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Berlioz: The Death Of Cleopatra

Can you guess this piece? Here’s a hint: Death in the desert. . .

In the world of 19th and 20th French composers, the Prix de Rome was one of the most prestigious prizes a composer could hope to win. The winner, if he happened to beat out his competitors in an extremely grueling sequence of elimination rounds, would study at the Academy of France in Rome for one year at the expense of the King of France himself. Hector Berlioz was one of a number of great French composers bestowed with this honor, but only after he had entered the competition four times over the course of his career. For his third attempt in 1829, he submitted this piece, The Death of Cleopatra. The work depicts the Egyptian queen in her final moments after inducing a cobra to bite her. The competition jury was so taken aback and outraged at the sheer intensity of the work that they awarded no First Prize that year. Berlioz finally won the Prix de Rome in 1830, and his career as a composer began to take flight.

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