In search of Les Troyens

What happened after the legendary city of Troy was sacked? The story continues in Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, which has less to do with history than with Roman myth-making. It was made into a wonderful opera by French composer Hector Berlioz.

Virgil wrote The Aeneid in Latin between 29 and 19 BCE to recount the legend of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. Aeneas was one of the few Trojans not killed in battle or enslaved when Troy fell. The first six of the poem’s 12 books tell the story of his wanderings and the poem’s second half tells of the Trojans’ ultimate victory over the Latins.

Virgil took the disconnected tales of Aeneas’ wanderings and his imaginary association with the foundation of Rome to fashion a compelling nationalist epic that at once tied Rome to the legends of Troy, explained the Punic wars, glorified traditional Roman virtues and legitimized the first five Roman emperors as descendants of the founders, heroes and gods of Rome and Troy.

The Aeneid was written at a time of major political and social change in Rome, with the fall of the Republic and the Final War of the Roman Republic having torn through society and when many citizens’ faith in the “Greatness of Rome” was faltering. However, the new emperor, Augustus Caesar (63 BCE to 14 CE), instituted an era of prosperity and peace. The Aeneid was seen as reflecting this aim, by depicting the heroic Aeneas as a man loyal to his country and its well-being.

The Aeneid early on became one of the essential elements of a Latin education, usually required to be memorized. In the 19th century, the French composer Hector Berlioz used it as the basis of his five-act opera Les Troyens (The Trojans). Berlioz had admired Virgil since childhood. In his memoirs, he recalled the emotional crisis caused by his father’s reading of Book IV and the death of Dido: “Virgil was the first to find a way to my heart and to enflame my growing imagination… The subject strikes me as grand, magnificent and profoundly moving.”

Written between 1856 and 1858, Les Troyens was Berlioz’s largest and most ambitious work and the pinnacle of his entire artistic career. Unfortunately, he never saw the opera performed in its entirety and only in 1921 was the complete work staged in France. There are, fortunately, several recordings, notably those conducted by Rafael Kubelik (1957), Sir Colin Davis (1969 and 2000), James Levine (1983), and Charles Dutoit (1993).

The English musicologist Hugh Macdonald, who has been general editor of the Hector Berlioz: New Edition of the Complete Works since its inception in 1967, has written: “The elevation of Les Troyens to its rightful place in the pantheon of great operatic masterpieces is the most striking and gratifying aspect of Berlioz’s standing in the modern world.”

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