, along Shakespearean lines, without much regard for theatrical unity . He described it himself as "a vast opera on the Shakespearean plan" and as "Virgil Shakespeareanized." (sic) The love duet of Act IV is directly borrowed from Shakespeare, and Berlioz uses other Shakespearean techniques as well (for example, the use of ghosts to reveal certain plot details).

    Act I and the first tableau of Act II of Les Troyens corresponds to Book II of the Aeneid, and the last three acts correspond to Books I and IV. The sequence of events is different in Berlioz's and Virgil's works - we'll talk more about this in an article about the literary source and the modifications made by Berlioz for his libretto.

    Just as Shakespeare used to do, Berlioz did not follow the Unity of Place, and instead made changes in locale through considerable distances - from Troy to Carthage to Rome. He also shunned the Unity of Time by shifting abruptly from Troy to Carthage after the long sea voyage of Aeneas and his men.

    Within each segment, however, the narration is quite linear in terms of unity of time and space - which is a framework that has been termed "tableau" construction or "open" form. The action is carried forward by a cumulative series of tableaux joined by narrative transitions - recitatives - and while in each tableau several elements interact, they are all subordinate to a dominant strong emotion or action: the inexorable progression of History and Destiny. This construction is similar to Shakespeare's method of scene unification.

    This is not just in the text, but also in the music. Berlioz employed contrasting musical moods to convey the basic conflict in Les Troyens (that is, personal happiness and love versus political duty and epic destiny). These techniques of contrast and antithesis is also found in the music of Beethoven, a musician that Berlioz greatly admired. Berlioz in his correspondence acknowledged that he loved contrasts, both in Shakespeare and Beethoven.

    The first such polarity is found in Cassandra, who like Aneas has been charged with a duty she cannot scape. She loves Corebus, but must try to warn her people of the impending doom. If she stays in Troy, it's the death of her love. If she flees with Corebus, it's the renunciation of her duty. The music in the first act vividly underscores this polarity. Every musical idea underlines opposition of two compelling forces.

    See, for example, the part when Cassandra seems to succumb for Corebus desire to marry her:

    Then take my hand,
    And my chaste bride's kiss,
    And stay! Death makes ready
    Our nuptial bed for tomorrow.

    What does Berlioz do with the music for this part, to convey the fact that just when Cassandra is about to engage in love, she's acutely aware of her duty?

    He sets the last syllable on a high B, prepared by the upward leap of a diminished fifth and supported by an orchestrated fortissimo B major chord: there is a hint of histeria in her capitulation.

    The same figure comes back when she acknowledges her duty after the Trojan Horse is brought in: "Sister of Hector, go, die beneath the ruins of Troy!"which again sees the last syllable sung to a high G to which we get by an upward leap of a major sixth, and which is supported by a suddenly full, fortissimo orchestra.

    Let's look at another musical illustration that Berlioz employs in Les Troyens. We've already mentioned the use of ghosts as a Shakesperean device.

    Hector's ghost, who makes his entrance in Ô lumière de Troie" is accompanied by muted horns, muffled timpani, pizzicato strings, and viola tremolos, all of which convey a sense of supernatural, ethereal atmosphere. Aeneas reacts to the apparition with a particular rhythm that Berlioz brings up over and over throughout Les Troyens when it's a matter of fate. It's a melody consisting of a gradual semitone descent that encompasses an octave, with four muted horns that play an independent syncopated rhythm in which the initial notes of each bar fall on either the second beat or the weak second half of the first beat, creating an effect of a shadow moving ponderously always one step behind: the inexorable march of destiny! Muted cellos and double basses give support to this ominous feeling.

    When Hector's ghost reappears in Act V, this time with more ghosts: Priam, Corebus, and Cassandra - what we get is that every time the spirits talk, there is a single note, D, which is exploited repeatedly by different instruments. The juxtaposition of the extremely high diminished-seventh chords of the violins and the lowest D of the double basses double by horns and bassoons creates a sense of infinity.

    Another masterful display of contrast can be found in the first tableau of Act V when the two sentries dialogue of their displeasure at the thought of leaving Carthage where they enjoy a good life full of wine and women. This duet about simple desires and simple joys deeply contrasts with what follows, which is Aneas "Inutiles regrets" where he sings of bowing to his duty.

    Berlioz uses his handling of tempo to convey constrasting moods. Taken as a whole, slow and fast tempi balance each other, providing unity to the work, but in individual stretches, Berlioz skillfuly arranges diverse tempi to vary the pacing and the tension levels.

    Acts I and V generally convey energy due to faster tempi. Act II is filled with a morose undercurrent of foreboding. Act III is pompous and majestic, and with its display of a joyous Carthage festival, it provides a middle point of rest after the emotional turmoil of the first two (this is one of the reasons why Les Troyens must be staged in one evening, not two). Act IV is static and lyrical and full of love, with some of the most beautiful music in the opera. Act V is again energetic and volatile.

    Act I is in Allegro vivo - there is joy and excitement as the Trojans believe they're free at last. The Allegro agitato assai at the end of the act conveys the fact that they are all agitated by the thought of the wooden horse. However, in between these fast tempi we do find Cassandra's laments which are slower numbers.

    This is part of what we've been demonstrating regarding contrasts. There is great contrast between the Cassandra's opening recitative and aria, "Les Grecs ont disparu," with the opening chorus. It commences with a slow, ominous Adagio molto sostenuto (conveying premonition), then after an Andante aria, a brief Allegro recitative transtions to the next number, which is a duet between Cassandra and Corebus that has a most interesting oscillation of tempi, symbolizing the constrasting attitudes of the two lovers.

    This kind of manipulation of tempi is found everywhere in Les Troyens. For example, the two numbers that encompass the ballet also have dissimilar tempi. We get the "Marche et Hymne" which is in Allegro moderato e pomposo, then Andromache's pantomime follows, and it is mournful as conveyed by the tempo Andante non troppo lento.

    Next we get Aeneas sudden flustered Allegro, and the octet and double chorus "Châtiment effroyable" goes back to a slower tempo, Andante sostenuto, to depict fear and paralized terror.

    Still another example comes at the end of Act II, when the women are considering submitting to the Greeks, but then, when they are convinced by Cassandra that they must commit suicide, their delirious excitement is conveyed by the music that unfolds at double speed: one bar equals a beat of the previous number.

    Examples continue through acts III to V, but we won't go into them, not to be too long about it.

    Instead, let's talk about how Berlioz musically characterizes actions and people.

    First, it is interesting to notice that he did not write an overture for Les Troyens. Why? Because he did not want to use strings before Cassandra's entrance! (He says as much in a letter).

    The opening chorus is all in woodwind and high pitched, portraying the Trojan's hollow joy. when Cassandra enters, however, in "Les Grecs ont disparu" there is a rapidly rising scale motif introduced by the contrasting heaviness of the strings. This gives immediately to Cassandra a sense of impending doom. Later in the same number the scale returns to Gb and is played by the winds one beat after the strings, thus intensifying the ominous feeling. This same scale comes back at the end of Act II when Cassandra enters the Temple of Vesta-Cybèle (it's the closest thing to a Cassandra leitmotiv). It comes back again in the Carthagian portion of the opera, when Cassandra's ghost was supposed to appears at the end of the love duet during Berlioz's first efforts at setting this scene. Later he replaced Cassandra by Mercury, but the upward rushing scale leitomotiv remained.

    Musical characterization continues with the dialogue between Cassandra and Corebus. The latter's music is all in triple meter, lyrical and soothing. Cassandra's is all in dotted rhythms, leaps, and predominantly descending scales encompassing fourths and diminished fifths, followed by rapidly rising scales - it's all tense and emotional.

    However, Cassandra the character evolves, and so evolves her music. In act II her hysteria has been replaced by a resigned commitment to duty, therefore her music changes as well, with a flowing, lyrical melodic line with an accompaniment of quarter-note and eighth-note rhythms.

    It is interesting to notice that Dido goes the other way around; she starts serene and lyrical and becomes halting and hysterical.

    Dido's first aria, "Chers Tyriens," is lyrical, and warmly expressive in the violins (she is a confident queen). Her second melody, which starts the quintet "Tout conspire" shows a woman in love, and the legato melodic line of the central section with its long notes convey a sense of absorption with Aeneas.

    Her third development comes in the act V duet "Errante sur tes pas" when her notes get great leaps and the melody is interspersed with rests, creating a breathless halting effect. Her shocked disbelief at what Aeneas is telling her - that he must abandon her - is shown with repeated notes gradually rising in semitones as she struggles with what is going on. Her part ends with a terrible curse expressed in a descending Bb minor scale.

    Then, her monologue "Je vais mourir" with her determination to die is illustrated by a chordal melody with many of the notes outlining triads, and her grief is shown in sharp melodic descent when she says her soul is being forced down to "everlasting night" followed by an upward leap of a minor ninth at her cry of anguish "Vénus! rend-moi ton fils." The monologue ends with her final acquiescence, depicted by descending chordal tones in a diminished fifth triad that rises a semitone to the tonic. Berlioz wrote that this passage was his most passionate sad music that he ever wrote.

    Finally, Dido's fifth musical evolution is her disintegration and loss of self-control. Dido becomes hysterical and her music becomes a slowly rising chromatic melody with rapid reiterations followed by descending lines interpersed with rests. These large ascending leaps preceding each descending line create a sense of erratic and quick changes of direction in her moods.

    Aeneas is the character that most explicitly suffers from the dilemma of love and duty. In Virgil he is more resolute and more willing to abdicate love, while in Berlioz he is more ambivalent. He promptly obeys Mercury in Virgil, but Berlioz gives him an introspective monologue in which to consider his fate, after he is given Mercury's command.

    This is most seen in his solo scene, "Inutiles regrets!" He talks about the noble reasons for his departure and his lines are expansive. But then he is filled with remorse and his anguish is conveyed by diminished and minor harmonies. As his determination to see her once more kicks in, the section ends with a disarming major cadence in Allegro tempo. In a sudden contrast, however, he is visited by the spirits of Priam, Corebus, Hector, and Cassandra, and he no longer wavers. The music then aptly recovers the Trojan March in dotted rhythms.

    What ends the opera in its last tableau is Dido's agony, when she remembers the lover whom she will never see again, by singing once more the haunting melody of the love duet from Act IV. Berlioz is underlining for his public the high cost that these extraordinary characters have paid in order to fulfill a noble destiny.

    So, if Berlioz has composed his materpiece from the standpoint of a Shakespearean plan of tableaux and contrasts, how did he impact on his work its remarkable dramatic and musical unit?

    The answer is, through melodic and rhythmic unifying elements: recurring themes and motifs, such as the Trojan March and the repeated cries of "Italy!, and musical reminders, both melodic and rhythmic, associated with the idea of fate.

    The melody of the Trojan March appears four times. First it comes in Bb major (Act I, number 11), joyous and proud, highlighting the entry of the Trojan Horse into the city. Then it comes in Bb minor, when Aeneas arrives in Carthage (act III, number 26). Third, again in major but with a rhythmic variation, it marks the departure of the Trojans from Carthage (V/43-44). And then, again in major, it is part of the opera's finale of the apotheosis of Rome (V/52). The Trojan March represents the theme of destiny. Its uniform tonality in Bb gives the opera a feeling of tonal unity.

    Another unifying theme is associated with the Carthagian nation, and occurs with the word "Gloire à Didon." It appears three times, and a fourth time without the words. We first heart it in Act III, number 18, right after the opening chorus, the stirring national anthem "Chant National." The anthem is in an expansive 3/2 meter with a walking quarter-note accompaniment, giving it a patriotic and noble color. The theme returns in the next number (19), in an aria in ABA form: it appears in the middle section of the aria. The third occurrence is in the number 23. Therefore, this entire sequence from number 18 to 23 acquires unity. The first and third occurrences are in G major, and the middle one in Bb major. A fourth occurence when Dido and Aeneas enter for the ballet entertainment (IV/32) but the interesting aspect is that now it has a limpid quality, not as martial, more loving, reflecting Dido's changed moods. It is played by the upper wind instruments -- flutes, oboes, and clarinets -- and is accompanied by harp harmonies and running eighth-notes in the violins. The music underlines the fact that Dido is not as concerned by the progress of Carthage, but is now focused on her love for Aeneas.

    Another striking example of musical unity is when there is a melodic recall in Act V, in Dido's aria "Adieu, fière cité" when she sings the same melodic line that Aeneas sang in their love duet, "Nuit d'ivresse" which closed act IV.

    There is a musical device consistently associated with the theme of fate throughout the opera: a pulsating rhythm (in double and triple meter) that is found solely in the orchestra, never in the vocal lines. As Aeneas's inevitable destiny draws nearer, the rhythm becomes more and more insistent.

    Here is where it occurs: in the opening chorus of joyous Trojans, next in number 2 "Malheureux Roi," then in the middle part of Cassandra's aria singing about Corebus, then in the octet "Châtiment effroyable!" (#8) (we see it with each iteration of the line "le sang s'est glacé dans mon coeur" first in the violas, then in the second violins and finally in the cellos and basses). It returns with a variation when the ghost of Hector approaches Aeneas at the beginning of act II. In act IV it comes when Cupid disguised as Ascanius removes Dido's wedding ring from her finger (IV/35). The next visitation of the ghosts (V/42) sees the same rhythm again. In act V it occurs several times, during "Adieu, fière cité" and then in the final scene before Dido's suicide. The last occurrence is when Dido falls sobbing at the sight of Aenea's armor.

    Chromaticism is also employed by Berlioz. Segments of the chromatic scale, either ascending or descending, are also used in numerous parts of the opera to represent musically the idea of fate, such as wehn Hector in act II sings a long, slow, descending chromatic scale (the most extended one of the opera) urging Aeneas to flee to Italy. There are 28 measures of descending chromatic scale covering the range of an octave.

    A less precise chromatic descent occurs in the Hunt and Storm scene, as if to remind the lovers that they can't entirely dive into their love for each other, forgetting duty.

    When Dido realizes that her life cannot go on and it is irreversibly entwined with the fate of the Trojans, our friend the descending chromatic scale comes back.

    A more obvious unifying device is the five occasions when we hear cries of "Italy."


    We hope that learning about all the above clever musical devices has enhanced the reader's appreciation for Berlioz's astounding masterpiece. Let's echo the words of Jacques Barzun, to say that "... Les Troyens is emphatically one of those works which have to be thoroughly known to be enjoyed throughout; its beauties do not take possession of the mind all at once but requre to be re-cognized (sic)."

    Let's end this article by reading Berlioz, in a remarkable quote that encompasses the true definition of the operatic genre:

    "Dramatic musical composition is a double art: it results from the association and intimate union of poetry and music. Melodic accents can, no doubt, have a special interest, a charm that is peculiar to themselves, which results from music alone; but their force is doubled if they are combined to express a noble passion, or a beautiful sentiment suggested by a poem worthy of the name, the two arts unified then reinforce each other."


    The Grove Book of Operas, second edition, by Stanley Saide and Laura Macy
    The New Kobbé's Opera Book, by the Earl of Harewood and Antony Peattie
    Les Troyens: Aspects of Musico-Dramatic Structure, by Paulet Pittenger Garrett, Master of Music thesis, Rice University
    Hector Berlioz, A Selection From His Letters

free html visitor counters
hit counter

Official Media Partners of Opera Carolina

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of Opera Carolina

Official Media Partners of NC Opera

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of North Carolina Opera

Official Media Partners of Greensboro Opera

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of Greensboro Opera

Official Media Partners of The A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute and Piedmont Opera

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of The A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute
of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Piedmont Opera

Official Media Partners of Asheville Lyric Opera

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of Asheville Lyric Opera

Official Media Partners of UNC Opera

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of UNC Opera
Dept. of Music, UNC-Chapel Hill College of Arts and Sciences