Prix de Rome cantatas (Berlioz)
The French composer Hector Berlioz made four attempts at winning the Prix de Rome music prize, finally succeeding in 1830. As part of the competition, he had to write a cantata to a text set by the examiners. Berlioz's efforts to win the prize are described at length in his Memoirs. He regarded it as the first stage in his struggle against the musical conservatism represented by the judges, who included established composers such as Luigi Cherubini, François-Adrien Boieldieu and Henri Montan Berton. Berlioz's stay in Italy as a result of winning the prize also had a great influence on later works such as Benvenuto Cellini and Harold en Italie. The composer subsequently destroyed the scores of two cantatas (Orphée and Sardanapale) almost completely and reused music from all four of them in later works. There was a revival of interest in the cantatas in the late 20th century, particularly La mort de Cléopâtre, which has become a favourite showcase for the soprano and mezzo-soprano voice.
Berlioz and the Prix de Rome
The Prix de Rome was an award for composers allowing the winner to spend a year studying at the Villa Medici in Rome. It also entitled him to a five-year pension. The prize was adjudicated by the Paris Conservatoire. Entrants had to submit a fugue as proof of their compositional skills and the four successful candidates were then required to write a dramatic cantata to a text chosen by the judges.
The four cantatas are:
La mort d'Orphée
- Recitative: Quel trouble te poursuit, malheureuse Herminie!
- Aria: Ah! si de la tendresse
- Recitative: Que dis-je?
- Aria: Arrête! Arrête! Cher Tancrède
- Aria: Venez! Venez! Terribles armes! -and prayer: Dieu des chrétiens, toi que j'ignore
La mort de Cléopâtre
La mort de Cléopâtre ("The Death of Cleopatra") (1829) Text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard. For soprano and orchestra. Result: no first prize awarded.
Sardanapale ("Sardanapalus") (1830) Text by J.-F. Gail. For tenor, chorus and orchestra. Result: joint first prize.
All four cantatas
- Cantatas Béatrice Uria-Monzon (Cléopâtre), Michèle Lagrange (Herminie), Daniel Galvez-Vallejo (Orphée, Sardanapale). Jean-Claude Casadesus cond., Pas de Calais Choeur Régional Nord, Lille National Orchestra. CD, DDD, TT: 1h00m, Naxos. Cat. No: 8.555810, Barcode: 0747313581023
- Herminie (with Les nuits d'été) Mireille Delunsch, Paris Champs-Elysées Orchestra, Philippe Herreweghe
- Herminie (with Symphonie fantastique) Aurélia Legay, Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski
- Herminie (with La mort de Cléopâtre) Dame Janet Baker, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (Philips, 1979)
- Cléopâtre (with other works by Berlioz): Janet Baker, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Alexander Gibson (EMI, 1969)
- Cléopâtre (with Herminie): Dame Janet Baker, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (Philips, 1979)
- Cléopâtre (with Les nuits d'été): Véronique Gens, Lyon Opera Orchestra, Louis Langrée (Virgin, 2000)
- Cléopâtre (with Symphonie Fantastique): Olga Borodina, Wiener Philharmoniker, Valery Gergiev (Philips, 2003)
- Cléopâtre (with Symphonie Fantastique): Susan Graham, Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle (EMI, 2008)
- Steinberg, Michael. "The Symphony: a listeners guide". p. 61-66. Oxford University Press, 1995.
- David Cairns: Berlioz: The Making of an Artist (the first volume of his biography of the composer) (André Deutsch, 1989)
- Hugh Macdonald: Berlioz ("The Master Musicians", J.M.Dent, 1982)
- Berlioz: Memoirs (Dover, 1960)