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NBD0042 - BERLIOZ, H.: Harold en Italie / Le carnaval romain / Benvenuto Cellini: Overture (Berthaud, Lyon National Orchestra, Slatkin) (Blu-ray Audio)
Hector Berlioz (1803–69)
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 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 and in the season he had the opportunity to see much more, sharing in the popular adulation of Miss 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 final victory in the Prix de Rome had allowed him to spend 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.
Berlioz had diverse literary interests, often reflected in his compositions. Virgil’s Aeneid inspired the opera Les Troyens (The Trojans), Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing gave rise to the opera Béatrice et Bénédict, Romeo and Juliet to a symphonie dramatique and The Tempest to a Fantaisie dramatique, while Goethe’s Faust inspired La damnation de Faust. It was Byron’s Childe Harold that suggested to Berlioz a symphony with a solo viola, Harold en Italie. This last was completed in 1834 and performed at the Paris Conservatoire in November of the same year, to be published only fourteen years later, in 1848. It was in December 1833 that Berlioz had met the great violinist Paganini, after a performance of the former’s Symphonie fantastique. Paganini sought from Berlioz a concerto in which he might display to advantage a Stradivarius viola that he had acquired. Berlioz at first demurred, but set to work, nevertheless, on a work for viola and orchestra, only to have it rejected by Paganini, who required a true concerto, in which the solo viola would retain prominence throughout. Berlioz gives a graphic account of the vicissitudes that befell performances of the work, but his presentation of it in 1838 at a concert at which Paganini was present and heard the complete work for the first time brought the highest praise from the violinist, now near to death from the tuberculosis of the larynx that made speech difficult. He is said to have made clear to Berlioz his admiration of the work, kneeling before him and kissing his hand, and following this, the next day, by a present of 20,000 francs, brought to Berlioz by Paganini’s young son, Achille.
In Harold en Italie Berlioz had not only drawn on the adventures of Byron’s hero, but also on his own time in Italy as a winner of the Prix de Rome. The first of the four movements, Harold aux montagnes; Scènes de mélancolie, de bonheur, et de joie (Harold in the mountains; Scenes of sadness, of happiness and of joy), opens with an Adagio, its sinister chromatic figuration treated fugally and reaching a dynamic climax, before the entry of the viola with the theme associated with Harold, a melody, derived from the discarded overture Rob Roy, that recurs throughout the work. The following symphonic Allegro brings rejoicing, with a development and recapitulation, including a return of the theme associated with Harold. The second movement, Marche de pèlerins chantant la prière du soir (March of pilgrims singing the evening prayer) brings a shift of key from G to E. The Harold theme is heard again, over the procession, to which the viola adds further comment, as its arpeggiated figuration, sul ponticello, accompanies a canto religoso and the steady march. The third movement, Sérénade d’un montagnard des Abruzzes à sa maîtresse (Serenade of a mountain-dweller of the Abruzzi to his mistress), in C major, a key already touched on in the preceding movement, brings a change of mood, with the return of Harold’s theme in octaves and a final echo. The work ends with Orgie de brigands; Souvenirs des scènes précédentes (Orgy of brigands; Memories of the preceding scenes), a summary of what has gone before, starting in G minor. After the initial Allegro frenetico, there is a reminiscence of the opening, followed by the pilgrims’ march, the serenade, and reminiscences of the first Allegro and the Adagio. As the movement continues, extending the brigands’ orgy still further, the viola has less to add, eventually returning for a brief comment, before the work comes to a close.
The other three works recorded here are derived, in one way or another, from the opera Benvenuto Cellini. Berlioz’s opera on the adventurous life of the sixteenth-century Florentine goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini represented his third attempt to write for the Paris Opéra. His proposed Les francs juges of 1826, which he abandoned when the libretto was rejected, is represented by a surviving overture, published in 1836, while a proposed ballet from Goethe’s Faust brought a very different result. Benvenuto Cellini caused Berlioz a great deal of trouble, and he found much amiss in Habeneck’s conducting of the work, when it was staged at the Paris Opéra in 1836, complaining of wrong notes, wrong tempi and wrong rhythms. It was briefly revived in 1839, to receive attention from Liszt in Weimar in 1852, with a less satisfactory revival in London the following year. The plot of the opera concerns Cellini’s wooing of Teresa, daughter of the papal treasurer, Baldacci, who would prefer Teresa to marry Cellini’s rival, the cowardly Fieramosca. When Cellini attempts to abduct Teresa at Carnival time, a fight ensues in which Cellini kills Fieramosca’s hired assassin. Cellini disappears and returns under the cover of a monks’ procession, to be arrested and later pardoned by the Pope only on the hurried completion of the commissioned statue of Perseus. Berlioz made further use of three elements of the opera, beginning with the overture Benvenuto Cellini and a brilliantly orchestrated concert overture, Le carnaval romain (The Roman Carnival), the latter using the carnival scene from the opera, with the love duet between Cellini and Teresa as a lyrical second theme.
In 1841 Berlioz retrieved a third element from Benvenuto Cellini by taking a discarded cavatina from the opera to create a concert work for violin and orchestra, the Rêverie et Caprice, dedicated to Joseph-Alexandre Artôt, uncle of Tchaikovsky’s innamorata, the singer Désirée Artôt.
Berlioz mentions the work in his Mémoires, remarking on its elaborate orchestration and its success with the audience when it was played in Leipzig in 1843 with Ferdinand David as the soloist, and Mendelssohn as a pianist taking the place of a harpist. The work retains clear traces of its origin and served its purpose as a vehicle for soloists including Alard, Ernst, Wieniawski and Joachim, among others. The published version includes a spurious programme for the piece, attributed to the composer.
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