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Berlioz used the money primarily to repay his debts, and afterwards was still left with "a handsome sum of money", which he used to allow himself to put his full focus towards working on "a really important work", unobstructed by his usual time-consuming obligations as a critic.The work's libretto is not sourced from the original plays, and as a result contains changes from Shakespeare's play, both in the version Berlioz worked from, and subsequent cuts he and his librettist made.Structurally and musically, Roméo et Juliette is most indebted to Beethoven's 9th symphony - not just due to the use of soloists and choir, but in factors such as the weight of the vocal contribution being in the finale, and also in aspects of the orchestration such as the theme of the trombone recitative at the Introduction.If, in the famous garden and cemetery scenes, the dialogue of the two lovers, Juliet's asides, and Romeo's passionate outbursts are not sung, if the duets of love and despair are given to the orchestra, the reasons for this are numerous and easy to understand.Reactions to the piece were quite varied, as could be expected for a radical work.However, it was widely acknowledged that Berlioz had scored a major triumph in these first performances; a "tour de force such as only my system of sectional rehearsals could have achieved".
The libretto was written by Émile Deschamps, and the completed work was assigned the catalogue numbers Op. It is based on Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet; it is regarded as one of Berlioz's finest works, and it is among the most original in form.
By the third act, scarcely able to breathe—it was as though an iron hand had gripped me by the heart—I knew that I was lost.
I may add that at the time I did not know a word of English; I could only glimpse Shakespeare darkly through the mists of Letourneur's translation; the splendour of the poetry which gives a whole new glowing dimension to his glorious works was lost on me. But the power of the acting, especially that of Juliet herself, the rapid flow of the scenes, the play of expression and voice and gesture, told me more and gave me a far richer awareness of the ideas and passions of the original than the words of my pale and garbled translation could do.
In his Memoirs, Berlioz describes the electrifying effect of the drama: ...
to steep myself in the fiery sun and balmy nights of Italy, to witness the drama of that passion swift as thought, burning as lava, radiantly pure as an angel's glance, imperious, irresistible, the raging vendettas, the desperate kisses, the frantic strife of love and death, was more than I could bear.