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8.550231 - BERLIOZ: Overtures
Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869
Hector Berlioz was born in the French province of Isère in 1803, the son of a doctor, in a family of some local substance. As a child he was taught principally by his father, and was swayed by various enthusiasms, including an overwhelming urge towards music that led him to compose, not for the piano, an instrument he did not play, but for a sextet that included his music teacher's son, a horn-player, and the flute, which he played himself. He later took the opportunity of learning to play the guitar. At the insistence of his father, he embarked on medical studies, taking his first qualification in Grenoble, before moving to Paris. Three years later he abandoned medicine in favour of music, his enthusiasm increased still further by the opportunities offered by the Opéra and by the library of the Conservatoire. In these earlier years he had not been idle as a composer, but in Paris he prudently took lessons from Lesueur, whose Conservatoire class he entered in 1826.
In 1829 Berlioz saw Shakespeare's Hamlet for the first time, with Charles Kemble as the Prince and the Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. The experience was overwhelming, accentuated by the performance of Romeo and Juliet that he saw a few days later. During the season he had the opportunity to see much more of the visiting English company, sharing in the popular adulation of Harriet Smithson, with whom he fell violently in love. Enthusiasm for Shakespeare was added to earlier enthusiasm for Virgil, while enthusiasm for Harriet Smithson led first to the Symphonie fantástique, in reaction to her rejection of his advances and then to a marriage that was to bring neither of the parties any great satisfaction.
Berlioz had made various attempts to win the Prix de Rome, a mark of distinction to which many French artists aspired. At his fourth attempt he won the prize and in 1831 took up residence, according to its terms, in Rome. On his return to Paris he courted and in 1833 married his now failing actress, to the dismay of his family, and supported still by the money allowed him by the Prix de Rome embarked on an ambitious career as a composer. Later financial needs were met by work as a critic, a role that Berlioz filled all too well.
In French music Berlioz was, even in his own time, seen by the discerning as the leading composer. The musical establishment, however, was often opposed to his ambitious and innovative attempts, with works of startling originality, sometimes devised on such a scale as to make performance prohibitively expensive. There was always recognition, however, both at home and abroad, coupled, all the same, with more variable reactions. J. W. Davison, critic ofThe Times of London, pointed out in a review that it is very possible to be ugly and original at the same time, while Hanslick in Vienna castigated him as the father of the tone-poets he so deprecated. Nevertheless in Vienna La dammnation de Faust won considerable success, while the reputation of Berlioz in London as a conductor was high.
Disagreement on the importance of Berlioz as a composer continued after his death in 1869, and even today his works are not greeted with universal approval. Through his own writing and a more objective view of his career he is seen as an outsider, a champion of the individual genius, the romantic artist par excellence, driven to excess by undisciplined enthusiasms and paranoid in reaction lo criticism or opposition. The picture may be modified by a consideration of the very real achievement of Berlioz, his technical command of the orchestra, and, as even Davison admitted, the lucidity of his writing on the music of others.
The Rákóczy March, according to Berlioz, was written with a direct regard to the national fervour of the Hungarians, duly aroused when the march, based on a well known patriotic theme, was played in Pesth during the course of a concert tour in 1846. The same year brought a re-working of his earlier Huit scènes de Faust of 1829, La damnation de Faust, a form of concert opera based on Goethe. Faust, in the first part of the work, is transported arbitrarily to Hungary, where he proves unmoved by the march that had excited so much Hungarian enthusiasm. The Ballet de sylphes forms part of the same work, as Faust, now by the banks of the Elbe enjoys an illusory respite from his adventures.
The concert overture Le carnaval romain again represents a revision of an earlier work. The opera Benvenuto Cellini, on a character with whom it might be supposed Berlioz felt some affinity, was performed at the Paris Opera in 1838. In 1844 he extracted from the opera the Roman Carnival overture, a tour de force of orchestration.
The preoccupation with Shakespeare, fuelled by the performances of Harriet Smithson, inspired various compositions. The dramatic symphony Romeo et Juliette was completed in 1839 and again seems to cross the borders between opera and symphony in conception. The third of the five movements, in purely orchestral terms, represents the love scene between hero and heroine. The tragedy King Lear inspired an earlier work, a concert overture, completed in 1831, and including at least one admitted programmatic element, a drum beat marking the king's entrance, after the slow introduction with which the work begins. Benvenuto Cellini caused Berlioz a great deal of anguish, which he recalls vividly in his Memories. The overture, however, was apparently successful at the first performance of the opera on 10th September 1836, in spite of the alleged hostility of the conductor, Habeneck. The opera again defied convention in its blurring of comedy and tragedy, serious and comic.
The overture, originally Le tour de Nice and later Le corsaire rouge, was written in 1844. Berlioz composed the work in Nice after the break-up of his marriage, staying in a tower above the sea and recovering from jaundice from which he had apparently suffered in Paris. The title of the work suggests Byron, although its second title, Le corsaire rouge, is the French translation of Fenimore Cooper's The Red Rover. Whatever its literary connotations, the geographical inspiration is clear enough in the energy of the music.
Polish State Philharmonic
Kenneth Jean made his European début in 1980 at the International Festival of Youth Orchestras in Aberdeen, Scotland and has since returned regularly. Other orchestras he has conducted include the St. Louis Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra of the Swiss Radio, Park Theatre Orchestra of Stockholm, the Belgrade Strings and the South West German Radio Orchestra of Baden-Baden at the Donaueschingen Festival of Contemporary Music. He was awarded the 1983-84 Leopold Stokowski Conducting Award by the American Symphony Orchestra. He has conducted that orchestra on various occasions, including a subscription concert in Carnegie Hall.
From 1979 until 1985 Kenneth Jean served as Resident Conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Previously, he was the Conducting Assistant of the Cleveland Orchestra for two seasons.
He has recorded works by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Falla, Albéniz and Ravel for Naxos.
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