Berlioz’s “Les Nuits d’été” (“The Summer Nights”)
Notes by TŌN cellist Eva Roebuck
Agony, ecstasy, the progress of love—from youthful innocence to loss, and finally, renewal. These are the beautiful themes explored in Hector Berlioz’ Le Nuits d’été.
For a popular composer who was widely recognized for his highly publicized letters, there is remarkably little known about the song cycle Les Nuits d’été (The Summer Nights). It is never once mentioned in his volume of memoirs, nor is it clear the inspiration for whom they were written. However, this cycle of six songs emerged around the time that Berlioz’s personal and professional life were on a conflicting and adverse trajectory, giving us a vague yet fascinating background of its genesis.
A Dying Marriage
Composed around 1840–41, this was the same time in Berlioz’s life where his marriage to Harriet Smithson was dwindling to an unhappy conclusion. While an infatuated Berlioz had most zealously pursued Smithson up until their marriage in 1833, the reality of their proceeding union was not what Smithson had expected. Smithson’s emotional and physical state had been deteriorating; no longer was she the woman who captivated Paris with her illustrious Shakespeare performances, but instead a woman who was ill, isolated, and desperately frustrated with the sacrifices she was having to make for her husband’s career. Additionally, Berlioz had already embarked on an affair with mezzo-soprano Marie Recio, who would later become his second wife after Harriet’s death in 1854. While Berlioz continued to be fond of Harriet, it was no longer in the same rapturous way he had once passionately loved and pursued her as his muse.
Love Through Many Seasons
In Les Nuits d’été, Berlioz selected six poems from the volume La comédie de la mort (The Comedy of Death) by his close friend Théophile Gautier. The poems consider love from many perspectives and through different seasons (both literal and metaphorical), but hints of loss and longing permeate them all. When performed as a cycle, Les nuits d’été conveys this sense of loss all the more strongly, not just as individual songs touched by wistfulness, but as a cohesive and heart wrenching story of flirtation and desire, guilt and loss, passion and the unattainable. Perhaps Berlioz’s idealistic love for Harriet had faded, leaving behind this melancholic ponderance of love, death, and eternity.