Prix de Rome cantatas (Berlioz)

The French composer Hector Berlioz made four attempts at winning the Prix de Rome music prize, finally succeeding in 1830. As part of the competition, he had to write a cantata to a text set by the examiners. Berlioz's efforts to win the prize are described at length in his Memoirs. He regarded it as the first stage in his struggle against the musical conservatism represented by the judges, who included established composers such as Luigi Cherubini, François-Adrien Boieldieu and Henri Montan Berton. Berlioz's stay in Italy as a result of winning the prize also had a great influence on later works such as Benvenuto Cellini and Harold en Italie. The composer subsequently destroyed the scores of two cantatas (Orphée and Sardanapale) almost completely and reused music from all four of them in later works. There was a revival of interest in the cantatas in the late 20th century, particularly La mort de Cléopâtre, which has become a favourite showcase for the soprano and mezzo-soprano voice.

Berlioz and the Prix de Rome

The Prix de Rome was an award for composers allowing the winner to spend a year studying at the Villa Medici in Rome. It also entitled him to a five-year pension. The prize was adjudicated by the Paris Conservatoire. Entrants had to submit a fugue as proof of their compositional skills and the four successful candidates were then required to write a dramatic cantata to a text chosen by the judges.

The cantatas

The four cantatas are:

La Mort d'Orphée

La Mort d'Orphée ("The Death of Orpheus") (1827) Text by Berton. For tenor, chorus and orchestra. Berlioz's result: failed


Herminie ("Erminia") (1828) Text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard. For soprano and orchestra. Result: second prize.

  1. Recitative: Quel trouble te poursuit, malheureuse Herminie!
  2. Aria: Ah! si de la tendresse
  3. Recitative: Que dis-je?
  4. Aria: Arrête! Arrête! Cher Tancrède
  5. Aria: Venez! Venez! Terribles armes! -and prayer: Dieu des chrétiens, toi que j'ignore

The theme from the first movement was later used as the idée fixe in the Symphonie fantastique of 1830.[1]


Cléopâtre ("The Death of Cleopatra") (1829) Text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard. For soprano and orchestra. Result: no first prize awarded.


Sardanapale ("Sardanapalus") (1830) Text by Jean François Gail. For tenor, chorus and orchestra. Result: joint first prize.


All four cantatas




  1. Steinberg, Michael. "The Symphony: a listeners guide". p. 61-66. Oxford University Press, 1995.


External links

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