Bumping into Berlioz, first-time. I know where I was (on the floor in front of my dad’s radiogram, music bug already bitten very deep) and I know what I heard: the fast bit of the Roman Carnival Overture (which was the total of that piece on a sampler LP of classical favourites, just as helpful as MFP including only the first two minutes of Alborada del gracioso on a similar compilation, orchestrated – waited some time to hear both scores complete – Ansermet for the Ravel), a colourful intro to the music of Berlioz. Loved it. (George Szell is now my yardstick.) From there to Symphonie fantastique, the much-regarded van Otterloo recording – Fontana vinyl, 12s & 6d in a department store – found the performance dull, a critic already in the making! Many Scaffolds and Witches later, not sure of my library choice, Cleveland/Boulez, Vienna Phil/Colin Davis certainly high on the list (although I sometimes wonder if Harold in Italy isn’t the even greater Symphony). Bit of a problem with the Requiem, but Louis Frémaux has sorted that one, and also with Romeo and Juliet (some of it miraculous, when not involving singers!); dare I again mention a Frenchman in Ohio (yellow label). Which Berlioz biggie is best? For me, Damnation of Faust: I am still in the Royal Festival Hall fifteen years on, Mark Elder conducting, although, later, same address, Charles Dutoit ran him very close. Smaller? I have a real soft spot for the Overtures, especially Waverley (Walter Scott), King Lear, Beatrice and Benedict. And, no, you can’t borrow my copy of Davis’s Dresden versions. Miss him greatly; I wonder if Sir Colin would have written a piece for this 150 gathering...
To me Berlioz is a true original in all music. I am inspired by his lifestyle as much as his music. Oh to behave like he did, off the leash of respectable behaviour and in the labyrinth of exotic joy. All this is in his miraculous music, hedonistic, wild, but also sublimely beautiful – think ‘L'adieu des bergers’ (from L’Enfance du Christ), my father’s favourite piece of music which I played at his graveside. Berlioz is an all-consuming passion of mine. His music is unique and incredibly vivid: a true musical hero never to be forgotten.
As it happens this year also marks 180 years since the completion of Berlioz’s Dramatic Symphony, Romeo and Juliet, composed two decades before Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which it clearly anticipates – to the extent of prophesying the ‘Tristan’ chord at the start of ‘Romeo alone’. Romeo is a musical miracle, the wildfire opening ‘combat’ a prompt for pulses to race; the ‘love music’ as unflinchingly confessional as any composed in any period; and ‘Queen Mab (Scherzo)’, purest filigree (with dramatic interruptions), and the ‘Invocation’ shocking to hear, even in today’s post-modern musical world. Okay, I’ll grant The Trojans its skilful construction and scale, the Fantastic Symphony its narrative splendour and Damnation of Faust its amazingly vivid characterisations, but Romeo and Juliet catches me afresh every time I hear it. If Berlioz had written nothing else he would still rate among the greatest composers of the early-Romantic era purely on the strength of it, if not the greatest.
Hector Berlioz is without question one of the most fascinating, imaginative and controversial musical geniuses in the galaxy of composers. As a young music student, I became obsessed with his work – its astonishing uniqueness and uncompromising originality. As a double major with the unlikely combination of classical guitar and orchestral conducting, I cherished Berlioz as a kind of personal hero. Not many people know that Berlioz played the guitar, and of course the instrument that inspired such enormous orchestral landscapes rarely finds a place in the symphony orchestra.
As my studies of his music progressed I was amazed by his courage, his personal vision of sound and color. Having had the chance to conduct much of his output in my career, I have begun to ponder what role the guitar might have played in his singular compositional world. Instead of being hampered by not playing an orchestra instrument on a professional level (as one might expect) and not having the opportunity to experience great compositions from inside the orchestra’s fabric, could Berlioz have been liberated by his unusual instrument? Could his guitar have led him to a compositional world without boundaries that unleashed the creativity that expressed itself in music of unparalleled individuality?
Some historians believe that Beethoven's deafness was in a way an inspiration, a strange advantage, as odd as that may seem. Beethoven avoided concerts and recitals in his later life and heard very little of the works of his contemporaries. He was certainly not an active participant in musical circles, choosing a solitary life as a way of hiding his disability. Without hearing the prevailing music of the time, Beethoven found an extraordinarily rich creative world in his mind, composing ground-breaking, even shocking works, some of which are still not completely understood. His private silent-music world was a fertile environment for vibrant imagination and experimentation. Could Berlioz also have found that his unusual background as a guitarist provided a platform that enhanced creativity in astonishing ways?
I suppose we can never know how much Berlioz's situation opened up a world of sound that existed in his mind – and led to amazing work, from brilliant Overtures to his Symphonie fantastique, to Romeo and Juliet and the Requiem. The guitarist in me would always like to think that our mutual instrument was in some way a humble catalyst for his unique orchestral genius.
Hector Berlioz died on 8 March 1869. On this day in 2019 the Philharmonia Orchestra is honouring the great Frenchman with a performance in St Paul’s Cathedral of his Requiem, the Grande Messe des morts, conducted by John Nelson. In 1969, half a century ago to the day, some Londoners may remember a performance of the same work at the Royal Albert Hall with the LSO, Bach Choir and the Cambridge University Musical Society Chorus conducted by David Willcocks. That year also saw a wonderful exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Berlioz and Romantic Imagination, as well as the publication of the translation by David Cairns of Berlioz’s Memoirs.
What is happening in 2019? Several record companies are issuing box sets of Berlioz’s works but the gold medal must go to Warner for the first-ever complete Berlioz edition, twenty-seven CDs, including world premiere recordings
The most exciting is of the surviving fragments of the unfinished (abandoned) opera La Nonne Saglante – some thirty-five minutes of music. Other operas in the set, as well as the Te Deum, are conducted by John Nelson. Warner have preferred Bernstein’s Harold in Italy (with Donald McInnes, viola) over the classic Colin Davis/Menuhin version, but Berlioz-champion Davis – who worked mainly with rival record companies – gets into the set conducting Janet Baker in Herminie.
The set also contains Berlioz’s arrangements and orchestrations of other composers’ works, but not included are the recitatives he composed for Weber’s Der Freischütz. Also omitted is the Prelude to The Trojans at Carthage. Nelson correctly does not include it in his complete Trojans recording, but nevertheless this unloved Prelude is unique in Berlioz’s oeuvre for its granite-like scoring. Warner has though recorded two early Fugues, played here on an organ, but there is another not here once published by Kalmus, and presumably authentic.
The final disc includes the first-ever complete recording of the Symphonie fantastique, dating from 1923, conducted by René-Emmanuel Baton, which is an interesting curiosity! A word of praise for the booklet: essay by David Cairns; numerous photographs and reproductions of manuscript pages from letters and scores; and details of Turner paintings.
If I had to single out the performance I enjoyed the most it would be Louis Frémaux’s Requiem, which Berlioz at the end of his life seemed to favour over all his other compositions. Fremaux’s way with it is almost unparalleled. Strange that a composer so deeply atheistic should write such profound religious music. This Warner set is the bargain of bargains.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
This 150th-anniversary of Berlioz's death provides us with a wonderful opportunity to reappraise, enjoy and admire his astonishing gifts as a composer. It seems to me Berlioz captures a lot of what Beethoven was about to unleash on the world if by some miracle he hadn't died in 1827, tone-deaf, disillusioned and with a broken heart. Oh, add to that, if he (Beethoven) had been born French and not German! (Actually, there was a brief moment thirty years before when Beethoven, aroused and inspired by the French Revolution, seriously considered relocating to Paris. Just imagine how differently the history of romantic music might have developed if Beethoven had taken up residence there and not moved to Vienna!)
The thing is that Berlioz had few inhibitions when it came to fusing poetic ideas and musical structures. Where Beethoven left us rather obvious hints of what he was picturing when he sat down to compose his Pastoral symphony, Berlioz gives us a detailed phantasmagorical account of what was going on in his super-charged imagination when he composed his Symphonie fantastique barely three years after Beethoven's passing. Son of a village doctor, brought up in a musical wilderness, Berlioz was only twenty-seven when he wrote it. He then followed it with a weird and rather wonderful sequel – Lélio – a so-called mélologue in which he spells out exactly what it was like to be him, Hector, a passionate, late-starting composer, with an obsessive attachment to Shakespeare, Homer and Virgil, and prone to catastrophic love attachments.
And if that wasn't enough, he followed Lélio with a second symphony – Harold in Italy – which, again, is pure autobiography, hiding this time behind the mask of Lord Byron's dreamer hero, Harold, who sets off on his travels, both physical and metaphysical. The work was meant to be a violin concerto for Paganini to play, but ended up as a dramatic symphony with a viola soloist holding imaginary conversations with different sections of the orchestra, or listening silently to them as they head off to a wild party or what he calls an ‘Orgy of Brigands’. That sums up life on the very edge for Hector Berlioz during the 1830s – at least in his fevered imagination – and brilliantly conveyed by him in abstract music that feels disturbingly alive to the torments of existence.
Berlioz never allowed his imagination to be confined by classical modes of expression, although he certainly studied and revered a few selected composers who preceded him – Gluck, Weber, and above all Beethoven. What I continue to value most of all about Berlioz is his romantic chutzpah – his astonishing daring as a composer, his phenomenal ear for orchestral rhythms and sonorities, but also the haunting beauty of his melodies. I believe that his instrumental colours register most vividly when played on the original instrument types he assembled with such care when painting these revolutionary orchestral canvasses. To recover this rich and subtle palette of instrumental colours has been the motivating force behind our Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique for the past three decades.
Did Berlioz know of Debussy? I like to think so.
Berlioz’s second wife died in 1862, the year Debussy was born. Berlioz and Debussy’s family were living in separate parts of Paris, and soon afterwards, Berlioz travelled to Russia (Czar Nicholas I was the dedicatee of the Symphonie fantastique), for a successful extended visit, during which he was much admired.
On his return Berlioz complained of feeling unwell. He travelled south to Nice to recuperate for a time, but he had a bad fall on some rocks on the sea-shore and, now rather frail, he returned to Paris. For some years he had been living at No.4 in the Rue de Calais in Clichy (round the corner from the Boulevard de Clichy, where, at No.10, Darius Milhaud was to live with his wife from their engagement in 1924 until they both passed away – Madeleine Milhaud in 2006 at the age of 105).
Debussy was the eldest of five children, but the father’s shop proved unsuccessful and following its closure in 1864 the family was obliged to live with Debussy’s grandmother in Clichy. From 1868, Debussy’s family’s circumstances improved, and the family moved into their own apartment in Rue Saint-Honoré.
It is a remarkable coincidence that France’s two greatest composers found themselves living on the Rue de Calais at the same time. It is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility that Berlioz, taking a morning constitutional with his stick along the long street, would have seen the boy, riding his little tricycle, accompanying his mother and his younger siblings in the family pram, en route to – where? The park, the shops of the Boulevard de Clichy, with the great composer, anxious not to precipitate another fall, stopping and raising his hat to Madame Debussy and smiling at the five-year-old Claude-Achille, riding his little cycle on the pavement, the boy proudly showing-off his new present to the elderly gentleman.
West London, Tuesday August 16 1960. The warren of streets between Holland Park and Kensington Gardens. Old houses, low-rise new-builds. Balmy. Threatening clouds. Together with a group of friends from the 'posh' end of town south of Notting Hill, I'd spent the afternoon doing nothing. One of my companions was a pianist (he ended up in America, a mathematical genius) studying with Tanya Polunin, who in her studio at 46 Clarendon Road taught “according to the principles of Professor Leschetizky”. I envied his facility – he had a way with Chopin and tangos. His younger sister (she ended up in France) was into Cliff Richard. One of their Lycée Français circle was a pale girl in a grey silk dress who'd modelled Hanover Square Haydn fashion in at least one book. I used to take her rowing on the Serpentine (she went into Mexican art). Then there was Gilda, whose family originated from the East End. I knew her less well. But she played a surprising role that day. As we said our au revoirs, she blurted out: “My dad's on the radio tonight, he's a singer, have a listen.” I wasn't into singers – pianists and conductors were my thing – but, yes, I said, thanks, I will, feigning enthusiasm.
7.30 p.m., BBC Third Programme. The Proms. Royal Albert Hall, pre-'flying saucer' acoustic, cavernous. First half. Beethoven's incidental music to Egmont, Marius Goring narrating. Second half. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, members of the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Wembley Philharmonic Society. John Pritchard conducting. The finest English 'Italian' tenor of the post-war, Gilda's father, brought up on Caruso – Charles Craig. Tuning in to an unwieldy, scarcely adequate, Bush medium-wave radio, mono only, what on earth, I wondered, was in store? Berlioz, Grande Messe des morts, Opus 5 – belatedly, its premiere at the Proms. At this point in time I remember the occasion more than the notes. The brass bands of the ‘Dies irae’, at the four compass points of the hall, were loud but, inevitably, muddied, without spatial sense – BBC stereo didn't start until April 1966. But then, out of nowhere, came the D-flat Sanctus, with Craig's voice, a huge, focussed presence, floating the cadences, the high B-flats soaring without restriction, bloomed and glowing like soft candle-light in a cathedral. I was completely won over, dizzy with the beauty of it all, feeling oddly connected. After all, I knew his daughter…
Soon the proud owner of a Breitkopf vocal score, then a miniature one (of the larger yellow Eulenburg variety), I got to know the work in every detail of structure, tonality, orchestration and choral writing. Total immersion. Even before the Symphonie fantastique. But I found it emotionally draining to experience too frequently. Like Shostakovich Eight, Bruckner Eight, Mahler Two, it was only for occasional listening, every few years or so. At the 1967 Proms, August 23, I had my first exposure in person, in a performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under George Hurst, Gerald English taking the solo part. I think I reviewed it.
More lasting, life-definingly so, was my next encounter. Friday June 6 1969. 8.15 p.m., St Paul's Cathedral. London Symphony Orchestra, regimental bands. Four choirs. Colin Davis. Ronald Dowd. Marking the centenary of Berlioz's death, with programme notes by David Cairns – a writer steeped in the eloquence of words, like William Mann and Deryck Cooke – this was a performance that thundered and ricocheted around the building from Wellington to Valhalla. The clamour of the ‘Dies irae’, the massive gloire of the E-flat brass fanfares of the 'Tuba mirum', shook the vaults, the sound reaching for the dome, wanting to escape. Two moments haunted me. The pianissimo cymbals and gran cassa on the reprise of the ‘Sanctus’, with an effect like swinging incense burners stopping for no man. And the sixteen subterranean funeral drums at the close, throbbing their G-major 'Amen', each piano chord dying to nothing, the nave stilled in awe.
Over the coming years other performances yielded a mixture of surprises, cautions and disappointments. In his Vienna period, Leif Segerstam produced one of the best ‘Lacrimosa’ finishes, accented bass drum, violas and cellos cutting through the mix with theatrical clarity. Involved in a performance with Loris Tjeknavorian and the LSO at the Royal Albert Hall, I was struck by the sheer enormity of balancing and co-ordination difficulties the music poses. André Previn proved conclusively (disastrously) that in a dry acoustic like the Royal Festival Hall, the architecturally placed pauses and temporal science of the work – designed for a large resonant acoustic: the first performance, in 1837, was in Les invalides, location of the 1975 Bernstein recording, and Scherchen's much earlier – simply become a nonsense. I've long had this fantasy that the tenor soloist should somehow be suspended above the orchestra, a voice in the distance beyond mortal contact. John Eliot Gardiner came close at St Denis in 2012, with Michael Spyres (ideally unforced in his delivery) placed high. For all the vast resources at his disposal, Berlioz gives us much in these pages that is restrained and refined, wondrously so. As well as in the ‘Sanctus’ a duet for tenor and (purifying) flute that is sublime – but also treacherous. In Dudamel's 2014 account at Notre Dame, Andrew Staples and Magali Mosnier, individual moments of tone and fine phrasing notwithstanding, never entirely got it together. For an alternative interpretation, informed by period practice, and with French rather than Italian Latin pronunciation (“coeli”, for example, becoming see-lee rather than chay-lee), Paul McCreesh's 2011 Signum Classics release, with Robert Murray (ethereally placed), the Gabrieli Players and Consort, and the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, has proved an enlightening companion.
“If”, Berlioz wrote from his bed in January 1867, “I were threatened by the destruction of my entire works save one, I should crave mercy for the Messe des morts.” Sixty years with this music and I am more passionate about it than ever. But I have yet to find again Charles Craig...
Berlioz is the dearest of all composers to me. I feel almost as though I composed his music in a previous lifetime.
Berlioz: A Revolutionary in Context. When one thinks of French music and its beginnings, thoughts turn to composers such as Rameau, Couperin and others of the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. After that, and almost for one hundred years, it is difficult to name many other composers from that country who made an impactful impression in the world of classical music.
Into this void Hector Berlioz is born. The small village of La Côte-Saint-André will become an important part of France’s history because of his birth in 1803. With very little musical training and studying the flageolet – a kind of recorder – flute and guitar, the young man would begin his life with the plan of becoming a medical practitioner. It is only when he moved to Paris in 1821, and was exposed to music in its full bloom, that Berlioz decided to pursue that avenue as his profession.
In order to understand his significance as a firebrand and innovator, it is necessary to know what else was taking place when he wrote some of his greatest music. And it is equally important to understand that this basically self-taught individual was soaking up all the sounds of those who would become his idols and enemies.
Probably the earliest indication of Berlioz’s individuality comes in 1820, with his first important work, Les Francs-Juges. What else was being written that year? Beethoven’s life is coming to an end, but he produces the great String Quartets, Opuses 130 and 131, certainly innovative and harmonically ahead of anything else written at the time. Mendelssohn’s career is starting with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, already individual but conservative. Schubert is busy with lengthy works, such as his late Quartets and Sonatas.
All these works and many others pointed to the end of classicism and sowed the seeds for the soon-to-be romantic movement. Berlioz went against the formal structures of the time and produced, even at this early juncture, music that raised the eyebrows. His incredible use of the orchestra, particularly the trombones, showed remarkable predilections for the unusual, quite amazing for someone who never studied orchestration. There were no teachers for this subject at the time.
Six years later, came the big breakthrough. The Symphonie fantastique was unlike anything else that had come before. In many ways, this was the first large-scale concert work that utilized a true program as its model. Liszt was still a very young man and had not yet moved to Paris. Berlioz kept, in a way, the traditional structure of sonata form in the first movement of his epic, but was already introducing a leitmotif into the Symphony, also something bold for the time. As for the remainder of the Symphony, each movement defies the conventions of the time. Chopin is writing his First Piano Concerto, Mendelssohn has moved on to his Reformation Symphony and Weber completed Oberon. They seem reactionary in comparison to the young Frenchman.
In contrast to the aforementioned works, it is easy to understand that reactions to the fantastique were decidedly mixed. There had been nothing like it and when equated to other new music of the time, Berlioz path was not on the straight and narrow. It was as if he was slightly ahead of all the others. During his lifetime, he was moving in directions just as others were starting their compositional careers. Schumann, Wagner and Verdi were merely babes in the woods when Berlioz wrote Roméo et Juliette.
By the time he completed Les Troyens, Bruckner was just starting off and French opera was represented by works such as The Pearl Fishers. Perhaps familiarity has caused us to forget how truly advanced Berlioz was for his time. But that is the way with revolutionaries. They cause or create change. Just as we are soon to celebrate the 250th-anniversary of another musical rebel, let us not forget that the death of Hector Berlioz was 150 years ago. Beethoven created a bridge between classicism and the romantic era. Berlioz crossed over that musical viaduct and took us to an entirely different world.
150 years after his death, Hector Berlioz remains one of music's most fascinating and contradictory figures. He wrote some of the most exciting music ever to be heard in the concert hall, and yet even in a work as popular and electrifying as Symphonie fantastique there are moments that even many of the most sympathetic musicians and listeners find quite boring. He is best remembered as a maximalist, as the man who doubled the size of the symphony orchestra and brought brass bands into the Requiem, and yet he was capable of penning a work like L'Enfance du Christ, a work of obsessive intimacy and delicacy. He was at his best when inspired by God, Satan or opium.
French to his core, he found inspiration in Shakespeare and acolytes in Mahler and Liszt and a champion in Schumann. He remains a controversial and underappreciated figure in his homeland, but has always found champions in the UK, particularly in the lifelong advocacy of Colin Davis.
As a wizard of the orchestra, he was without peer in his day, and the later innovations of Mahler, Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov are all unthinkable without Berlioz’s inventions. However, even though he wrote a book on orchestration, there are many passages in his music which need real help from the performers to bring off. Because he was not an instrumentalist, and perhaps also because his music was so outside of the norms of his time, he was long accused of being close to an amateur, a reputation that was only definitively refuted in the 1950s and 1960s with the emergence of his music on LP.
He was fascinated by the possibilities of layering musical time, often having musical ideas unfold independently of one another in different phrase lengths or even in different metres. And yet, his music can lack a sense of development and direction. He never developed the quality of musical narrative that makes works by composers as diverse as Beethoven, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky so easy to follow. Instead, like Liszt, it is often the shock of the material he uses, rather than the way in which he develops it, which frequently makes the greatest impression.
However, somehow in spite his sometimes-shaky approach to large-scale form, Berlioz became one of music’s greatest dramatists, writing one of the wittiest settings of Shakespeare in opera history, Béatrice et Bénédict, and one of the grandest of historical epics, his masterpiece, Les Troyens. Alongside these, one must also mention La Damnation de Faust, which captures this fascinating and enigmatic composer particularly well. It’s a work not completely at home in either the concert hall, for which it was conceived, or in the opera theatre, where it found its first success and is still often encountered. But what a work it is.
It seems that many of Berlioz’s major works were never meant to be mainstream repertoire items, but to be once-in-a-generation events. One can’t easily imagine pieces like the Grande Messe des morts or Les Troyens ever achieving the ubiquity of Mahler 2 or Tristan und Isolde, but heard in the right atmosphere of concentration and given the right sense of occasion, they can be overwhelming. On the other hand, his Overtures are almost all gems and should be heard much more often than they are. From a conductor’s point of view, however, his music is about as fun to conduct as it gets.