Berlioz was born on 11th December 1803 in the Isère, the son of a doctor father and a devout Catholic mother. As he put it: “I was brought up as a member of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome. Since she has ceased to inculcate the burning of heretics, her creeds are charming”. However, as he also admits in his memoirs, the most indelible memories of his first Holy Communion were pretty girls and their celestial voices singing the Eucharistic hymn. As he put it: “This was my first musical experience, and in this manner I suddenly became religious”.
What also excited the twelve-year old was the thought of composing. The first time he saw a blank sheet of 24-stave music paper, it fired his imagination. “I realized in a moment what wondrous instrumental and vocal combinations to which they might give rise, and I cried out: What an orchestral work one might write on that!”
Still only twelve, he had already fallen in love. Her name was Estelle and she was eighteen. He was still in love with her seventeen years later when he set some verses from a Romance by Florian called Estelle. He burnt the song along with other youthful compositions, but the tune would come back to him when, in 1829, he started work on his Symphonie fantastique.
Berlioz’ father was determined that Hector should become a doctor, and sent him off to Paris to study medicine; but the pull of music was irresistible. The library of the Conservatoire was open to the public and Berlioz started devouring scores. He began to study composition and to immerse himself in opera and ballet at the Opéra and the orchestral performances at the Concert Spirituel. Eking out a living as a chorus singer, he set about writing an opera, Les Francs-Juges. He later destroyed the opera, but as we shall see, not all of it.
On 11th September 1827, Berlioz went to see a production of Hamlet given at the Odéon by Kemble’s company and was instantly smitten by the Ophelia, an Irish actress called Harriet Smithson. “Contrasting her splendid career and my own miserable obscurity….. I resolved to give a grand concert in the Conservatoire, in which only my own works should be played.” The concert brought Berlioz some recognition, but not from Miss Smithson, who knew nothing about it.
The title page of the Symphonie fantastique bears the inscription Épisodes de la vie d’un artiste – Symphonie fantastique. Throughout the symphony there appears a recurring theme, easily recognizable but in ever-shifting guises. This idée fixe is nothing less than a fixation – the woman on whom the artist is fixated. She becomes, in turn, an ideal, a dancer, a vision, a witch. The first movement (Réveries – Passions) begins with a Largo introduction followed by an Allegro, where we first meet, yes, that ‘Estelle’ theme. Just as the 12-year-old Hector’s very first erotic impressions were indelibly linked with a musical experience, so too here, the Estelle/Harriet obsession is distilled into pure music. The image of the beloved haunts the artist. He seeks refuge in religion – and opium - as surcease for his despair.
In the meantime, Berlioz had – at the fourth attempt – won the Prix de Rome. It was in Rome that he composed the second movement, Un bal. His audience would have been scandalised at the appearance of such a modern, salacious dance as a waltz in a symphony. The beloved is glimpsed in the throng, the idée fixe resurfaces.
The third movement, Scène aux champs is a pastoral idyll. The orchestration is highly original, bringing to the scene a feeling of painful solitude. The reverie is interrupted by a thunderstorm; the timpani parts are written across four staves for three players, quite unprecedented.
The fourth movement, Marche au supplice is an opium-induced nightmare in which the artist dreams that he is being led to the scaffold. Here, too, Berlioz has more or less re-invented the symphony orchestra with some remarkable orchestral ‘sound effects’. When we eventually hear the idée fixe, it appears pianissimo on high clarinet, then – thud! With two pizzicato string chords, the severed head bounces across the scaffold platform.
The finale, Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat - Ronde du Sabbat is surely inspired by the Walpurgis Night scene in Goethe’s Faust. The artist abandons himself to the orgy. We hear the plainchant Dies irae from the Mass for the Dead. Then, a pause followed by a headlong rush (to hell?) in the form of a wicked parody of the strict fugues Berlioz’ unfortunate teachers would have drummed into him.
Harriet Smithson attended the second performance in Paris in 1832 where she would have seen the composer furiously bashing away on the timpani. They did meet and marry, but it did not last. Berlioz would continue to revise the score over the next fourteen years.
With the Prix de Rome prize money running out, Berlioz began promoting concerts including his own music. On 22nd December Paganini attended a concert at which the Symphonie fantastique was performed. As Berlioz later recalled, the violin virtuoso came to see him a few weeks later. “I have a wonderful viola,” Paganini told him, “an admirable Stradivari, but I have no music for it…I have no confidence in anyone but you to write it.” When Paganini saw the completed first movement, he complained that there was not enough in it for the solo viola, and soon after, left Paris. Berlioz decided to continue the work, on his own terms. The work became Harold in Italy.
As in the Symphonie fantastique, there is a literary inspiration - this time Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’ – and an idée fixe. As Berlioz described it: “I conceived the idea of writing a series of scenes for the orchestra, in which the viola should find itself mixed up, like a person more or less in action, always preserving his own individuality. I formed it from my recollections of my wanderings in the Abruzzi, introducing the viola as a sort of melancholy dreamer.”
There are four movements, vividly conceived and highly original. We follow Harold as he wanders through the Abruzzi mountains (Berlioz recalls the bagpipes of an Abruzzi mountaineer he had befriended) and encounters a company of pilgrims. After a beautiful Serenade, Berlioz brings the work to a close with a riotous depiction of an orgy of brigands – the Abruzzi was long famed for its terrifying bands of outlaws.
Les nuits d'été (Summer Nights) was completed in 1841 as a song cycle for voice and piano, it reached its final form, for soprano and orchestra, in 1856. A setting of poems by his friend Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), it is a perfect masterpiece. It is moreover highly original, the first orchestral song cycle. Berlioz creates an imaginative musical landscape which brings an added dimension to Gautier’s poetry. It represents the first flowering of the tradition of the French art song, the mélodie. The orchestration has all the deftness and sensitivity of a great painter.
Villanelle is an evocation of springtime love, the lovers picking lily of the valley, startling the birds and animals in the woods, returning home hand in hand. In Le spectre de la rose, the ghost of a rose picked the previous day and worn at a ball returns. The wearer should not fear: the perfume is the soul of the rose returning from paradise. Her epitaph: here lies a rose kings would envy. Sur les lagunes (Lamento) is an outpouring of grief by a lover left behind by his departed beloved. A final cry of despair: “How bitter a fate, to go to sea, bereft of love.” In L’absence the lover pleads for his distant lover to return. “O bitter fate, what a hard absence, such great unassuaged desires!” Au cimetière (Clair de lune) is a song of mourning by moonlight: “On the wings of music one slowly senses a memory returning, a shade, an angelic shape passes by, white-veiled in a shimmering beam of light.” The final song, L‘ile inconnue (The unknown isle) is a joyous expression of the boundless possibilities of a new love. “Say, pretty one, whither would you go? The sail is swelling, the breeze is getting up.”
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe