Spotlight: Berlioz Fanatics Unite

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A few years ago, June LeBell, an announcer beloved to generations of WQXR listeners, organized a lecture series about composers called “The Busy B’s” in which I was invited to participate. Each speaker would be assigned one composer whose name begins with that letter. June was concerned that most of us would ask for Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and was hopeful that someone might request Borodin, Bartók, Britten or Barber.

The great baritone Sherrill Milnes asked for Leonard Bernstein. This was just the top of the heap on a list that could include Balakirev, Bax, Bellini, Berg, Bizet, Bloch, Boccherini, Boito, Bolcom, Boulez, Bruch, Bruckner and many more, including Babbitt, Berwald, Boieldieu, Bridge, Busoni, Byrd, Irving Berlin, and all the sons of J.S. Bach.

“I want Berlioz!” I cried, trying to get my bid in before anyone else grabbed him. June, who certainly knew the music of this brilliant French composer, paused and was silent for a moment. “Of course,” she said, “Berlioz.” I had the feeling that, when she drew up her list, somehow old Hector had not appeared on it. This would hardly be the first time that Berlioz (1803-1869) would be just out of the mainstream. He was so ahead of his time, right there in the middle of the Romantic Era, that people did not know what to make of him.

In 1830, when the Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz’s most famous composition, was premiered, there was no one yet writing anything like this. Beethoven had died in 1827; Schubert the following year. Rossini was about to retire. Wagner and Verdi, the other two musical radicals of that era, were 17 years old and would not make their mark for another dozen years. The foremost composers of 1830 were Mendelssohn, Chopin, Bellini, Donizetti and Schumann. All are among the best to ever write music, yet their work hews to what might be considered more traditionally Romantic.

“Whoever wants to know about the nineteenth century, it is essential to understand Berlioz,” wrote W.H. Auden. I would go further and say that Berlioz and Rossini are the two most undervalued composers of the nineteenth century, each in his own way. Rossini was so brilliant and talented, yet his virtues were not given the respect they merited because of the ease with which he composed and his genial humor. Anyone so likable could not be so gifted.

Berlioz seemed to arrive from another place entirely. Unlike Mozart, Rossini and Mendelssohn, he was hardly a prodigy. He grew up in the French Alps and his family intended for him to become a physician like his father. While attending medical school in Paris, he was drawn inexorably to music but, because he was an outsider without connections, most doors were closed to him. 

It took him four tries to secure the Prix de Rome, a prize given annually to a promising young French composer to study in Rome and absorb all of cultural stimulation of the Eternal City. Each composition Berlioz submitted for the competition was too modern for the jury. He was defeated by Claude Paris, Emile Bienaimé, Jean-Baptiste Guiraud and Guillaume Ross (dit Despréaux), all long forgotten. 

A Man of Many Passions

Because he did not have a traditional cultural education, Berlioz ardently pursued his own interests, all of which were powered by his genius and passion. He read as widely as Wagner and Verdi would, but seemed particularly entranced with Ovid, Virgil (which led to Les Troyens, one of the greatest operas ever written), other writers of antiquity, as well as Shakespeare (King Lear overture; Romeo et Juliette, Beatrice et Benedict), Goethe (La Damnation de Faust), Scott (Rob Roy overture), and Byron (Le Corsair overture; Harold in Italy). He immersed himself in the visual arts and learned religion, although that was not as central to him as it was to other composers. Berlioz wrote some of the most glorious religious music (a Requiem; the Grand Symphonie funébre et triomphale; a Te Deum; and L’Enfance de Christ), but drew much more inspiration from books other than the Bible.

He studied all of the music that came before him but especially admired Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) whose famous operatic reforms gave primacy to word and melody, rather than vocal acrobatics and scenic events. He saw Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (seen and broadcast in HD at the Met in February) as a young man and admired it for the way it combines classical drama with the lyric muse. His other musical hero was Beethoven, who used unorthodox ways, literature and a total mastery of the communicative potential of an orchestra to create his revolutionary music.

Beethoven’s example compelled Berlioz to learn all about each instrument of the orchestra and use them to deploy the endless details and colors of the human experience of the stage. In 1844 he published Le Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, a treatise on orchestration to which he added a chapter on conducting in an 1855 edition. 

His knowledge of the technical and lyrical potential of every instrument would seem clinical if he did not also have an extraordinary gift for music that is as deep and original as it is grand. Listen to how stirring La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, can sound in the Berlioz orchestration with various choruses, soloists and different sections of the orchestra all having their moment to shine. This arrangement suggests that there are many individuals in France, a nation that prizes autonomy on a personal and national level, and yet all of them are united in their identity as citizens. Pay special attention to the contrast between voices and the stirring, swirling orchestra.

I have been thinking anew about Berlioz after attending an unusual concert at Carnegie Hall on April 16, the second of a three-night stand by Riccardo Muti (below) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Most of the attention was focused on the first night, a concert performance of Verdi’s Otello that was, by most accounts, extraordinary. As readers of my previous post know, I was in Massachusetts giving a talk but arranged my schedule to be back in New York in time for an all-Berlioz concert with Muti and the CSO.

The concert recreated a performance in Paris in 1832 in which the Symphonie Fantastique (opus 14) was the first half of the program and Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie (Lélio, or The Return to Life; opus 14 bis) the second. Berlioz called the evening “Episode in the Life of an Artist” and the premiere was attended by Luigi Cherubini, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Franz Liszt. While the symphony was its stirring, groundbreaking self, Lélio combined spoken word, solo singing, chorus and orchestra. Berlioz wrote the text, though some of it was adapted from Shakespeare and Goethe.

Becoming a Berliozian

The other night at Carnegie Hall, to me, was a mixed affair. The performance of the Symphonie Fantastique was the worst I have ever heard, a reminder that even so wonderful a piece can fall apart. The CSO is one of the best orchestras in the world but, in this case, they sounded like a collection of virtuoso, note-perfect soloists. Muti moved them from section to section and they made a great deal of marvelous individual sound, but there was little cohesion or forward movement. Because Lélio is seldom done, I suspect that it got most of the rehearsal time, and it showed. It also benefited from the presence of the great actor Gerard Depardieu, whose vocal range and interpretive abilities made his performance sound like an entire Berlioz orchestra. With hair over his ears and an intense expression, Depardieu looked like a cross between Berlioz and Liszt, but with considerably more avoirdupois. 

As I left the hall, past audience members fervently debating the performance and the music, I stepped into a driving rain but paused as a thought crystallized in my mind: musicians and audience members who “get” this composer are a group unto themselves, just like Wagnerians. They are Berliozians. 

The two foremost Berliozian conductors of our day are Sir Colin Davis and James Levine. Both understand the composer’s complex and exquisite musical architecture, but realize that it is but a point of departure toward greater places rather being merely the summit to be achieved. I commend Berlioz recordings by both conductors to you. Davis, in recent years, has released most of the great Berlioz works with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Other eminent Berliozian conductors worth discovering include Sir Thomas Beecham, Leonard Bernstein, Charles Munch, Eugene Ormandy, Seiji Ozawa and Fritz Reiner. Watch Leonard Bernstein conduct the Orchestre National de France in the 5th movement of the Symphonie Fantastique, noticing how each instrument has its moment but then becomes part of a larger whole. See if you can hear what I mean by “musical architecture.”

Berlioz also wrote sublime vocal music, especially for tenor and mezzo-soprano. His song cycle, Les nuit d’été, was one of the first to be performed with full orchestra.  The tenor solo music from the Requiem, such as the Sanctus, is extraordinary. Here it is sung by Stuart Neill, conducted by Sir Colin Davis: 

Part of the reason why Berlioz was not always appreciated was that his works did not fall into easy categories. La Damnation de Faust lies somewhere between an opera and an oratorio. A recent production at the Met by Robert Lepage (producer of the new Ring Cycle there) had a lot of visual stimulation, occasionally to the point of distraction, probably to counteract what some might think is too static an evening. Susan Graham was a marvelous Marguerite. Here the aria “D’Amour l’Ardente Flamme” is sung by Régine Crespin, a peerless Berliozian:

I believe that Les Troyens is the greatest opera in French and one of the finest works of all. Like the evening at Carnegie Hall, Berlioz designed this as two distinct works: La prise de Troie and Les Troyens à Carthage. Berlioz wrote the libretto, drawn from Virgil’s Aeneid, about the story of Dido and Aeneas (Didon and Enée in French). Only the first part was performed during his lifetime, and without much success. The second was done at the end of the 19th century. On rare occasions they were joined in performance, but with major cuts. A complete production did not come until 1969. 

It is a massive undertaking, second only to the Ring, and opera companies must expend vast resources to stage it. Since 1973, the Met does it every ten years and I can’t wait for 2013, which will also be the bicentennials of Wagner and Verdi. Until then, we must content ourselves with recordings and video. Let me share three of my favorites. As part of the Berlioz bicentennial in 2003,  Susan Graham and Gregory Kunde appeared in a production (I believe) in Paris. Here they sing "Nuit d’Ivresse," the sublime love duet from the second act of Les Troyens. Note again, and always, how richly orchestra and voices combine.

Now listen to the scene just before Didon kills herself, as sung by the Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in her last operatic role, in the Berlioz bicentennial production (2003) of Les Troyens at the Met, conducted by James Levine. Didon, by falling in love with Aeneas (recalled by evoking the love duet), allowed her city of Carthage to be taken.  

Finally, watch the death of Didon at the Met, Oct 1983, with Tatiana Troyanos at her peak. Didon kills herself and is practically trampled as Aeneas and his troops head for their most coveted objective: Italy.

Are you a Berliozian? If not, which “Busy B” provides you with musical ambrosia?