Unrivaled: The New Berlioz Edition

1967 saw the publication of the first volume of the “New Berlioz Edition”.  The Complete Edition has become a classic example of modern music editions, and continues to influence performances to this day.

A gamble has become a success story

Fifty years have now passed since the first volume of the “New Berlioz Edition” was published by Bärenreiter-Verlag and those familiar black bindings began to be seen on the podia of the world's major orchestras. The first work in the series, the “Symphonie funèbre et triomphale”, was chosen because it was very little known and because it presented little complexity in the sources. The bindings may have been black for a funereal work, I am not sure, but I do recall that at the inaugural concert in 1967 given by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Charles Groves in the presence of the French Ambassador, the presentation of the score caused amusement amongst those of us who knew that the final proofing of the score had still not been done, and that His Excellency had been handed a volume of blank paper handsomely bound.

I edited that score having accepted that it would be wise to save our major publication, “Les Troyens” in three volumes, until we had the experience of a first single volume edited and published. It was the astonishing vision of Karl Vötterle, founder of the Verlag, to have taken on the publication of a monumental edition of a French composer who was then not widely accepted to be one of the great figures of European music. His music was not much played in Germany and the French had shown almost no interest in studying or performing his works.

It was a brave venture, put together, some said, by a bunch of eccentric Englishmen. It proved timely, since the two-volume biography by Jacques Barzun, published in America in 1950, the advent of long-playing records, and the brilliant revival of “Les Troyens” at Covent Garden under Rafael Kubelik in 1957 had set in motion a revival of interest in Berlioz which has accelerated ever since.

Now it is no longer remarkable to see French music prominently featured in the Bärenreiter catalogue, and Berlioz's major works are performed regularly by a great number of leading conductors. “Les Troyens”, in particular, much of which Berlioz himself did not live to see on stage, has become a work that no major opera house can afford to neglect. It stands alongside “Tristan und Isolde” and “Otello” as one of the major operas of the nineteenth century.

The case of “La damnation de Faust” is interesting too since it is the one work that had been honoured in France and frequently played there, at least until the First World War. In recent years it has again become a favourite for orchestras and choruses, and has had new life from a number of celebrated stage productions, especially in London and New York. The motivation behind the first stage production, given by Raoul Gunsbourg in Monte Carlo in 1893, was to bring to life all those colourful scenes and characters that fill Berlioz's “dramatic legend”. The fact that Berlioz did not intend the work for the stage did not inhibit the many theatres that followed Gunsbourg in finding the representation of Auerbach's Cellar and the Ride to the Abyss, not to mention Heaven and Hell, irresistible. The purists have always insisted that Berlioz's music does not need any visible help; it is visual music that works its magic on anyone with imagination, even if that imagination is not as vivid as the composer's.

„Les Troyens“ at Wiener Staatsoper, Premiere: 14.10.2018, conductor, director: David McVicar (photo: Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)

The case of “La damnation de Faust” is interesting too since it is the one work that had been honoured in France and frequently played there, at least until the First World War. In recent years it has again become a favourite for orchestras and choruses, and has had new life from a number of celebrated stage productions, especially in London and New York. The motivation behind the first stage production, given by Raoul Gunsbourg in Monte Carlo in 1893, was to bring to life all those colourful scenes and characters that fill Berlioz's “dramatic legend”. The fact that Berlioz did not intend the work for the stage did not inhibit the many theatres that followed Gunsbourg in finding the representation of Auerbach's Cellar and the Ride to the Abyss, not to mention Heaven and Hell, irresistible. The purists have always insisted that Berlioz's music does not need any visible help; it is visual music that works its magic on anyone with imagination, even if that imagination is not as vivid as the composer's.

But we live in a visual age, where all daily actions are enacted or reported on a screen. Why not the “Damnation de Faust” too? But a literal staging of the action is not what the composer wanted, nor is it what stage directors want today. This is the perfect work for imaginative presentation that can offer a new interpretation of the action without any need to present the separate scenes in a literal way. Recent productions have been very free interpretations which still allow the listener to "see" Berlioz's work in the mind's eye only.

Publication of the “New Berlioz Edition” was completed in 2006 at a time when it could be said that a revolution in Berlioz reception had taken place. It is of course not the only contributor to this change in attitude, but it has brought about the accessibility of Berlioz's works, down to the rarely performed choral works and songs. Being now a complete series, it serves as a model for other monumental editions, and is used by graduate seminars in the study of music editing.

As General Editor I set out the principles which the edition aimed to follow. Obviously such an edition must serve both the needs of scholarship and of performers, and that is not always easy. Scholars wish that conductors would read the Critical Notes and study the textual issues, and many do. Practical musicians, in concert or in the theatre, need to know the background to the music they play but not the minutiae.
I attempted therefore to provide, in our Forewords, the essential information about a work's genesis and history, and to avoid critical judgments of the work's worth. In the Critical Notes, found at the back of every volume of our edition, I have always felt it is important to be selective, since tiny differences in the sources can have no practical interest, whereas there are often real textual problems which the performer needs to confront. To make sure that important issues are not buried in trivia has been a guiding principle, and the greater accessibility of sources on Gallica (www.gallica.bnf.fr) and similar websites now allows the researcher to check details and differences more easily than was once possible.

Why a complete edition?

Some people have argued that Berlioz was more fortunate than most French composers because Breitkopf & Härtel issued a Gesamtausgabe in the years 1900-1910, and that the music did not need a new edition. I have had some sympathy with this view myself, since the Breitkopf edition was a remarkable achievement, providing performance material for all the orchestral and choral works. I can listen to performances of, say, the overtures, without being able to detect whether the edition being used is Breitkopf or Bärenreiter or indeed Costallat. Some eminent conductors who supported the idea of our new edition continued to use their older scores and parts out of routine. But the next generation of conductors have learned that Bärenreiter scores of Berlioz bring a guarantee of editorial accuracy and utility that no longer attaches to older editions. With a complete edition, the performer never has to check whether there is a Bärenreiter edition of a particular work or not.

But our original ambition – to publish the two major operas that Breitkopf had not issued – has been fulfilled. “Les Troyens” in 1969 and “Benvenuto Cellini” in 1996 filled two notorious gaps in the availability of these works, and their availability in the “New Berlioz Edition” has revolutionised the popularity of these two works. “Les Troyens” has been staged in nearly every major opera house in the world, and in many medium-sized houses too. “Benvenuto Cellini” has only been established on stage since the publication in the “New Berlioz Edition”, with twelve productions since the edition was first used in 2002 in Zürich: 2003 at the Metropolitan, New York, 2004 in Gelsenkirchen, 2007 at the Salzburger Festspiele, 2008 Nürnberg, 2014 at the ENO in London and in Münster, 2015 in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bonn and Cologne, 2016 Opera di Roma. And “Le Freyschütz” is getting performed more and more frequently in its French version: 2010 in Trier, 2011 at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, 2012 Liberec, 2013 Bern and Nice, 2015 Erfurt.

“Benvenuto Cellini” is not likely to be recognized at the same level of mastery as “Les Troyens” but it is an opera whose complex history needed to be disentangled and which can have an electrifying effect in the theatre. Our edition offers a solution to the problem of publishing operas which have been heavily revised by their composers, so that any of its many versions may be adopted on stage today. But it is not an easy task, and I do not claim that our solution was the only one, or even the best.

One triumph of the “New Berlioz Edition” was the publication in 1993 of the “Messe solennelle”, Berlioz's first major work, which was thought to be lost. The autograph manuscript was discovered by a lucky chance in a church in Antwerp, so the first performance since 1827 was followed by many others around the world. It is not impossible that other lost works are discovered in the years to come so that the “New Berlioz Edition's” work may not be as complete as we like to think.

Hugh Macdonald
General Editor “New Berlioz Edition”

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