Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

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01Berlioz On Berlioz20190311

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Hector Berlioz. Today, Berlioz as revealed through his engaging, passionate and entertaining Memoirs.

Berlioz is perhaps unique among composers in having had a literary gift almost the equal of his musical one. He earned his bread-and-butter living as a writer, turning out witty and often acerbic music criticism for the influential Journal des débats and Gazette musicale among others. His Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes – a technical study of musical instruments and their role within the orchestra – was a go-to work for generations of later composers. A prolific letter-writer, his recently published Correspondance générale runs to seven fat volumes. He wrote his own first-rate librettos for the operas Les Troyens and Béatrice et Bénédict, based on Virgil and Shakespeare respectively. And in his Mémoires, begun in March 1848 in lodgings in London’s Harley Street, he produced one of the great autobiographies – a unique insight into the life and times of one of the most original musical minds of the 19th century, as well as a fascinating account of the trials, tribulations, triumphs and disasters, both professional and personal, that shaped his rollercoaster career. Hovering over the book like a guiding spirit is the figure of Estelle Duboeuf, the childhood crush Berlioz sought out again towards the end of his life. By then a widow with six children, how taken aback must she have been to be told by the now-famous composer she had known as a lad of twelve that she had unwittingly been the inspiration behind all the love scenes in his music!

Les Nuits d’été, Op 7 (Villanelle)
Janet Baker, mezzo soprano
New Philharmonia Orchestra
John Barbirolli, conductor

Overture Les Francs-Juges, Op 3
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Georg Solti, conductor

Grande Messe des Morts, Op 5 (Dies irae)
Chetham's School of Music Symphonic Brass Ensemble
Gabrieli Consort
Ensemble Wrocław
Wrocław Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra
Paul McCreesh, conductor

La Damnation de Faust, Op 24 (Part 1, Scene 3: March hongroise)
London Symphony Orchestra
Colin Davis, conductor

Béatrice et Bénédict (Act 1, “Vous soupirez, madame?”)
Catherine Robbin, mezzo soprano (Ursule)
Syvlia McNair, soprano (Héro)
Orchestre de L’Opéra de Lyon
John Nelson, conductor

Zaïde, Op 19 No 1
Brigitte Fournier, soprano
Orchestre de L'Opéra de Lyon
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

Donald Macleod explores Berlioz through his engaging, passionate and entertaining Memoirs.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

02The Literary Muse20190312

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Hector Berlioz. Today, he delves into the world of Berlioz’s literary muses – first and foremost, Virgil, Goethe and Shakespeare.

Berlioz was home-schooled by his father, Louis, in the picturesque village of La Côte Saint-André in the southeast of France, not far from Grenoble. Louis Berlioz was a doctor – a man, as his son would later write, with “a naturally liberal mind: that is, without any kind of social, political or religious prejudice”. He also had a deep love of literature, which he duly transmitted to young Hector. Most of all, he instilled in his son a passion for the Latin poet Virgil, whose epic masterpiece The Aeneid relates the legend of the wandering Trojan hero who overcame adversity to become the founding father of Ancient Rome. Forty years on, Berlioz conceived his opera Les Troyens, The Trojans, based on the events Virgil so compellingly describes – not least the death of Dido, a passage which reduced the young Berlioz to “nervous shuddering” when he had to translate it for his father. Goethe and Shakespeare were later but no less crucial discoveries. The former’s Faust, which Berlioz read in the French translation of Gérard de Nerval, inspired his early 8 Scenes from Faust, which later blossomed into one of his mature masterpieces, The Damnation of Faust. Shakespeare was a more traumatic encounter; Berlioz was so thunderstruck by the performance of Hamlet he saw in the Odéon Theatre in Paris on the 11th of September 1827 that at first he vowed never again to expose himself to “the flame of Shakespeare’s genius”. But it was a promise he was unable to keep, and the production of Romeo and Juliet he witnessed a few days later was to impact his life in two highly significant ways: it sowed the seed of one of his greatest works, the ‘dramatic symphony’ Roméo et Juliette; and it introduced him to the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, the Juliet of the Odéon production. Berlioz and Smithson would eventually marry – like Romeo and Juliet, it didn’t end well.

La Damnation de Faust, Op 24 (Part 2, ‘Un puce gentille’)
José van Dam, baritone (Mephistopheles)
Orchestre et Choeur de Opéra de Lyon
Kent Nagano, conductor

Waverley, grande ouverture, Op 1
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Davis, conductor

Les Troyens, Op 29 (Act 1, finale)
Petra Lang, mezzo soprano (Cassandra)
London Symphony Orchestra
Colin Davis, conductor

Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d'Hamlet (Tristia, Op 18)
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
The Monteverdi Choir
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

La Captive, Op 12
Véronique Gens, mezzo-soprano
Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Lyon
Louis Langrée, conductor

Harold en Italie, Op 16 (IV. Orgie des brigands)
William Primrose, viola
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Munch, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

Donald Macleod delves into the world of Berlioz's literary muses.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

03A Tale Of Three Cities20190313

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Hector Berlioz. Today, the opera whose “verve, impetus and brilliance” Berlioz feared he would never again equal.

Benvenuto Cellini is loosely based on the autobiography of the eponymous Italian sculptor. The first of Berlioz’s three completed operas, it held a special place in his affections. “This dear score of Benvenuto”, he called it; “it is more lively, fresh, and novel (that is one of its great faults) than any of my other works.” Yet it’s had a chequered history. Its opening run at the Paris Opéra was little short of disastrous – unappreciated by the public and savaged by the critics. Then there was a revival in Weimar, with none other than Franz Liszt at the helm; it was well-received, but only in a version with major cuts that made a nonsense of the opera’s taut construction. After that, the only other staging during the composer’s lifetime was at London’s Covent Garden. According to Berlioz, the auguries looked promising – “a superb orchestra, an excellent chorus, and an ‘adequate’ conductor – I am conducting myself” – but in the event, the production was pulled after a single night, sabotaged by a hostile cabal. Benvenuto had to wait more than a century for its next Covent Garden outing, and even today, it’s a rare visitor to the operatic stage. As Berlioz said of it, it “deserved a better fate”.

Le carnaval romain, Op 9
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Munch, conductor

Benvenuto Cellini, Op 23 (Act 1, Tableau 1, Scene 3, extract)
Laura Claycomb, soprano (Teresa)
Gregory Kunde, tenor (Cellini)
Peter Coleman-Wright, baritone (Fieramosca)
London Symphony Orchestra
Colin Davis, conductor

Benvenuto Cellini, Op 23 (Act 2, Tableau 2, Scene 13, Conclusion)
Darren Jeffery, bass (Balducci)
Laura Claycomb, soprano (Teresa)
Peter Coleman-Wright, baritone (Fieramosca)
Gregory Kunde, tenor (Cellini)
Jacques Imbrailo, baritone (Pompeo)
Isabelle Cals, soprano (Ascanio)
Andrew Kennedy, tenor (Francesco)
Andrew Foster-Williams, bass (Bernardino)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Colin Davis, conductor

Benvenuto Cellini, Op 23 (Act 2, Tableau 2, Scenes 1–4)
Laura Claycomb, soprano (Teresa)
Isabelle Cals, soprano (Ascanio)
Gregory Kunde, tenor (Cellini)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Colin Davis, conductor

Benvenuto Cellini, Op 23 (Act 2, Tableau 4, Scene 19)
Peter Coleman-Wright, baritone (Fieramosca)
Gregory Kunde, tenor (Cellini)
Darren Jeffery, bass (Balducci)
Laura Claycomb, soprano (Teresa)
Isabelle Cals, soprano (Ascanio)
John Relyea, bass (Pope Clement VII)
Andrew Kennedy, tenor (Francesco)
Andrew Foster-Williams, bass (Bernardino)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Colin Davis, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The opera whose verve Berlioz feared he would never again equal: Benvenuto Cellini.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

04Revolution!2018101920190314 (R3)

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Hector Berlioz. Today, the July Revolution may be thundering about him, but he has a cantata to finish!

The Prix de Rome – usually qualified by the adjective ‘coveted’ – was established in 1663, to encourage talented ‘fine’ artists: painters and sculptors. The Prize was a competitive bursary, paid for by the crown, that included an extended period of residential study in the Holy City. In 1720, the award was extended to architects, but it was not until 1803, more than a decade after the first French Revolution, that composers were eligible to enter; the first victor was Albert Androt, no longer a household name. By 1827, the year of Berlioz’s first attempt to win it, the Prix de Rome was recognised as the principal route to recognition for a French composer – usually followed by a glittering career at the Paris Opéra. It took Berlioz four attempts to snag the vaunted gong, with his setting of The Death of Sardanapalus, the set-text for that year’s competition cantata. Presumably to avoid any chance of collusion, the contestants were locked away in the Institut de France for a maximum of 25 days – Berlioz completed his setting in a mere 12, perhaps because he was impatient to join the revolutionary fray that was erupting outside the building. As he recalled in his Memoirs, “I dashed off the final pages of my orchestral score to the sound of stray bullets coming over the roofs and pattering on the wall outside my window”. It was in the same year, 1830, that Berlioz unleashed his Symphonie fantastique on the world, and, less successfully, fell for the musically gifted Camille Moke. They were engaged to be married on Berlioz’s return from Rome, but Cupid – in the form of Camille’s mother, whom Berlioz dubbed “the hippopotamus” – had other plans, and instead, Mademoiselle Moke tied the knot with another Camille: Pleyel, the celebrated piano manufacturer. Berlioz may later have derived some bitter satisfaction from the fact that their marriage lasted a mere four years – due, it was said, to his former inamorata’s “multiple infidelities”.

Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, arr Berlioz
La Marseillaise
Placido Domingo, tenor
Choeur et orchestre de Paris
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

La mort de Sardanapale (conclusion)
Daniel Galvez Vallejo, tenor
Pas-de-Calais North Regional Choir
Orchestre National de Lille
Jean-Claude Casadesus, conductor

Ouverture pour la Tempête de Shakespeare
San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Symphonie fantastique, Op 14 (3rd movement, Scène aux champs)
Philharmonia Orchestra
André Cluytens, conductor

Grand symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Op 15 (3rd movement, Apothéose)
The Wallace Collection
Leeds Festival Chorus
John Wallace, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The Revolution can wait \u2013 Berlioz has a cantata to finish!

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

05Berlioz And His Circle20190315

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Hector Berlioz. Today, we encounter some of the celebrated musicians he rubbed shoulders with – among them Liszt, Cherubini, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner and Paganini.

It’s easy to forget that the musical giants of the past were flesh-and-blood creatures whose social interactions were generally pretty much like anyone else’s. Berlioz’s first brush with the venerable Luigi Cherubini, director of the august Paris Conservatoire, has an air of farce about it, with the now sexagenarian maestro chasing the cheeky young whippersnapper around the Conservatoire library, sending books cascading in every direction, after a porter had reported him for entering the building by a door expressly designated for the use of female students. Berlioz’s relations with Franz Liszt were more decorous: Liszt paid him a call the day before the première of the Symphonie fantastique, then took him out to dinner afterwards. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship, the fruits including a piano reduction by Liszt of Berlioz’s new symphony. It was in that piano reduction that Robert Schumann first became acquainted with the Symphonie fantastique, and he was so impressed with it that he published a lengthy and laudatory analysis of Berlioz’s work. The two men finally met in Leipzig some years later; apparently it was a somewhat stiff encounter, largely because neither spoke the other’s language. Berlioz became reacquainted with Felix Mendelssohn on the same trip – they had met in Rome over a decade before, when Berlioz was studying there as part of his Prix de Rome bursary. Berlioz held Mendelssohn in the highest regard, both as a man and a musician. The musically conservative Mendelssohn’s view of Berlioz was less flattering: while he recognized the genius of his French colleague’s music, he found much of it unsettling, describing the Symphonie fantastique as “utterly loathsome … nowhere a spark, no warmth, utter foolishness, contrived passion represented through every possible exaggerated orchestral means”. Berlioz’s relations with Richard Wagner were superficially cordial, but the two didn’t see eye to eye where music was concerned, Berlioz accusing Wagner of “wishing to reduce music to a series of expressive accents”, and Wagner, despite recognizing “the greatness and power of this unique and incomparable artist”, reflecting that every time he heard a major work by Berlioz he was “on the one hand thrilled, yet at times repelled, and sometimes even altogether bored.” Paganini had no such reservations about Berlioz’s music, declaring the composer to be “the successor to Beethoven”. Not only that, he was prepared to put his money where his mouth was: after hearing a performance of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Paganini dispatched his son, Achille, with a cheque for 20,000 francs, which gave Berlioz the financial freedom to compose his Romeo and Juliet symphony.

Messe solennelle (Quoniam tu solus Sanctus)
The Monteverdi Choir
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Berlioz (arr. Franz Liszt)
Épisode de la vie d’un artiste – Grande Symphonie fantastique par Hector Berlioz, S470
(Un bal: Valse, Allegro ma non troppo)
Leslie Howard, piano

Le roi Lear, grande ouverture, Op 4
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Marek Janowski, conductor

Les nuits d’été, Op 7 (Absence)
Bernarda Fink, mezzo soprano
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Kent Nagano, conductor

Romeo et Juliette, Op 17 (Part 3, Scène d’amour)
The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus
Pierre Boulez, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

Today we encounter some of the celebrated musicians Berlioz rubbed shoulders with.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.