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8.550999 - BERLIOZ: Overtures
Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)
As conductor and critic, as writer and polemicist, and supremely as composer, Berlioz transformed the palette of nineteenth century music. That such bold imagination was derided in his own time can surprise no one; it is still not understood in our own. Even so, we are now able to grasp something of his gift for colour and melody, uninhibited by the shoddy performances his music received a century ago. The overtures on this recording serve as a short course in Berlioz aesthetic, in his growing maturity, and in his dazzling recreation of the orchestra itself.
Berlioz initially followed his father into medicine, beginning study at L'École de Médicine in Paris in November 1821. While there, he took private lessons in composition from Le Sueur. Berlioz had long been fascinated by music, learning guitar and flute, doing arrangements for a local band, writing some 20 small works, and publishing his first song in 1819. Within three years of arriving in the capital, Berlioz quit medicine altogether. By 1825, he had organized a church performance of his Messe solennelle, and then composed a sort of political cantata, scene heroique (La Révolution grecque), honoring the Hellenic rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. In 1825 he also discovered the novels of Sir Walter Scott, soon a major source for his programme pieces.
At 22 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, continuing with Le Sueur and adding Reicha in counterpoint and fugue. Within a year he finished his first opera, Les Francs-juges. It was not a success. In 1828 he received the second-place Prix de Rome for his Herminie, a cantata with text by Vieillard In the same year he completed his Waverley overture, drawn from the Scott novel.
He also conceived w hat was to become La Damnation de Faust, inspired by Goethe. On his third application, he won the Premiere Prix de Rome with La Mon de Sardanaple in 1830. However, it could not compare to the masterwork he w rote between January and April of that year: Episode de la vie dun aniste: Symphonie fantastique en cinq parties. Although a quotation from Les Francs- juges appears in the March to the Scaffold (Berlioz had a life-long penchant for self-quotation, so emulating Handel), and although Waverley suggested a rapidly-advancing technical skill, nothing could quite prepare his audience for the Symphonie fantastique.
Inspired by a confounding love for English actress Harriet Smithson, made macabre by a popular fascination with opium, provided by the composer with a helpful plot, made whole by the compositional device of the idée fixe (a recurring motif), and made central to the repertoire by astounding orchestration, the Symphonie fantastique represented an astonishing leap forward in Berlioz art. It was the most daring and innovative symphonic work since Beethoven's Ninth.
It was followed two years later by its sequel, Lélio, ou Le Retour a la vie. A supposed repudiation of the black visions of the Symphonie, it nonetheless failed to recapture its startling power. However, it did help capture Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz married on 3rd October, 1833. The marriage lasted 24 unstable years.
While in Italy for the Prix de Rome, he wrote his concert overtures King Lear and Rob Roy. Picking up from Waverley, we see him once again employing an exterior narrative (based on Shakespeare and Walter Scott, respectively) as a designing, unifying, and propelling mechanism. These concert overtures, independent of any larger enterprise, were followed by another programme derived work, Harold in Italy, this from Byron's Childe Harold. In four picturesque scenes, it offers much of the structure -but rather less of the solo prominence -of the viola concerto Paganini thought he had commissioned.
From 1834 to 1837, Berlioz struggled with his opera Benvenuto Cellini. It premiered in 1838 and became the subject of much revision. He also completed his massive Requiem, a work requiring eight bassoons, 12 horns, 16 trumpets, 16 trombones, six tubas, ten timpani, a tenor and chorus, and doublings in every other instrument group. Berlioz had reached the most distant extremes of the gigantism for which he was so criticized, and was to live in this arena as composer, and increasingly as conductor, for many years.
He also became increasingly active as advocate, as cudgel for new music and new means. Berlioz was to write a major treatise on orchestration, another on conducting, numerous smaller works of criticism and analysis, and a charming book of Memoires. He received many awards, including the Legion d'Honneur in 1839. In the same year, again inspired by Shakespeare, he composed Romeo et Juliette, one of his most impassioned and pursuasive works.
In 1844, sheer spectacle: he led a performance of Beethoven Symphony No.5 with 36 string basses, of the overture to Freischütz with 24 French horns and of Rossini's Prayer of Moses with 25 harps. While expending his musical capital on such episodes, he also w rote another concert overture, the Roman Carnival. Enduringly successful, it was relatively restrained in forces, though not in wonder. So too was the next overture to follow, Le Corsaire.
In the years to come, Berlioz numbered among his works La Damnation de Faust, La Mort d'Ophélie, Te Deum, Vox Populi, the oratorio L'Enfance du Ghrist of 1854, the formerly unproducible opera Les Troyens, and the more manageable Béatrice et Bénedict, again inspired by Shakespeare. He also travelled and conducted widely.
A final series of artistic failures seems to have diminished him, and a series of strokes to have crippled him. Berlioz last days were filled with praise and pain. On learning that a funeral oration was to be given him by the composer Antoine Elwart, it is claimed he said, "If you must make a speech, I'd rather not die."
At his best, Berlioz illuminated virtually every element of the Romantic Century: its national pulse and revolutionary ardour; the power of literature and its transference to music and programme; industry, invention, new instruments and sounds of every sort; vivid colour and bold harmonic design tinged with melancholy; and, above all, a sense of the obligations of Genius.
Beatrice and Benedict
Program Notes by Dr Charles Barber
San Diego Symphony Orchestra
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