Hector Berlioz – an outsider in French music

It is 150 years since the death of Hector Berlioz (1803–1869). His name is certainly familiar in the world of music but in a quite different way to the other masters embodying the 19th century with their art. This might be due to the huge shadow cast by the early “Symphonie fantastique”, which not only as a composition with its “earworms” but also on account of it being conceived as a Faustian spine-chilling biography of a young man in his mid-twenties prejudiced how its creator was perceived. Only with great difficulty can the real personality behind this image of the artist be laid bare – the Berlioz with his many talents and incongruities, who remained an outsider within the French music of his day and was just as much at odds with the capital’s cultural scene as the Paris audiences were wary of him.

The abandonment of medical studies after the intermediate diploma was followed by the performance of the “Messe solennelle” in 1825, which saw a musical amateur, who in his youth had been given flute lessons and had taught himself to play the guitar, who had become engrossed in treatises on composition in his father’s possession and in the scores of Gluck’s operas, provide a sample of his skills after briefly having private lessons with Jean-François Le Sueur. And what astonishing skills they were! Only then was Berlioz admitted to the Conservatoire to study music. How arduous his struggle to be recognised as a composer remained, however, is evidenced by his no fewer than four attempts to win the Prix de Rome. Yet when he was finally awarded the prize in 1830, it was only with the greatest reluctance that Berlioz travelled to Italy, where he once again stunned the prize committee when he showed not the slightest desire to embark on the tour of Germany which also went with the Prix de Rome.

Berlioz established himself as a respected music critic in the 1830s; his acerbic quill nonetheless cemented the ambivalent relationship he had with Parisian musical life. Berlioz’s ideal was the ultimate magnum opus of poetic profundity, riveting drama and musical originality reaching out beyond the usual genre borders, which he attempted to break down in his music. This ideal proved to be unrealistic often enough, however: when Niccolò Paganini ordered a viola concerto in 1834, Berlioz composed “Harold en Italie”, a “Symphonie en quatre parties avec alto principal”. Paganini was disappointed, for Berlioz had not included any brilliant virtuoso passages. His first opera “Benvenuto Cellini” did not find favour either – it was too large-scale and too long and was commensurate neither with the wishes of the body of singers nor with the expectations of the opera-spoilt Paris audience. Things went better with the “Grande Messe des morts” commissioned by the French Ministry of the Interior, which with its monumental scale, had everyone moved to the core when it was premiered in Les Invalides. But it wasn’t a breakthrough. This was to come during one of Berlioz’s numerous journeys conducting his own works – in the previously spurned Germany of all places, where audiences were most receptive to his symphonic programme music. Franz Liszt became an advocate and the Weimar performance of “Benvenuto Cellini” in a tighter German version was a success. The “Traité dʼinstrumentation” written in 1843 appeared in the very same year in two different German translations. The huge influence of the theoretical work on Richard Strauss is well known. In 1853 Berlioz received the commission for the opéra comique “Béatrice et Bénédict” for the new theatre in Baden-Baden; 1856 saw the idea for his grand Virgilian opera “Les Troyens” beginning to take shape in Weimar. Its second part “Les Troyens à Carthage” finally brought him recognition in Paris too in 1858.

It is to be hoped that the 2019 anniversary year will provide the opportunity to give greater prominence again to Berlioz’s works, including the less well-known compositions, and to (re)discover some musical gems. The “New Berlioz Edition” published by Bärenreiter contains all of them.

Gudula Schütz
(translation: Stephen Taylor)

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