The next great leap in symphonic writing after Beethoven, came from the Frenchman, Hector Berlioz. This composer was as mad and crazy as he was original and inventive.
Born in a village near Grenoble in the French Alps, he wasn’t a child prodigy and nor was he given a formal musical education in his early years. In 1826 his father, a doctor, sent him to Paris to study medicine. But Berlioz switched courses midway and went to study at the Paris Conservatoire instead, as you do. Berlioz could play the flute and guitar, though curiously couldn’t play the piano.
Whilst at the conservatoire he heard Beethoven’s symphonies for the first time. Whilst the French musical establishment thought Beethoven’s music was noisy, incoherent, without melody, and horribly difficult to play, Berlioz disagreed completely – except for maybe the hard to play bit. On hearing the Fifth, he said, “this style of writing is far above and beyond anything written in orchestral music until now”. Beethoven’s influence on the French composer was profound. Another major influence was the works of Shakespeare and Goethe.
In 1827 Berlioz watched a performance of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, whose star actress was the Irish Harriet Smithson; Berlioz fell in love. This episode, which I’ll explain later, was the seed for his early masterpiece, the Symphonie Fantastique. This symphony has the hallmarks of what makes Berlioz so important a composer; an incredible story teller, and the use of instruments in unusual ways to evoke the sounds he had in his head.
Berlioz was very particular when it came to his compositions. He took an interest in instrument design, made use of the new brass instruments that had valves, and even specifying the number of players needed for his works. Seen like this, he was almost scientific in his approach.
At the same time, however, he was also a bit crazy. He once gathered 1022 performers, including 36 double basses for Beethoven’s Fifth, 1200 players plus choruses with 5 sub conductors for another concert in 1855, 24 French horns for Weber’s Der Freischütz overture, 25 harps for Rossini’s Prayer of Moses.
In his final years he toured Europe a lot, conducting his music with new orchestras bringing it to new audiences, proving a challenge to both. His mental and physical health during his later years was also deteriorating. He returned to Paris from touring in 1868, where he died the following year.
- Symphonie Fantastique
Cond: Colin Davis. Orch: London Symphony Orchestra
As mentioned above, the seed for this masterpiece came from Berlioz’s infatuation with the Shakespearian actress, Harriet Smithson. How to impress her though? How about writing a major symphony, make a name for himself and then introduce himself, as equals? As bizarre as this might sound, and it gets weirder because its Berlioz, that’s what he did. This symphony, premiered in 1830, tells the story of an artist who falls madly in love with a woman, but unrequited leads him to overdose on opium in order to commit suicide. Instead of dying, though, he has wild hallucinations. In the end his head is chopped off by a guillotine. One of the great champions of Berlioz’s music was the late Sir Colin Davis. If there is a Berlioz recording by Davis, you can be sure it’s going to be good.
- Berlioz: Requiem; Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale (DECCA The Originals)
Cond: Colin Davis. Orch: London Symphony Orchestra. Chorus: London Symphony Chorus. Soloist: Ronald Dowd (Tenor)
This mighty Requiem, also called the Grande Messe des Morts, was commissioned in 1837 by the Ministry of the Interior to mark the death of the French war hero General Damremont. The scale of this work is massive. It’s about one and a half hours in length, scored for a huge orchestra which is to include 12 French horns, 4 tubas, 8 sets of timpani, with 4 extra off stage brass choirs, choir and a tenor. Again, Davis is at the helm steering things along in this landmark recording.
- Berlioz: Roméo & Juliette
Cond: John Eliot Gardiner. Orch: Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. Chorus: Monteverdi Choir.
Berlioz wrote 4 symphonies in total, all quite wildly different from one another. Romeo and Juliet is a choral symphony telling the doomed love story. It was premiered in 1839, 12 years after first seeing Smithson performing the role of Juliet. Berlioz adored Shakespeare, and Romeo and Juliet is not the only work of the bard he set to music. Interestingly, the roles of Romeo and Juliet are not sung, but “acted”/performed in the orchestra instead with the cellos representing the hero, and the woodwinds representing Juliet. Wagner was at the premiere upon whom it made a significant impression, enough for him to send Berlioz the score of Tristan and Isolde 20 years later inscribed with “To the dear and great author of Romeo and Juliet, from the grateful author of Tristan and Isolde.” Moving away from Davis for a bit, Gardiner is also a great Berlioz conductor, who uses period instruments for this recording.
- Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust; Harold in Italy
Cond: Igor Markevitch. Orch: L‘Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureax. Chorus: Chœur Elisabeth Brasseur. Soloists: Consuelo Rubio (mezzo); Richard Verreau (tenor); Michel Roux (baritone); and Pierre Mollet (bass).
Along with Shakespeare, the other great literary influence on Berlioz was Goethe. Regarding Goethe’s play Faust he said, “I read it incessantly, at meals, at the theatre, in the street, everywhere”. He set part of it to music in 1828/29, and expanded on it which was premiered in 1846. Whilst Berlioz’s rendering may seem like an opera, he actually called it a “concert opera”, but was published as a “dramatic legend”. It has a bit of everything really – opera, cantata, symphony – which is why it lacks catergorisation. Nonetheless, what this piece clearly does show, is Berlioz’s talent as a musical storyteller. There are a few decent recordings of the work, but to make sure every recommendation is not Colin Davis, I’ve opted for the Decca Originals Igor Markevitch recording instead, which is still one of the benchmark recordings of today.
- Berlioz: Les Troyens
Cond: Colin Davis. Orch: London Symphony Orchestra. Chorus: London Symphony Chorus.
Berlioz wrote 4 complete operas, and a 5th, La Nonne Sanglante, he left unfinished. The most important one out the lot is the epic Les Troyens, The Trojans, which tells the story of, if you haven’t guessed already, the Trojans. As far as ambition and scale is concerned, this is perhaps Berlioz’s most ambitious creation. It’s in 5 acts coming to about five and a half hours in total, with 19 singing roles, 2 silent and 1 spoken role, a huge orchestra and chorus, as well as various off stage instruments. It was written between 1856 and 1858, but the sheer scale of it meant only Acts 3-5 were premiered in 1863. Berlioz only heard the full thing performed once in his life. The first “serious” performance of the work took place at the Royal Opera in 1957 under Rafael Kubelik, even if it was in English.
If you want to see the spectacle on your screen then go for the blu-ray/dvd recording by Antonio Pappano, who conducts the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House.