La mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra) was one of four secular cantatas by the nineteenth-century French composer Berlioz written for the Prix de Rome competition held annually by the Académie des Beaux-arts, one of the four Académies that constituted the Institut de France in the nineteen century. The competition’s aim was to give young composers a chance for presenting their creative talents to the public; grant pension money for five years; and provide a two-year residence at the Villa Medici in Rome. Those who applied to the Prix de Rome competition were asked to submit a fugue, a contrapuntal composition for multiple voices, as proof of their sophisticated compositional skills. Four successful candidates would then be required to write a dramatic cantata, or scène lyrique, set to a text selected by the competition judges. He finally won the prize in 1830 with Sardanapale, which provided him with the opportunity to reside in Italy. His experiences in Italy inspired him to compose Benvenuto Cellini and Harold in Italy.
Written a year before Sardanapale, in 1829, Le mort de Cléopâtre did not win the first prize. As Berlioz himself writes in his Memoirs, the judges, including such composers as Luigi Cherubini, François-Adrien Boieldieu, and Henri-Montan Berton, were arguably too conservative and were not able to appreciate the composer’s advanced musical language at that time. Berlioz’s progressive musical language was a product of his imaginative harmony and orchestration as well as his fresh reading of the dramatic and sensitive story of Cleopatra’s last moment.
The whole scène lyrique based on the imaginative text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard can be divided into two parts according to its dramatic content: the first section is Cleopatra’s soliloquy, a self-reflection of her beauty and glory; the second section, prompted by her “méditation,” depicts her agony that leads the piece into the tragic but tranquil end.