Hector Berlioz: music's great revolutionary

Tim Ashley
Monday, June 17, 2019

Tim Ashley is joined by four great advocates of the composer to celebrate the self-taught, revolutionary musician whose eccentric genius is only now being fully recognised

On February 7, 1848, Hector Berlioz gave a concert of his own works in London – a lengthy programme that included Harold en Italie, the first two parts of La damnation de Faust, the Offertorium from the Grande messe des morts and Carnaval romain. The response was enthusiastic, provoking Edward Holmes, critic for The Atlas, to write of ‘the beautiful, the original and poetical effects of the music’. And he added, with astonishing insight: ‘The word original is too feeble and conventional to describe the effect of these works, which are pure creations.’

In the late 1840s and early 1850s Berlioz was hugely admired in Britain, where his conducting was much praised, his use of orchestral colour evoked comparison with JMW Turner’s paintings, and his music was popular with audiences, with the exception of Benvenuto Cellini, a failure at Covent Garden in 1853. In Germany – thanks in part to the advocacy first of Schumann, then of Liszt and later, more guardedly, of Wagner – there was comparable enthusiasm, and the progressive nature of Berlioz’s work, redefining both the potential of the orchestra and the parameters of form, resulted in his identification, whether he wished it or not, with the aesthetics of ‘the music of the future’. During his first visit to Russia, meanwhile, in 1847, his concerts were greeted with adulation, and when he returned 20 years later he found himself idolised by the younger generation of composers that included Tchaikovsky and The Five.

Yet in France, things were different. By the 1850s, Berlioz had effectively become an itinerant composer-conductor searching for appreciative audiences abroad, since the French musical establishment had come to regard him with suspicion and audiences were becoming indifferent after a series of initial successes. The failure of La damnation de Faust in 1846 opened a rift between Berlioz and the French musical world, which the success of L’enfance du Christ in 1854 only temporarily breached; and his spirit was effectively broken by the treatment meted out to Les Troyens (completed in 1858) – arguably his masterpiece and one of the greatest operas of the 19th century. Only the last three acts were performed in his lifetime, and even they were cut. Entitled Les Troyens à Carthage, it was by no means unsuccessful at its first performance at Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique in November 1863: people were moved to tears by it, as audiences are at performances of the complete work today. But the score had, as Berlioz put it, been ‘dismembered … like the body of a calf on a butcher’s stall, with its fragments offered for sale like meat for cats’. One of the saddest ironies in musical history is that France was among the last countries to acknowledge the achievement of one of its greatest composers.

‘A musical brigand like Berlioz needs his orchestra to go to the edge – the needle to be in the red zone’ – Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reactions to Berlioz have long been complex. Gounod, more sympathetic than some French composers, described Roméo et Juliette (among others of Berlioz’s works) as ‘strange, passionate and convulsive music that opened up to me such new and vividly coloured horizons’. He was well aware of the work’s emotional impact and the novelty of its orchestral and vocal writing, but the key word here is ‘strange’, an acknowledgement of Berlioz’s uniqueness, perhaps, but a word that hovered over Berlioz criticism for more than a century after his death. He did things differently, led music along paths that many found puzzling. Admiration was often tempered with charges of eccentricity, even of amateurishness.

In order to understand the nature of Berlioz’s genius, the shifting responses to his music over time, and the story of the eventual rescue of Les Troyens from near obscurity, I talked with four great advocates of his work: his biographer David Cairns, who also generously made available to me the text of his recent Berlioz Society lecture ‘Berlioz’s Reputation in Britain from 1847 to the Present Day’; Hugh Macdonald, general editor of Bärenreiter’s New Berlioz Edition; and two conductors – Sir John Eliot Gardiner, whose period-instrument performances have brought new light to bear on Berlioz’s powers of orchestration, and John Nelson, whose recording of Les Troyens won the Opera category at the 2018 Gramophone Awards and was ultimately named Recording of the Year.

A free spirit who tore up the rule book

Berlioz’s Memoirs – ‘this tremendous autobiography’, as Nelson describes them – were published in 1870, a year after his death. Some have questioned their veracity, though they present us with a portrait of Berlioz as he wished to be seen – witty, provocative, knowingly ironic, angry and sorrowing over his treatment in France, and grateful to those who admired him elsewhere. Reading them, however, you can’t help but be struck by the way that ‘he refuses to categorise himself’, as Nelson puts it. He is almost invariably described by others as ‘Romantic’ and ‘revolutionary’, but he never applies either of these adjectives to himself, and is even dismissive of ‘romanticists’ (he mentions no names) whose loyalty to Shakespeare, so crucial to his own inspiration, he considered to have waned.

Nelson locates both Berlioz’s genius and the antagonism his music provoked in an iconoclastic streak in his temper. ‘If ever there was an iconoclast in the history of music, it was Berlioz,’ he says. ‘The French do not take to things that are too extreme, and his music was so revolutionary compared with what came before.’ And the Symphonie fantastique, premiered in 1830 when Berlioz was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire, did indeed turn music on its head, with its placing of symphonic form at the service of semi-autobiographical narrative, its emotional volatility, morbid gothicism and still startling sonorities.

Gardiner considers him to be ‘the most outrageous radical and brigand. He’s always talking about being a brigand. In Lélio, he says, “God! I want to leave all this bourgeois stuff behind and join a band of brigands.” Le corsaire is all about brigandage. He’d always show up with two pistols. If you invited him to dinner, he would have the pistols on the table. So a musical brigand like Berlioz needs his orchestra to go to the edge – the needle to be in the red zone.’ Berlioz, in short, was a ‘free spirit’ (Gardiner’s words), who both rewrote and ignored the rules.

Master of the theatre

Berlioz’s imagination was primarily fired by literature. In a famous passage near the beginning of his Memoirs, he recalls how as a boy he ‘broke down utterly’ when reading the account of Dido’s death in the fourth book of the Aeneid (‘How extraordinary is that?’ Nelson comments), which marked the start of a lifelong love of Virgil that culminated in Les Troyens decades later. At performances of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, given by an English company at the Odéon in Paris in 1827, meanwhile, he equally famously discovered Shakespeare, later describing his experience in terms of a religious revelation in which he imagines himself as Lazarus before Christ: ‘I understood’, he wrote, ‘that I must get up from my bed and walk.’

Like many French Romantics, Berlioz equated Shakespearean drama with the dissolution of the classical forms that had both defined and hampered French culture over the preceding centuries, and in Roméo et Juliette (1839) he produced a work that pushes at the limits of symphonic structure by juxtaposing orchestral movements with songs, motets and, in the finale, elements of Meyerbeerian grand opéra. Yet the work itself, Gardiner tells me, is also rooted in the play’s language. ‘Ian Kemp, years ago, wrote a brilliant piece discussing how in the Love Scene Berlioz wrote the French words in to the score. He had a few translations of Shakespeare in front of him. And in the music you can hear the exchange in the balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet, and the Nurse in the background calling Juliet; you can reconstruct the language of the Shakespearean text, if you want to.’

‘He wrote his treatise on orchestration because no one taught him how to do it at the conservatoire’ – Hugh Macdonald

Form in Berlioz is largely dictated by subject and essentially self-evolving, blurring preconceived ideas of genre in the process. For Gardiner, ‘Every piece of Berlioz is theatre. It’s conceived in terms of theatrical space and theatrical movement,’ and at last year’s BBC Proms he effectively dramatised Harold en Italie by getting viola soloist Antoine Tamestit to wander through the auditorium and among the orchestral musicians before forming a string quartet with the three solo strings who play in the finale. Nelson, meanwhile, is awed by the spatial, architectural structures of the Grande messe and Te Deum: ‘He was the first to use space like that. I can’t think of anyone else who did that in the whole history of music.’

‘Each major work is a separate world that has its own colours and its own rules,’ Cairns tells me. ‘And I think you have to learn each of his works separately. That’s one of the difficulties about him. I don’t think’, he adds, pointing out that Roméo et Juliette was a success at its 1839 premiere, ‘that people in those days were so worried about form.’ But as form gradually became a critical preoccupation in the late 19th and the 20th century, Berlioz came to be seen as wayward. ‘It was very easy to think’, Cairns continues, ‘that he wasn’t in command of his métier, and hadn’t been properly taught.’

Master of orchestration

Berlioz never learnt to play the piano, and wrote in his Memoirs of how freedom from ‘the tyranny of the fingers’ permitted him to ‘compose freely and in silence’. ‘He wrote directly into the score,’ Gardiner says. ‘He envisaged orchestral colours as part of the fabric of the compositional process. And he had such an acute ear, for the timbre of not just individual instruments but also their permutations. And they’re magical, those permutations of colours.’ Yet his compositional method was also to be held against him. ‘You have to consider’, Cairns tells me, ‘how influential the piano and the sustaining pedal were in 19th-century music, but here was someone who didn’t write like that, and that alienated some people.’

That his orchestral writing should prove so influential was largely owing to the advocacy of Liszt and the German and Russian progressives who so admired him, but no one should overlook the impact of his treatise on orchestration Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes (published 1843). ‘He wrote it because no one taught him how to orchestrate at the conservatoire,’ Macdonald tells me. ‘What we read it for now, though, isn’t what people read it for in the 19th century. It was thought of then as a book of instruction. Now, of course, it’s important because it tells us about the instruments of the time and what they were. As a historical document it’s critical.’

‘Les Troyens in 1969 blew to smithereens the idea that it was a dead duck – the fruit of an old, worn-out composer’ – David Cairns

The book was deemed seminal, even in France. ‘Saint-Saëns and his generation treated it as standard,’ Macdonald continues. ‘There were books by Widor and Gevaert that expanded on it. Rimsky-Korsakov went a bit further, but he didn’t really rely upon Berlioz’s treatise. He didn’t need to.’ Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky assiduously studied it. Gardiner points to its influence on Mahler, and on Verdi, ‘who said some uncomplimentary things about Berlioz, not admitting the huge impact he had on his orchestral writing. There are passages in Verdi’s Requiem, particularly in the Dies irae, which are just Berliozian – there’s no question about it.’ Strauss, meanwhile, prepared a German edition before beginning work on Salome, and later went on to say he believed Berlioz had invented the modern orchestra. He was by no means wrong.

Les Troyens: rising from the ruins

By the time the Second World War was over, Berlioz’s reputation had reached something of a low ebb. In the years immediately following it, his music, particularly the Symphonie fantastique, continued to be played, but critical perspectives all too frequently focused on his apparent eccentricities and formal deficiencies. ‘Those who stood up for him’, Macdonald says, ‘were thought to be cranks.’ Understanding of his achievement was also notably incomplete owing to the absence from the repertory of Les Troyens in any form in which we now recognise it. Its discovery was to bring in its wake a reappraisal of Berlioz’s entire output which would decisively re-establish his position, even in France.

The opera had by no means been entirely ignored. It was first heard complete in Karlsruhe in 1890, but for many years thereafter was performed in two parts, or indeed as two separate operas, with the first and second acts now divided into three and entitled La prise de Troie. It was rarely heard either complete or in a single evening. ‘There was a Paris production in 1921,’ Macdonald tells me, ‘but enormously cut. The standard approach was that you can do it, but you have to cut it.’

The first intimation of a breakthrough came in 1935, with Erik Chisholm’s performance (albeit over two nights) in Glasgow using an English translation by Edward J Dent, who likened the work to ‘a buried city of the ancient world waiting to be rediscovered’. The critical response was striking and prophetic. Donald Tovey – ‘who had always sneered about Berlioz’, Cairns tells me – was so impressed that he described it as ‘one of the most gigantic and convincing masterpieces of music-drama’.

Sir Thomas Beecham’s BBC broadcast of the work in 1947 was followed five years later by Hermann Scherchen’s recording of Les Troyens à Carthage with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; but the turning point came in 1957 – a century after the opera was written – when the Covent Garden Opera Company presented both parts (sung in English) in a single evening in a production by Sir John Gielgud conducted by Rafael Kubelík. It changed lives. ‘It introduced me to Berlioz,’ Macdonald says. ‘I didn’t know the work before that. It was an extraordinary experience. Very few people expected it to be a success, but it had quite an astonishing effect.’ Cairns recalls: ‘They cut it a bit, but not much. In effect it was the complete five-act work, and its impact was terrific.’ As a result, Cairns says, Berlioz became ‘a kind of sacred cause, a mission’.

Another convert to the cause was Sir Colin Davis, a central figure in the Berlioz revival, and one of the composer’s greatest interpreters. Cairns remembers his performances with the Chelsea Opera Group, which Cairns co-founded and with which he played percussion. ‘He came every summer, and we did a whole string of Berlioz works: we did Roméo one year, then Damnation, then La prise de Troie, Les Troyens à Carthage and Benvenuto Cellini. It was just amazing.’ Gardiner’s love of Berlioz derives from the same performances, in which, as a student, he played the viola or sang in the chorus. ‘It was a revelation,’ he says. ‘It really was.’

Two further milestones were reached in 1969. In Glasgow, Scottish Opera under Sir Alexander Gibson gave the first performances using Macdonald’s critical edition; and in London, Davis conducted the Covent Garden staging that formed the basis of his epoch-making Philips recording, released a year later. It brought an entire generation of listeners to the work, and as Cairns puts it, it finally ‘blew to smithereens’ the idea that it was ‘a dead duck and the fruit of the old age of a worn-out composer’.

Nelson’s long association with Berlioz, meanwhile, began in 1972, when he conducted the first uncut Les Troyens in the US, in concert at Carnegie Hall, New York. The next year he tackled it again during the run of its first staging at the Metropolitan Opera, when Kubelík, scheduled to conduct, was taken ill. ‘There I was,’ he tells me, ‘this 31-year-old boy in the Met pit, with Christa Ludwig (as Dido) and Shirley Verrett (as Cassandra) on stage.’ He went on to give more performances of the work than any other conductor in recent years.

Belated homecoming

In France, however, progress was slow. When Les Troyens opened the Opéra Bastille in 1990, it was performed, again cut, in what by all accounts was an ill-considered production conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. It was not until 2003, when Gardiner gave it with the Orchestre Révolutionnnaire et Romantique at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, that opinion began to shift. He describes in vivid detail how he raided a private collection of period brass for the nine saxhorns specified in the score and how he ‘completely succumbed to tears’ when he first heard them playing from various points around the stage and auditorium. ‘We played every bloody note of it,’ he says, ‘and you could feel the audience responding to it without prejudice. They took it to their bosom. It was a big breakthrough in 2003.’

Nelson’s recording, meanwhile, has continued the process of restitution and assimilation. ‘I would like to think that our recording is the French recording,’ he says with pride. And it is indeed the first recording of Les Troyens to be made in France with a French orchestra, the Strasbourg Philharmonic, and a largely Francophone cast and chorus – though, in a symbolic gesture, Nelson also deploys the chorus of the Karlsruhe Staatstheater, where the first complete performance was given more than a century before. In some respects, it marks a belated homecoming for a work that was ignored for so long in the country for which it was written. As we reach the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death, his reputation has never been higher. Cairns describes him, quite simply, as ‘such a stimulating and amazing person’, and we have never been in a better position to appreciate his greatness as we are now.

Berlioz listening guide

Les nuits d’été

Régine Crespin sop Suisse Romande Orchestra / Ernest Ansermet

Decca (3/64)

Setting texts about love and loss by Théophile Gautier, Les nuits d’été represents Berlioz at his most tender and intimate. Crespin’s 1963 recording has long been regarded as the benchmark – an object lesson in sensual refinement and poise.

Symphonie fantastique

Concertgebouw Orchestra / Colin Davis

Philips (3/75)

Davis was of one of the greatest of all Berlioz interpreters, and his 1974 Symphonie fantastique is a real roller coaster ride. Thrillingly intense, and wonderfully played, it’s a reminder that the piece itself has lost none of its ability to startle and amaze.

Te Deum

Francisco Araiza ten London Symphony Chorus; London Philharmonic Choir; Wooburn Singers; Boys’ Choirs; European Community Youth Orchestra / Claudio Abbado

DG (7/82)

Berlioz’s sacred works are spatially conceived on the most colossal scale, and the fervour, majesty and sheer enormity of the Te Deum are superbly captured in Abbado’s 1981 recording. The choral singing is tremendous.

Roméo et Juliette

Catherine Robbin mez Jean-Paul Fouchécourt ten Gilles Cachemaille bar Monteverdi Choir; Orchestre Révolutionnnaire et Romantique / John Eliot Gardiner

Decca (3/98)

Gardiner’s 1995 recording includes music from Berlioz’s original 1839 score alongside the more familiar revision of 1846, in a fiercely intelligent, yet supremely beautiful period-instrument interpretation that makes you rethink the work from scratch.


Harold en Italie

Tabea Zimmermann va LSO / Colin Davis

LSO Live (9/03)

Zimmermann makes Berlioz’s ‘symphony with viola obbligato’ her own in Davis’s third and finest recording (made in 2003) of Harold en Italie, a superbly focused, darkly romantic interpretation that has rarely been bettered.

Les Troyens

Joyce DiDonato mez Michael Spyres ten Marie-Nicole Lemieux contr Strasbourg Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra / John Nelson 

Erato (12/17)

Nelson’s 2017 recording of Les Troyens, the first to be made in France, carries symbolic resonances of the work’s belated homecoming. It’s a magnificent achievement, with Joyce DiDonato and Michael Spyres both outstanding.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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