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8.555810 - BERLIOZ: Cantatas
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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Prix de Rome Cantatas


Hector Berlioz was born in the French province of Isère, 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 at Grenoble, before moving to Paris. Three years later he abandoned medicine in favour of music, his enthusiasm increased still further by the opportunities offered in Paris by the Opéra and by the library of the Conservatoire, of which he was later to serve as librarian. In earlier years he had not been idle as a composer, but in Paris he prudently took lessons from Le Sueur, whose Conservatoire class he entered in 1826. In the following years he attempted the Prix de Rome, the award established for musicians by Napoleon, which brought with it a stay of two years in Rome at the Villa Medici, a significant honour for any ambitious young composer. At his fourth attempt, in 1830, Berlioz was successful.


In 1829 Berlioz had seen 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 and in the season he had the opportunity to see much more, sharing in the popular adulation of Harriet Smithson, with whom he fell violently in love, at first to be rejected, leading to his autobiographical Symphonie Fantastique. It was only after his return from Rome, where he had spent two years, and when her popularity began to wane, that she agreed to be his wife, a match that brought neither of them much happiness.


In the following years Berlioz remained an outsider to the French musical establishment. He earned a living as a critic, while as a composer and conductor he won more distinction abroad. Both then and in later years he was seen as the very type of an individual genius, the romantic artist, driven to excess by enthusiasms and paranoid in reaction to criticism or opposition, as his Mémoires show. After the death of his wife in 1854 he was able to marry the singer Marie Recio, with whom he had enjoyed a relationship already of some twelve years. Her sudden death in 1862 and that of his son Louis, a naval officer, in 1867, saddened his final years. He died in 1869.


There was a conservative formality about the Prix de Rome. The first stage of the competition tested the technical competence of the candidates, particularly in counterpoint. Those successful in the first stage would then proceed to the second, the composition of a scène lyrique, which might suggest future ability in the composition of opera. The set text of the work was dictated to the candidates, who were then given 25 days, during which they were confined to their quarters in the Institut de France. An initial judgement on the works submitted was made by the members of the Music Section of the Académie des Beaux-arts a few days later, when the compositions were performed with piano accompaniment. The Music Section made its report and it was the whole Academy, with the representatives of the various other arts, painters, architects, engravers and sculptors, which made the final decision, with the exercises performed again at their meeting. The winner would receive his award at a public session at which the winning composition would be played, with an orchestra, at a concert that might include envois from earlier winners, now resident in Rome.


Berlioz made his first attempt at the Prix de Rome in 1826, but failed to pass the first stage, the concours d’essai, lacking the necessary skill in counterpoint. The following year he entered again. The first stage of the contest in 1827, held on 26th July, allowed all four candidates to proceed to the next. They included Guiraud, the eventual winner, a pupil of Berlioz’s teacher Le Sueur, and two pupils of Henri-Montan Berton, who had provided the text to be set. The technical requirements of the required composition were strict. There was to be a récitatif obligé, leading to a cantabile followed by a récitatif simple and a distinctive air de mouvement. In the event Berlioz took some liberties with the text of La mort d’Orphée and with his treatment of it, and these changes were certainly beyond what the examiners would have found acceptable. When the work was played through, the pianist found himself defeated by Berlioz’s orchestral writing and Berton, a member of the judging Music Section of the Institut, declared it unplayable, even by an orchestra. Berlioz set out to prove him wrong and arranged for a performance in May the following year. Unfortunately the illness of the soloist, Alexis Dupont, the singer who had undertaken the part during the examination, prevented a performance and Berlioz was obliged to substitute another of his compositions. The manuscript was copied and possibly revised. The Prix de Rome went that year to Guiraud, who, after an earlier second prize, had been expected to win.


The text takes the death of the legendary musician Orpheus, torn to death by followers of Bacchus, women who resented his rejection of them, after his failure to bring his beloved Eurydice back from the Underworld. Berlioz in a sub-title describes his work as Monologue et Bacchanale rather than simply scène lyrique. After an introduction characteristically orchestrated and ending in increased excitement, the tenor enters with an accompanied recitative, addressing the priestesses of Bacchus, leading to the Larghetto, Ô seul bien qui me reste!, part of which, with other elements of the work, was used again in Le retour à la vie. The aria, with its appropriate use of the harp to suggest the lyre of Orpheus, is followed by a further dramatic recitative, punctuated by brass chords and their distant, delayed echo. Berlioz had already discarded much of the set text and now took the liberty of adding a double female chorus, representing the Bacchantes in the Bacchanale, their cries for revenge accompanying the pleas of Orpheus. The whole work ends with an orchestral Tableau musical, showing the departure of the Bacchantes, after they have killed Orpheus, the wind blowing through the strings of the broken lyre and the sound of a flute, in fact a solo clarinet, played by a mountain shepherd, trying to capture again the music of Orpheus. After this there is calm, silence and solitude.


The contest of 1828 took the same strict form, with four candidates fulfilling the conditions of the first examination and proceeding to the setting of a text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard de Boismartin. The first adjudication by the Music Section recommended no award to Berlioz, but the full session of the Academy gave him second prize, seemingly nearly securing him the first in the bargaining that went on at these occasions, as the old porter at the Institut, Pingard, reported to the composer. Now learning some prudence, Berlioz adhered more closely to the conditions of the competition and to the set text, the work of a widely respected dramatist and librettist. In the preliminary Music Section discussion, however, Berton took exception to the final Prière, a setting of the last part of the final Air de mouvement.


The subject of Erminia, from Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata, was a very popular one with librettists providing texts for the Prix de Rome composers. The princess of Antioch, in love with the crusader knight Tancredi, seeks his affections, although he has conquered her father’s kingdom. She plans to don the armour of Tancredi’s beloved Clorinda in pursuit of her aims. The introduction to the scène lyrique seems immediately familiar, as what was later to be the idée fixe of the Symphonie fantastique is heard. In the first recitative Erminia laments her fate, proceeding, in her first aria, to dwell on her love for Tancredi, even in her captivity. Her anxieties about him, as he engages in combat with Argant, are the subject of the next recitative and the agitated second aria. Her envy of Clorinda provides the substance of a third recitative, and her final aria, interrupted by a prayer that seemed to Berlioz very much more appropriate than the text suggested, expresses her final resolution.


In 1829 Berlioz entered the Prix de Rome contest for the fourth time, his triumph presumably assured by the previous year’s second prize, as was the usual custom. The four candidates passed the first test and proceeded to the setting of Cléopâtre, a text again supplied by Vieillard. The Music Section awarded no prize, and their judgement was echoed by the Academy. Elements of the setting by Berlioz were used again in Le retour à la vie and elsewhere. Inspired by the subject of Cleopatra’s suicide, after the defeat of Actium, poisoned by asps, Berlioz gave full rein to his imagination, his effective harmonies proving too much for the opera composer Boïeldieu, who afterwards advised him to write something soothing, a suggestion that Berlioz found ridiculous in the circumstances in which Cleopatra found herself.


A dramatic orchestral introduction leads to Cleopatra’s first recitative, a lament on her capture by Octavian and her failure to captivate him by her charms, used before with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Her Lento cantabile expresses her regrets for the past and the defeat of her forces and of Mark Antony at Actium. In the second recitative she blames herself for the defeat of Egypt, so that death is the only answer for her. Berlioz added a quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, at the head of the final aria, given the title Méditation. The words, written in English on the score, are spoken by Juliet before she takes the drug that will lead to her death. It was, no doubt, the harmonies and rhythms of this very dramatic final section that perturbed Boïeldieu. The work ends with a brief and intense recitative, the throbbing of the strings and a concluding dying fall.


In 1830 six candidates competed for the Prix de Rome. Paris was in disturbance, as the reign of Charles X came to an end in turmoil, but the contest went on. Berlioz was now determined to please the judges. He needed the money and the honour that success would bring, to satisfy his parents, who had disapproved of his decision to become a musician, and to please the girl on whom he had set his heart, the young pianist Camille Moke, who soon jilted him. The text of Sardanapale by Jean-François Gail was again one likely to appeal to his wilder dramatic instincts. It deals with the defeat of King Sardanapalus, shown first with his women in sensual enjoyment, his pleasures disturbed by the message of disaster as Nineveh falls, and his final immolation on the funeral pyre he has prepared. Berlioz was awarded the first prize, having prepared a more approachable version for the Music Section’s first hearing, to be accompanied only by the piano. For the full public orchestral performance he revised the ending, providing a conflagration, impressive in rehearsal, but inadequate in the final performance, when the first horn missed his entry, which should have cued the cymbals and then the timpani, leading Berlioz, if we accept his own account, to hurl his score into the orchestra in anger, or, at least, as others observed, to rise from his seat in anger.


Ironically the score Berlioz provided for Sardanapale has not survived, although attempts have been made to reconstruct at least parts of it. The text, of course, was preserved, but Berlioz, after giving several further performances of the work, destroyed it. By chance the final air and the Incendie added after it survive, found bound into the back of a work by another composer. The text is based on the fate of the Assyrian King Assurbanipal, depicted by Byron as a lover of luxury, who, after a defeat in battle, was induced by his favourite concubine Myrrha to mount a funeral pyre, to which she set light, before joining him, to perish in the flames. The story is the subject of the controversial 1828 painting by Delacroix. The same subject formed the basis of later Prix de Rome cantatas. The added final section is here preceded by a spoken version of the second and third verse of the aria text, elements of which Berlioz then uses in his setting with men’s chorus. The conflagration is scored for additional instruments, piccolo, harp, cymbals and bass drum, with two harmonicas, keyed percussion instruments that play a very small part in the fire. The work was played again later in the year, but Berlioz soon tired of it, later destroying the greater part of the score.


A full account of the Prix de Rome cantatas by Berlioz and of the competition itself are included in David Gilbert’s informative introduction to his edition of the scores in the New Edition of the Complete Works of Berlioz, Volume 6 (Bärenreiter, 1988), to which the present writer is indebted.


Keith Anderson

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