Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hector Berlioz

Today is the birthday of Hector Berlioz, who was born on this day in 1803. He would live for sixty-six years and is considered one of the masters, if not the founder, of musical romanticism. I have enjoyed his music at least since I was in high school and played the English Horn solo in his Overture, Le Carnaval Romain (Roman Carnival). He is best known for his large works including the Symphonie Fantastique, Harold in Italy (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra), Operas (Les Troyens and Beatrice et Benedict), and his works for Chorus and Orchestra including his Requiem and La Damnation de Faust. It was the last of these that was included by the Metropolitan Opera as their opening work for the 2008-9 season of Saturday afternoon broadcasts just the week before last.
Among composers, Berlioz is not alone in his fascination with Goethe's Faust as this drama has served as the source for operas by Gounod, Spohr, Boito and Busoni among others. Berlioz wrote his "legende dramatique" for Orchestra and Chorus; first performed at the Opera-Comique, Paris, December 1846. It did not meet with critical acclaim, perhaps due to its halfway status between opera and cantata; the public was not impressed, and two performances (and a cancelled third) rendered a financial setback for Berlioz: "Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference", he remembered. It was subsequently performed more successfully in Paris after his death (1877). The Metropolitan Opera premiered it first in concert (1896) and then on stage (1906). The Met revived the production on November 7, 2008 directed by Robert LePage, with innovative computer-generated stage imagery that responds to the voices of the performers.
Berlioz is known for the musical excesses of his compositions and some of his harmonies sound almost modern even today. One of the unique aspects of Berlioz compositional style resulted from his lack of piano training. Many of the great classical and romantic composers (think Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms) were also great pianists and composed "at the piano". Of the romantics, Brahms would preview his orchestral compositions in piano versions and Liszt (a friend of Berlioz) would transcribe symphonies and operas for piano. You can hear Berlioz lack of pianism in his abrupt chord changes and harmonics that seem otherworldly (some of this may have been drug-induced as well). It is worthwhile to remember this great Romantic on this day.

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