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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 10

Berlioz: Two Hundred Years Young

by Jacques Desjardins / July 2, 2003

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On December 11, 2003, Hector Berlioz's 200th birthday will be celebrated. After so many years, the Symphonie fantastique never ceases to astonish me with its freshness and vitality. Generations of composers from Liszt to the spinners of film music, have been influenced by its episodic form, unusual orchestration, and its use of a programme in the form of an autobiographical text as the inspiration for the musical framework.

Berlioz is the true inventor of modern orchestration. He transformed forever the way music is written for large ensembles and considerably enlarged the spectrum of sounds and instrumental combinations. The symphony orchestra as we know it today took its definitive shape pretty well according to Berlioz's directions. His Treatise on Instrumentation and Orchestration, which came out in 1843, was the first work to provide composers with the registers of various instruments and offer all sorts of useful advice on the art of orchestration. In the years that followed, the manufacture of instruments underwent major improvements, obliging Berlioz to bring out a completely new edition of his treatise in 1855. He used the opportunity to add a section on new instruments like the saxophone, as well as an appendix on the art of orchestral conducting. Berlioz might have written the work for his own use, considering his complaints about not having received training in orchestration during his studies at the Paris Conservatory. In chapter 13 of his Memoirs he admits to having learned orchestration from assiduously going to the opera with the score on his lap. He deduced the instruments' registers and the art of combining timbres through observation and sheer determination (for which he was legendary).

The Symphonie fantastique is where Berlioz demonstrated his brilliant mastery of the orchestral palette. Completed in 1830, the work immediately revealed the fiery ardour of an impetuous temperament and the genius of a visionary. His first innovation was to hand out a programme before the concert with a text to accompany the music. It bore the title, "Episode in the Life of an Artist," and described the passion he had conceived for the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson. She had become the focus of his fantasies in 1827, when she was playing Ophelia in a production of Hamlet. Smithson was three years older than Berlioz and disdained the young man's advances until 1832, when she finally agreed to marry him. However, when he was writing the Symphonie fantastique he was suffering deeply from his rejection, and it was on this experience that he built his masterpiece. This accounts for the sudden eruptions and violent transports of the score. However, the programme doesn't actually describe scenes from Berlioz's tumultuous life in detail. Rather, it illustrates his emotional response to certain dramatic situations. For him, expression was more important than description.

Young Berlioz's obsession with Smithson became an idée fixe, and indeed the recurring theme of the symphony is masterfully transformed in all the movements. This technique was inspired by Beethoven and the economy with which motifs were used in the Fifth Symphony, foreshadowing Wagner's leitmotifs associated with characters in The Ring of the Nibelung. Liszt also paid homage to Berlioz, not only in his use of musical personalities but in his chromatic boldness. All too often we forget Berlioz's harmonic innovations. Think of the explicit use of chromatics in passages of the first movement (nos. 10 and 17 to 19 in the critical edition by Edward Cone (Norton, 1971). Think also of the superimposed bitonal chords a tritone apart toward the end of the "March to the Scaffold" (no. 58 in the edition cited). Here the strings deliver a chord in G minor in response to the D-flat major harmony of the wind instruments. These same chords resurfaced almost unchanged, many years later, in the coronation scene of Moussorgsky's Boris Godunoff.

Radical changes in tempo give the work the feel of a broken musical discourse. The phrasing is no longer built on classical groupings of eight or sixteen bars. The unpredictable treatment of phrasing and rhythm are reminiscent of opera, as are all the subtitles given the movements, which divide the music into five scenes: I. Reveries – Passions; II. A Ball; III. Scene in the Country; IV. March to the Scaffold; and V. Dream of a Witches' Sabbath.

This crossover between genres is characteristic of many of Berlioz's works. His symphony Harold in Italy (1834) evokes a pastoral journey by the main character. In his 1839 symphonic work, Romeo and Juliet, based on Shakespeare's play, singers perform the music representing the two lovers. His Damnation of Faust, which he originally described as "a concert opera," was later renamed "a dramatic legend." We must conclude that Berlioz never felt at home with pure genres--but nothing less could be expected of a free spirit possessed of a rebellious and non-conformist temperament!

Homage to the father of the modern orchestra is overdue. Festivities on a grand scale are planned in Paris next fall to honour his memory. Revenge is sweet for the son of Grenoble whose music was ignored in his native land for most of his life. Berlioz was for long considered "the most German of French composers." His reputation and influence outside France were never in doubt, however. It is nice to know that France is now reclaiming him and restoring his French musical nationality with full honours. [Translated by Jane Brierley]

The Montreal Symphony under JoAnn Falletta plays the Symphonie fantastique at Festival de Lanaudière, July 12 with a broadcast on the Chaine culturelle of Radio-Canada on July 18 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets: 1 800 561-4343.

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