Thursday, October 20, 2011

Music of the Great Composers – Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Berlioz in Rome, 1832

With Hector Berlioz, we have come to a person in whom many “firsts” are embodied; really the first Frenchman to gain international reputation as a composer, and largely outside of France in fact, the first of the great composers in this series to be born in the 19th century and really the first, since a particular Frenchman in J.S. Bach's day, to make a name for himself as an orchestra conductor, despite never achieving the permanence of a paid official post. Berlioz was widely travelled in Europe, from Britain to Russia, spent much time in Italy, even turned down an offer to tour America.

EK-tor BEAR-lee-ohze, ... is close to how the French would pronounce it: they often have to stumble over our own names in France … He emerged from some obscurity and became a kind of musical ambassador for things that were filling the cultural void in Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. These were at the time and are still today called “romantic,” implying not associations with love necessarily, as with themes from literature, fictional of course, which became more readily available and sold to a burgeoning literate middle class. Women were becoming a higher percentage of the audience for music than ever before. Berlioz was to be influenced by literature all his life, from the Roman classics, some he translated from Latin into French, through Shakespeare and Byron (due to his interests, he apparently learned to speak some English). He probably thought he was taking his tip from Beethoven, whom Berlioz always admired, who had also had literary interests.

Berlioz was also among the first to get the idea of a modern orchestra (or large band, as he worked with them also), to perform in concerts, which were deliberately directed at the general public, rather than for a select aristocracy. In this new, post royal commission world, obviously the way one made one's money was through ticket sales, often sold as subscriptions months in advance. But not all concerts were sold this way and if the weather were bad, as occasionally happened, one didn't make money.

Harriet Smithson 1800-1854
Another movement that was gaining ground all over Europe was the establishment of conservatories of music which were started in various cities. These provided the student orchestras, like the one in Vienna that Schubert had tried to use to première his works, and selected and kept alive the musical talent of Europe during this period. This is not to say that these schools produced very many great composers, and Berlioz was no exception, for he was entirely self-taught, though he did accept criticism and doggedly pursued a certain prize, Le Prix de Rome, which entitled the winner to five years' free stipend, plus the recognition of being among the finest artists in France, just for staying and studying in Rome for a couple of years. After three unsuccessful tries, he finally won it. But as it turned out Berlioz hated Rome and spent as much time as he could travelling out into the Italian countryside. This was to be one of many great hollow triumphs in Berlioz' life. Another was his marriage to the English actress Harriet Smithson (1800-1854). Notice she was older than he, following the pattern we saw in Rossini's life. In the period after Napoleon, everyone who could afford it, turned to the theatre and opera for entertainment and that's where Berlioz strove to be, mostly unsuccessfully. What they all wanted to see him do, and paid him handsomely for during his lifetime, was conduct an orchestra.

Famous satirical cartoon of the time
showing Berlioz conducting a choir
As I was growing up, one heard many curious things about Berlioz that were not true and could have been easily refuted. The biggest whopper was that he came from wealth, after all his dad was a doctor and had put his son into Med school and his mom had been a lawyer's daughter, and that accounted for his not having to work so hard to be a real composer like Schubert. What rubbish! He came from straight French middle class professional ranks, not in Paris, but out near Grenoble, in the country. His parents wanted their young and impressionable Hector to grow up to be a doctor like his father and forget about music. He never learned to play the piano and hence never wrote any piano music to speak of. Another thing one heard was that, well compared to those of for instance the “1st Vienna School,” Berlioz wasn't much of a composer, or that since he wrote very much in words, including even his text on instrumentation among his opus numbers, I mean how professional is that? He wasn't very serious. Even during his own time, people like Chopin made fun of him. Much of the fun they made of him had to do with his eccentric personality, for he was sort of, well … avant garde the Avant Garde.

There is something about Berlioz' character that stamps him, despite everything else, as indelibly French; his earliest ideas are filled with child-like wonder, he is innocent at heart, he longs for true love, he loves music, becomes enraptured with its recent heroes. In the 1822 of those meetings Rossini and Schubert might have had with Beethoven, Berlioz was 19 in Paris, still ostensibly in Medical school, but already thinking of Beethoven and spending time at the library of the Conservatoire de Paris, though he was never a student there. I suppose that he was learning something medical in spite of his apparent squeamishness. But what Berlioz had also figured out by this time was how to score orchestral music, and his mind and I'm sure his dreams of worldly success, drove him to seek it in the theatre, where he planned to stage great works involving huge choruses, soloists and orchestras larger than had yet been assembled. Everyone would be thrilled and throw him money, which would later become a more definite concern as he always supported his family.

What? Yes, Berlioz would survive two wives and a son before it was all over with, a good man? Yes, by all appearances. Religious? No, an atheist, another first, though he wasn't very above-board about it and for many years after he died, the Catholic Church proclaimed him a Catholic, though he really wasn't anything. He did write Masses though, so what was that all about? Oh yeah, it was a state commission to write a Requiem to commemorate those who had died in the French Revolution. The earlier Messe solennelle? It was a piece he wrote when he was 20. It got performed a couple of times. He didn't like it and claimed to have destroyed the score, but it turned up in 1992 in Belgium and has since been revived and performed.  Life is full of ironies.

Yes, we all like to entertain, but we all need to eat. Berlioz was always pretty keenly aware of this aspect of life, as it is a refrain in his Letters and Memoirs. He had many sufferings to go through before he was tired of life, and expressed himself frankly of the folly, baseness and cruelty of his fellow men, but as many composers who came after him would later declare, they owed much of their own craft and technique to Berlioz.

Berlioz late in life
So his music is orchestral or even in small ensembles is going to have a larger atmospheric or operatic sense to it. Berlioz always had the intention to write large and write himself large too. Why not? But as with many innovators, he would learn to regret the works of many who he'd befriended, especially among the Germans. As for Opera, he was always keenly interested in it, and made contributions to that form, few ever being successful.

Of his time, the music of Rossini and Verdi would have influenced him, but his life overlays the entirety of Chopin's, Mendelssohn's and Schumann's, much of Liszt's and even much of Brahms'. Berlioz was an overshadowing figure of the Romantic movement of the first half of the 19th century. His ideas would be picked up by those who would orchestrate great symphonies after him.

Though Berlioz' operas may be having some kind of come back (who knows?), his overtures have always held an enduring place in concert literature. An overture is what one offers the public before an opera, They became independent of opera, often to the extent that the overtures were widely performed, while one never heard the operas that went with them. I'm going to present a few here:

Benvenuto Cellini,  This overture was written in 1838, for an opera of the same name. It was Berlioz' first opera, based on the autobiography of one of the most colourful artist rogues in history. A swashbuckling theme, then the progress of a longer more lyrical theme, then back to the original theme with more adventures leading to a climactic finish. The orchestration, the shapes of themes, the instrumentation used, the kinds of running, chasing, fluttering, teasing textures are all trademarks of this impetuous composer.

I had to hear a lot of contenders before selecting the performance I did. Mostly, because you can hear everything, and the interpretation is really about as good as it gets. Jonathan Girard conducting the Eastman Philharmonia, Eastman School of Music in a concert earlier this year. 

Le Carnaval Romain, (Roman Carnival) his Op. 9, was written in 1843, when the composer was 40 years old from material from his opera Benvenuto Cellini. This is probably this composer's most recognizable trademark composition. If you'd never encountered Berlioz strange musical world before, the chances were good that you'd heard this one. It's full of the composer's usual pyrotechnical extravaganzas.

For this one, I had to go with Michael Tilson Thomas (one of my favourite conductors) conducting the You Tube Symphony in Sydney, Australia, also earlier this year. This overture is known for its famous, difficult, English horn solo. There's much wonderful acoustic effects, all written right there in the score. Many would think this about the best thing Berlioz ever wrote, had they not heard some of his other highly ingenious and original creations. Of particular notice in just about any good Berlioz piece is how the harmonic centre is allowed to go just about where it will. You don't always know where you are or where it will end, but you are certainly moving. The nearest approximations his audiences could probably have imagined were cavalry charges, the hunt, or perhaps mass animal stampedes. There is so much energy released. The experience was often frightening to those who had never heard such orchestral sounds before. Think how many places this music has been used since. 

Le Corsaire, his Op. 21, written in 1844 in Nice, the following year.

Here's the Detroit Symphonic Orchestra under the direction of French conductor, Paul Paray (1886-1979) who was one of the better interpreters of Berlioz. Why? Listen to the way he forms a phrase. Berlioz almost spoken musical prose often requires a special understanding. This is a super-energetic piece for the entire orchestra, especially the strings and brass. But it requires finesse as well, for one is always aware that Berlioz may mean it, while meaning nothing. He is quirky and funny to play, to hear, to listen to. You occasionally wonder whether he is putting you on. The bare bones of it might sound like he took bits out of Beethoven, Rossini and others, and just smashed them together, and maybe he did just that. Maybe that's what he was busy studying at the library of the Conservatoire when he should have been dissecting cadavers with his Medical school colleagues. How ever it was, here it is and M. Paray definitely got it. 

Béatrice et Bénédict, written in 1862, to an opera of the same name. He was almost 60.

Sometimes, when you want to get something right, you often have to go with people you know who have turned out splendid work for a long time, despite some problems with the recording (it's live at Carnegie Hall in New York). Here's the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner conducting in Carnegie Hall back in 1994. Fearless, relentless, taking the music entirely as it is, nothing more or less.

Here's to hoping more will come to appreciate Berlioz unique contributions to music and that we may hear more and better performances of them far into the future!

UPDATE 11 December, 2012:
This is said to be by F. Chopin
Berlioz composing his opera, Les Troyens


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