Tristia (Berlioz)

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Tristia, Op. 18 is a musical work consisting of three short pieces for orchestra and chorus by the French composer Hector Berlioz. Apart from its title, it has nothing to do with the collection of Latin poems by Ovid (the word tristia in Latin means 'sad things'). The individual works were composed at different times and published together in 1852. Berlioz associated them in his mind with Shakespeare's Hamlet, one of his favourite plays. They were never performed during the composer's lifetime.

Details of the work[edit]

The three movements are:

  1. Méditation religieuse (Religious Meditation) A setting of a poem by Thomas Moore (translated into French by Louise Belloc) for six-part chorus and small orchestra. It was composed during Berlioz's stay in Rome in 1831.
  2. La Mort d'Ophélie (The death of Ophelia) A setting of a ballade by Ernest Legouvé, based on Gertrude's description of Ophelia's drowning in Act IV of Hamlet. It was originally composed for solo voice and piano in 1842 but in 1848 Berlioz revised it for female choir and orchestra.
  3. Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d'Hamlet (Funeral March for the final scene of Hamlet). The score bears the date September 22, 1848 on it, but it was probably composed in late 1844 and revised on this date. It was composed fore a stage performance of Hamlet at the Odéon Theatre that never took place. Berlioz never heard the work. It is the most famous of the three pieces.
   "The piece opens in A minor and throughout the piece is a consistent rhythm that is the same rhythm in the funeral march of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. Berlioz keeps the rhythm in the cellos and basses in the A section were as Beethoven takes it through the whole orchestra. Beethoven's B section is in the parallel major key and is very different from the previous section. Berlioz B section is a fanfare with the same rhythm used in the last section. Throughout the piece, the chorus intones on "ah!". Unlike many of Berlioz pieces, thos one excludes the ophicleide. Berlioz requires the six side drums, cymbals, tamtam, and chorus to be behind the scenes. He also wants two violins or violas to play with the chorus to keep them in tune. At the climax of the piece there is a volley of musketry for that measure.
   "Berlioz having conducted the Beethoven symphonies numerous times knew almost by heart each one of them. He analyzed all of them and compiled his analyses in his book A Traver Chant ("Through Fields of Song", a parody on the common phrase "A traver champs" or "Through fields of pasture"). Here is his analisys of the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony:  
      "As in the first movement though in a different form, a simple rhythm is again the principal cause of the extraordinary effect produced by the allegretto. The rhythmic pattern consists merely of a dactyl followed by a spondee played relentlessly, either in three parts, or in only one, then in all parts together. Sometimes it serves as an accompaniment, but frequently it focuses attention on itself, and also provides the starting point for a small fugal episode with two subjects played by the strings. It appears first in the lower strings – violas, cellos, double-basses – played piano, then is repeated soon after in a pianissimo full of melancholy and mystery. From there it passes to the second violins while the cellos sing a kind of lament in the minor mode. The rhythmic pattern rises from octave to octave, reaches the first violins who then pass it in a crescendo to the wind instruments at the top of the orchestra, where it bursts out in its full force. Sounded with even greater vehemence the melody now assumes the character of an anguished lament. Conflicting rhythms clash painfully with each other; these are tears, sobs and supplications, this is the expression of limitless grief and all-consuming suffering… But a ray of hope appears: these heartbreaking sounds are followed by a transparent melody, pure, simple, gentle, sad and resigned like patience smiling to suffering. The basses continue on their own with their inexorable rhythm under this melodic rainbow; to borrow yet another quotation from English poetry,

« One fatal remembrance, one sorrow, that throws

Its black shade alike o'er our joys and our woes. »
   After a similar alternation of anguish and resignation, the orchestra, as though drained by such a painful struggle, plays only fragments of the main theme and collapses in exhaustion. Flutes and oboes pick up the theme in a dying voice, but do not have the strength to finish it, which the violins do with a few barely audible pizzicato notes. At this point the wind instruments, reviving like the flame of a candle on the point of extinction, utter a deep sigh on an unresolved harmony and… the rest is silence. This mournful cry, which begins and ends the andante, is produced by a six-four chord, which always tends to resolve itself onto another one. Ending on an unresolved harmony is the only way to conclude, by leaving the listener in suspense and thereby increasing the impression of dreamy sadness into which everything that came before must have plunged him." 
    The score quotes the very last lines of Hamlet, spoken by Fortinbras in Act five, Scene two:
                "Let four captains
          Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
          For he was likely, had he been put on,
          To have prov’d most royally: and for his passage
          The soldier’s music, and the rites of war,
          Speak loudly for him.
          Take up the bodies: – such a sight as this
          Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
          Go, bid the soldiers shoot."


  • David Cairns: Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness (the second volume of his biography of the composer) (Viking, 1999)
  • Hugh Macdonald: Berlioz ("The Master Musicians", J.M.Dent, 1982)
  • Berlioz: Memoirs (Dover, 1960)

External links[edit]