Grande Sonate Dramatique ‘Titus et Bérénicé’

Composer: Rita Strohl (b. 1865 - d. 1941)
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Composer: Rita Strohl (b. 1865 - d. 1941)

Performance date: 02/07/2019

Venue: Bantry Library

Composition Year: 1892

Duration: 00:41:28

Recording Engineer: Ciaran Cullen, RTÉ

Instrumentation: vn, va, vc, db, pf

Instrumentation Category:Duo

Artists: Pascal Amoyel - [piano]
Emmanuelle Bertrand - [cello]

Rita Strohl [1865-1941]

Grande Sonate Dramatique ‘Titus et Bérénice’ [1892]

1. Moderato – molto movimento – Incertitude de Titus

2. Vivace – Appartements de Bérénice.  

3. Lento, tristamente – Bérénice sait tout

4. Allegro molto movimento – Le terrible moment approche

Rita Strohl’s Sonate Dramatique, based on Racine’s Titus et Bérénice, has been described as a sort of Wagnerian music drama in four acts. She was a child prodigy pianist, composer, librettist and ardent Wagnerian. She married a naval officer, Émile Strohl, in 1888 and bore three children but still found time to compose. She published some fifty works including sonatas, trios, quartets, songs and orchestral pieces. Her husband died in 1900 and her second husband was both an architect and another Wagnerian. Together they began to build La Grange, a theatre they planned to make into a French Bayreuth. The First World War doomed this ambitious project.

The score is prefaced by a plot summary from Racine: “Titus, who passionately loved Bérénice and who was widely thought to have promised to marry her, sent her from Rome, in spite of himself and in spite of herself, in the early days of his Empire”. Titus, a Roman general, directed the brutal siege of Jerusalem (69-70 CE). Bérénice, a Jewish princess, was the sister of King Agrippa II and reigned jointly with him. Famously the two of them stood in favourable judgement over St Paul when he was accused by the Pharisees. But when Bérénice met and fell in love with Titus, she followed him to Rome and lived with him in his palace, but was forbidden to marry him. The drama begins when he was made Emperor but was forced to abandon her.

Racine’s tragedy concentrates on the decision by Titus to send Bérénice away. It is unusual in that the play does not lead to the death of any of the characters. Each movement of the sonata is intended as a description of a particular stage of this great classical tragedy of two lovers forced apart by circumstance. The magnificent first movement poses the dilemma Titus faces, his great passion for Bérénice set against affairs of state. The music makes clear this contrast, the immediate threat is posed in the opening Recitativ, the torrent of passion soon follows, the cello unfolding long lines of almost uninterrupted melody as the exotic Eastern Queen tries to overwhelm the indecisive Roman soldier with the power of her love and her beauty. 

The Scherzo gives a rest from passionate utterance as Bérénice’s attendants attempt to distract her with their singing and dancing. Imitating the quality of women’s voices, the movement is scored very high and only once rises above a piano dynamic. The tragedy begins to unfold in the Lento movement, where the cello unfurls her unbearably beautiful song of loss and betrayal, first gently and sadly, but later sinking to a song of utter desolation concluding with a single brutal piano chord. 

The Finale brings us to the final separation of the lovers, where their passion ignites in one final whirlwind of emotion before Titus turns to leave in a final presto coda with Bérénice’s words ringing in his ears: you insist that you love me, and yet it is at your command that I must go! Ah cruel one. Show me less love, for pity’s sake!

David Winter (translations from the French by Paula Kennedy)