Dramatic Vocalise Database

Hector Berlioz (1803–69)

Tristia, Op. 18 ([published 1852])

La Mort d’Ophélie for solo voice and piano, originally composed ten years earlier, appeared modified for two-part women’s chorus and chamber orchestra in 1848, the version that would finally be published as the second piece of Tristia. The song is a varied strophic setting in four stanzas of a French paraphrase of Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s death from act 4 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose text was possibly written for Berlioz by Ernest Legouvé.1 Incidentally, Ophelia was the role that Harriet Smithson portrayed in Paris when Berlioz attended the first performance of Hamlet in September 1827.

Like Le Ballet des ombres, each of the stanzas ends with similar musical material. In addition, at the end of the first and last stanza the chorus sings a melismatic “Ah!,” expressing the underlying mood of lamentation. Abbreviated musical reminiscences of this motive appear at the end of the second stanza in the violins doubled by flute, and then in violins alone at the end of the third stanza.

Berlioz, La Mort d’Ophélie, mm. 155–59

Berlioz again turned to dramatic vocalization in Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet, the third piece from Tristia. Originally conceived as incidental music commissioned for a planned performance of Shakespeare’s play in 1844 at the Odéon, Berlioz completed the piece in 1848 and published it with the rest of Opus 18 in 1852.2 In the score, Berlioz directs the mixed chorus and percussion to be placed offstage and some distance from the orchestra.3 The chorus’s contributions are limited to singing “Ah” on rare occasions, and only on the tonic and dominant pitches.

(Nauman 2009, 38–39)



La Mort d’Ophélie

March funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet


1 Hector Berlioz, Tristia, op. 18, ed. David Charlton, in New Edition of the Complete Works of Hector Berlioz, vol. 12b (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1993), x.

2 Ibid., 217. A reproduction of the title page from the autograph full score of Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet shows the following quote in English of Prince Fortinbras’s final speech:

3 Ibid., 99: “Le ch œur, les tambours, la grosse caisse, les cymbales et le tamtam doivent être placés derrière la scène et assez loin de l’orchestre. Il faut avec le ch œur deux violins ou deux altos pour empêcher les voix de baisser.” [“The chorus, the drums, the bass drum, the cymbals, and the tamtam must be placed behind the scene and quite far from the orchestra. It is necessary to have two violins or two violas with the chorus to prevent the voices from falling.”]