About this Recording
8.571284-85 - LISZT, F.: Berlioz - Symphonie fantastique / Harold en Italie (Biret Archive Edition, Vols. 9, 10)


Idil Biret started recording for Finnadar in 1972, following a proposal from Ilhan Mimaroğlu. At the time Mimaroğlu, a composer of electronic music, was working as a producer for Atlantic Records in New York, mostly with its co-founder Nasuhi Ertegün. Finnadar was founded as a subsidiary of Atlantic, one of the few imprints within the major-label corporate structure devoted wholly to contemporary music. In a rare interview he gave in 2001, Ilhan Mimaroğlu described his goal for founding Finnadar records:

It was in the early seventies that I started Finnadar Records with an LP of my electronic music and continued throughout the years, primarily with recordings of contemporary compositions, with a view to also offer to the public performers who should be better known, among whom Turkish pianists Idil Biret and Meral Güneyman.

During an association with Idil Biret that lasted over ten years nine LPs were issued by Finnadar with recordings of many contemporary works including those by Boulez, Berg, Webern, Miaskovsky, Boucourechliev as well as some classical works by Beethoven, Chopin, Berlioz and others. The recordings received great critical acclaim. The Boulez 2nd Sonata was selected as the “Record of the Month” by Stereo Review magazine in the US.

The recording of Liszt’s piano transcription of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, released in 1979, received special attention on both sides of the Atlantic as at the time it was one of the first forays into recording and performing piano transcriptions—a widely practiced art in the 19th century that had fallen out of favour in the 20th century. Idil Biret performed the Berlioz/Liszt work at recitals all over the world including New York, London, Paris, Munich and Milan, and helped establish respect for the performance of piano transcriptions once again. She then went on to record Liszt’s transcriptions of the nine Beethoven Symphonies for EMI in 1986. Some of the reviews of Idil Biret’s recording and performances of the Symphonie fantastique are given on the back cover of this CD; additional examples are provided below:

“Liszt the young virtuoso was represented at a piano recital given in the Coolidge Auditorium by Idil Biret. She played his transcription of the Fantastic Symphony, made when he was twenty-two… Miss Biret’s playing was dexterous, spirited, and unflagging. Her remarkable feat has been recorded (on the Finnadar label); live it proved even more impressive.”
Capital Fare, THE NEW YORKER - USA 1979

“Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique was hardly standard repertoire when Liszt made his transcription. The performance of the extraordinary pianist Idil Biret uncannily suggests the colors and textures of the original and the recorded sound by Finnadar—which has been presenting this artist in remarkably adventurous records of contemporary music—is wonderful.”
Richard Dyer THE BOSTON GLOBE - USA 1979

“When played by a virtuoso like Idil Biret, the overstrained piano makes Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique
transparent and one realizes that it is possible for a pianist with well trained hands to imitate the orchestra
instruments and make them fairly recognizable.”
Joachim Kaiser SÜDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG - Germany 1979

Regrettably, the adventurous label Finnadar ceased its activities in the 1980s. Subsequently, Ahmet Ertegün gave the copyright in all her nine Finnadar LPs (then owned by Warner/Atlantic) to Idil Biret shortly before he passed away. Idil Biret is grateful to the Ertegün family and to Ilhan and Güngör Mimaroglu for making possible the release of her early Finnadar recordings on the Idil Biret Archive label.

Sefik B. Yüksel

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 by Hector Berlioz (1808–1869)
Solo piano transcription, S. 470 by Franz LISZT (1811–1886)

Berlioz and Liszt first met in Paris on December 4, 1830, the day before the first performance of Symphonie fantastique. Berlioz introduced Liszt to Goethe’s Faust in the translation by Gérard de Nerval: he had already written his Eight scenes from Faust. This meeting was later to lead to the conception of two of the most important works of the 19th Century, Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust, which he dedicated to Liszt, and Liszt’s Faust Symphony, which he dedicated to Berlioz.

Berlioz’ concert took place on December 5 at 2 p.m. Liszt came to it, and in Berlioz’ words he “was conspicuous for the warmth of his applause and his generally enthusiastic behaviour. He literally dragged me off to have dinner at his house and overwhelmed me with the vigour of his enthusiasm.” At nineteen Liszt was already a well known virtuoso, and his support meant a great deal to Berlioz, who was struggling to win fame and money at the time. Liszt heard the Symphonie fantastique for the second time in December 1832, when it was followed by its sequel Lelio or the return to life. (It was at this concert that the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, the subject of Berlioz’ “idée fixe” in the symphony, realized that Berlioz was genuinely in love with her and decided to marry him.)

Liszt now decided to transcribe the Symphonie fantastique for piano—seemingly an impossible task when one thinks of the varied orchestral colour in Berlioz’ score and also the fact that the music was wildly avant-garde for its time. Liszt’s purpose was of course to help Berlioz, whom he genuinely admired: orchestral concerts were expensive to mount, and so the best way to make Berlioz’ music available to the general public was to transcribe it for a medium which could be approached, if not mastered by any pianist. These transcriptions took the place of the modern phonograph record: Liszt not only played them in his concerts but even bore the expenses of the publication of his version of the symphony. This transcription was made in 1833: at about the same time Liszt wrote a short piece based on the main theme of the symphony which he called “L’idée fixe. Andante amoroso”. He also transcribed for piano Berlioz’ Francs-Juges and King Lear overtures and his Harold in Italy symphony all by 1836.

Liszt’s transcription of the Symphonie fantastique was published in 1834, and a few years later Schumann was able to use it as a basis for his celebrated review of the work without ever having seen the full score. He said that it had the effect of an original work and must be regarded as a “practical piano manual for playing from score.” This is because the score contains very full indications of the orchestration: Schumann wrote that a score like this by Liszt, and played by Liszt, that “genius of performance,” could well be performed without loss next to an orchestral performance of the work. This actually happened. The young German pianist Carl Halle (later Sir Charles Hallé, founder of the famous Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England) came to Paris to study in 1836, at the age of 17 and heard Liszt play for the first time. He wrote in his memoirs: “I went home with a feeling of thorough dejection. Such marvels of executive skill and power I could not have imagined. He was a giant, and Rubinstein spoke the truth when, at the time when his own triumphs were greatest, he said that in comparison with Liszt all other pianists were children. For him there were no difficulties of execution, the most incredible seeming child’s play under his fingers… His daring was as extraordinary as his talent. At an orchestral concert given by him and conducted by Berlioz, the March to the scaffold from the latter’s Symphonie fantastique, that most gorgeously instrumental piece, was performed, at the conclusion of which Liszt sat down and played his own arrangement for piano alone of the same piece, with an effect even surpassing that of the full orchestra, and creating an indescribable furore. The feat had been duly announced in the programme beforehand, a proof of his indomitable courage.”

The extraordinary way in which Liszt transferred orchestral effects can be shown by a few examples. Though Liszt is faithful to Berlioz’ actual notes, he does not hesitate to insert extra touches which make the music more effective on the piano. Thus in the 18th bar of the slow introduction to the first movement he writes the violin parts in thirds instead of Berlioz’ single line accompanied by staccato chords (Idil Biret has chosen to be faithful to Berlioz’ single line): and in the last bars before the Allegro he replaces Berlioz’ simple tremolos by a wild arpeggio figure in the first half of each bar and divides the third bar between the hands so as to give the effect of woodwinds answered by string pizzicatos. In a fortissimo passage early in the Allegro he replaces Berlioz’ tremolos by chords syncopated between the hands or by arpeggio figures: in the lead-up to the three bars’ silence after a chord of A major he sets the hands against each other in eighth notes rather than Berlioz’ original quarter notes, thus giving a much more exciting effect pianistically. The long drum roll on C is transposed down an octave and made into a trill on C and B: in the build-up to the recapitulation Liszt puts a third staff in the score with the note: “This third line is not performable on the piano at the same as the two other ones, but simply acts as an indication of the context of the original score.” (Idil Biret plays this third line together with the two other ones—without resorting to tape overdubs.). No wonder Schumann was able to base his review of the work on this transcription alone.

One could find endless other examples of Liszt’s ingenuity: for instance in the Waltz, where in the last few bars before the first emergence of the main theme in A major Liszt replaces Berlioz’ tremolos by rapid arpeggios in 64th notes: and this in a fast tempo! Nevertheless the effect is worth it. In the famous passage for solo cor anglais and four timpani at the end of the slow movement Liszt gets a more atmospheric effect with deep bass tremolandos on four different notes; in the March to the scaffold the second appearance of the triumphant B flat major theme is accompanied by repeated triplets in the left hand which are more effective pianistically than Berlioz’ bass arpeggios. The build up to the fortissimo return of the main G minor theme is ingeniously arranged, with Berlioz’ woodwind triplets ranging through four octaves in the right hand against the string appoggiatura figures in the left hand, which also has to play the melody! In the slow introduction to the finale Liszt reproduces Berlioz’ atmospheric effects faithfully, while in the first C minor fortissimo passage in the Allegro he replaces Berlioz’ legato string figures with chords answering each other between the hands, and arpeggios across the keyboard replace tremolos. In the Ronde du Sabbat section of the finale Liszt adds a note that “where syncopated notes appear sforzando on the offbeats they should be struck with force so that the breaking-up of the rhythm can be clearly felt”: for the syncopated diminished seventh chords Liszt provides two alternative versions, for larger or smaller hands. He provides a similar ad libitum version in arpeggios for another passage in which pianissimo and fortissimo half-measures alternate above the Dies Irae theme. As a re-creation of a work in terms of an entirely different medium from that for which it was conceived there is no greater tour de force than this truly fantastic transcription.

Humphrey Searle

Note: Idil Biret adheres to all the particulars of Liszt’s version as described above in Humphrey Searle’s notes, although at other times in her performance she occasionally deviates from Liszt either for her own pianistic reasons or to realize certain significant elements of Berlioz’ orchestral score. (Editor of the Finnadar LP version)

(Music notes are from the original LP Finnadar SR 9023, released in 1979)

Harold en Italie, Op. 16 by Hector Berlioz (1808–1869)
Transcription for piano and viola, S. 472 by Franz LISZT (1811–1886)

Berlioz and his idea of programme music

The concept of the “programme symphony” emerged for the first time in Paris in about 1800, but the real age of programme music began with Berlioz and it is closely related with his interest in the further development of instrumental music. Berlioz created new timbres, while he introduced into the orchestra instruments which had not previously been part of the classical repertoire and integrated the sounds of these individual instruments in new ways. He explained his ideas in his important treatise on orchestration of 1844 and his innovations are also components of his programmatic compositions. The idée fixe, the principal idea, lies at the heart of his programme music and is constantly reflected in his works. The integration of the idée fixe signalled the end of traditional forms in classical music. Three of his programmatic works exerted a special influence on the history of European music history: the Symphonie fantastique, Roméo et Juliette and the symphonic concerto Harold en Italie.

The effects of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique

With the première of his Symphonie fantastique on 5th December 1830 Berlioz provoked the most diverse reactions. The majority of the public could not get to grips with the music and did not understand the connection between its programmatic content and compositional structure, so at further performances Berlioz arranged to have playbills containing the story behind the work handed out to the public. His innovations were successful only when the programme remained within the boundaries of what was musically expressible.

Berlioz and his Harold in Italy (1834) as a viola concerto

Berlioz was inspired to write his viola concerto and then the Harold in Italy Symphony by Lord Byron’s verse epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage of 1818, a work which Berlioz, like many of his contemporaries, much revered. Yet this is not simply a work based on a setting of literature; on the contrary it is an expression of thoughts and feelings associated with Berlioz’s travels in Italy (1831–1832) and so it has autobiographical traits. As far as the genesis of Harold in Italy is concerned, Berlioz claimed in his autobiography Mémoires (published incomplete in 1865/posthumously in 1870) that the Symphony arose from a commission for a viola concerto from Nicolò Paganini. In fact Paganini declined to take part in the first performance of the work because the solo part was not virtuosic enough for him. It is likely that Berlioz wrote the piece first, in the hope that Paganini would promote it, but without having asked him beforehand. Berlioz completed the work in the summer of 1834 and it was given its first performance, to great acclaim, on 23rd November 1834 at the Paris Conservatoire with the violist Chrétien Urhan as soloist and conducted by Narcisse Girard, whose interpretation Berlioz did not care for.

Content and Form of the Harold in Italy Symphony, in four movements with viola solo

From the existing two-movement viola concerto Berlioz created a symphony in four movements, to his own programme. Like Byron, the composer identified with the figure of Harold which he took as the basis of his programmatic conception but to which he added his own experiences of extensive travels in his much-loved Abruzzi mountains. Here is Berlioz’s programme:

1st movement: Harold in the Mountains. Scenes of sadness, happiness and joy
2nd movement: March of the Pilgrims singing their evening prayer
3rd movement: Serenade of a mountaineer of the Abruzzi to his mistress
4th movement: Orgy of Brigands. Memories of past experiences

In terms of the musical composition, within the framework of a formal classical scheme, Berlioz expanded further the cyclical principle which he had devised in the Symphonie fantastique, while he portrayed the title character not only thematically, with a leitmotif that recurs constantly in all four movements, but also instrumentally, with a solo viola. Berlioz achieves his unique tone quality through his orchestration:

2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets in C, 4 Bassoons, 4 Horns (1 and 2 in G, 3 and 4 in D), 2 Cornets in A, 2 Trumpets in C, 3 Trombones, Triangle, Cymbals in C. G., Harp, 15 Violins I, 15 Violins II, 10 Violas, 12 Violoncellos, 9 Double basses.

1st movement: The leitmotif appears immediately in free sonata form in the slow chromatic introduction, first in a variation in the minor for woodwind (bars 14–21) and then played by the solo viola in its own incarnation, accompanied by harp and clarinets (bars 38–45). With its changing rhythms and dynamic effects the allegro section depicts the programmatic subheading of the implied moods, which alternate between melancholy, happiness and joyful excitement.

2nd movement: This movement is written in a free three-part song form and contains the picturesque representation of pilgrims processing past Harold. Their devout song is interrupted at the end of the verses by droning prayers of intercession (bars 23–26). The leitmotif, which comes to the fore in the middle section, as well as the solo viola’s arpeggios played at the bridge and which gently accompany the chorale in the recapitulation, symbolize Harold’s religious experience. The movement dies away atmospherically at the end with the sound of far-off bells represented by flutes, horns and harp.

3rd movement: The serenade of the third movement, in a free three-part song form, is framed by a dance-like prelude and postlude in the style of a tarantella. Here the declamatory leitmotif, played by the solo viola, is combined with the love-song, introduced by the cor anglais (bar 35) accompanied by muted violins and violas in octaves.

4th movement: This movement is in free sonata form with no development. It features Harold in the midst of a group of bandits characterized by a sturdy theme in the minor (bars 1–11). There follow scenes from Harold’s past: sorrow, religion, love, joy, experiences which gave him no meaning of life. These are characterized by reminiscences from corresponding places in the previous three movements. Finally a disintegrating variant of the leitmotif in scraps of melody implies that the “melancholy dreamer” threatens to get mixed up in an orgy of crime (bars 81–98). But in these terrible moments he recalls the devout song of the pilgrims, fading away in the distance (bar 473 ff). Harold recovers his composure and slips away from the barbaric band which continues noisily with its boisterous drunken revelry.

The particular effect of the Symphonie fantastique on Franz Liszt

From 1830 Berlioz found in Franz Liszt a patient friend and an ardent champion of his programme music. In 1855 Liszt wrote of his complete faith in the concept of programme music in his essay about Berlioz: “Berlioz and his Harold Symphony.” For Liszt the Symphonie fantastique already signalled the advent of a new musical era. In any case he guessed that there would be problems inherent in such an approach to composition: Berlioz had tried to impose onto his literary programme the formal structure of the symphony. In so doing however, Liszt thought that Berlioz had pushed the boundaries too far as a composer, since musical structure could never be reconciled with extra-musical content.

Since the programme symphony was being advanced as the ideal art form of the time and was just as important as the oratorio or the cantata, Liszt was afraid that it could become the only musical form of the future. He thought that a new sphere of activity should be found for programme music, but one which would have lower status than absolute music. But Liszt did share the same point of view as the advocates of this idea: the music says everything, without any verbal explanation. But as to how this should be made a reality opinions were widely divided (musical logic vs. “poetic programme”). Inspired by Berlioz’s objectives Liszt came up with the symphonic poem. When Liszt was in his Weimar period, from the years after 1848, and began to write orchestral music himself, he devised the concept of the symphonic poem in order to make it clear from the generic name that it was independent of traditional musical formal schemes. But Liszt too could not avoid giving a programme for the understanding of most of his symphonic poems.

Liszt’s perceptions of programme music

Early on Liszt drew on other arts such as literature, painting and architecture for sources of inspiration in his musical works, in order to achieve a particular musical effect. He was of the opinion that a composer should present his ideas concisely and only later would he provide a commentary for the benefit of the public and the artist with his programmes. But his most important task was to ensure that programme music should be protected from the arbitrariness of poetic interpretation. Liszt thought that the programme could only be justified if it was poetically necessary, an inseparable part of the whole, and was vital to its understanding.

Liszt as a champion of Berlioz

Liszt’s faithful friendship with, and support of, Berlioz manifested itself practically in diverse ways—from his piano transcription of the Symphonie fantastique in 1834 to the transcriptions in the reworking of the Harold in Italy Symphony and of other shorter transcriptions, right up to the Berlioz Week, held in Weimar in 1852. In reviews and in articles, especially in his substantial essay Berlioz and his Harold Symphony, Liszt was anxious to make Berlioz’s works, which to a great extent were regarded as bizarre and incomprehensible, better known. From their first meeting in 1830 both men were in agreement on most matters concerning music, aesthetics and religion and in the end Berlioz was delighted to place his music in Liszt’s hands, whether as player, transcriber or conductor.

From Berlioz’s Harold en Italie Symphony to Liszt’s piano transcriptions for viola and piano and for solo piano

For a few days in 1830 Liszt was allowed to look at the Harold in Italy Symphony, which Berlioz handed over to him somewhat warily. After that Liszt remained completely in awe of the work and three years later he was able to inspect the score again, this time in tranquillity. Liszt’s solo piano transcription, based on the first version of the Harold in Italy Symphony, appeared in 1833 and that for viola and piano followed in 1836. Berlioz, under the pressure of financial hardship and notwithstanding his total admiration for Liszt’s inspired realization, agreed to the first performance of the viola and piano transcription in 1852 in concerts of his own works in Weimar.

Liszt’s Harold transcription for solo piano

Liszt’s Harold transcription, with a few slight changes, dated from before the publication of Berlioz’s own score, since Berlioz experienced considerable delays between its composition, the première in 1834 and the appearance of the published score. As a result of this, it was Berlioz’s original version of 1834 which formed the basis of Liszt’s transcription. Liszt conceived the piece as a piano transcription, similar to his Symphonie fantastique transcription, with very considerable challenges for the interpreter. It is noteworthy that Liszt has arranged the second movement in the right proportion for the piano with regard to the orchestral original. Unlike Paganini Liszt did not feel himself limited in his transcription of the first three movements. Liszt divided the programmatic ideas, matching his enthusiasm for Byron with Berlioz’s timbral imagination. With elegance and the greatest understanding Liszt produces here a fresco in miniature format by reducing the orchestration. And everything is in the spirit of Berlioz.

Liszt’s Harold transcription for piano and viola

The viola and piano transcription benefits from its chamber music context, since it articulates the most subtle nuances of the score without their being covered up by the full orchestra. So, in Liszt’s version, just before the final chorale passage in the March of the pilgrims, there are several notes for the viola which do not exist in the published score. In addition Liszt has allowed the viola to play, in double-stopping like a bagpipe drone, in the allegro assai passages transcribed from the Serenade. It is apparent that Liszt does not increase the extent of the participation of the viola in the last movement. The pianist could thus be particularly helped by the deployment of the menacing trombones and wild tremolos over half the keyboard with which Liszt has tried to re-create the violin parts of the original. Although Liszt’s transcription scarcely counts as chamber music, it is undeniable that, without Berlioz’s orchestration, the viola part is displayed here to much greater advantage than is usually the case. From time to time it results in a real chamber music structure. Unfortunately Liszt wrote little chamber music and that mostly as an arranger (editor).

Gottfried Wagner
English translation by David Stevens

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