“Love cannot express the idea of music, while music may give an idea of love” - Hector Berlioz
There have been few figures in the history of music with so fascinating, almost hypnotic, an appeal for the present-day reader as Berlioz. With his life span encompassing roughly the rise and fall of two French empires, he emerges as perhaps the first totally modern mind in music— the man of affairs as well as of notes, a great conductor, concert organizer, writer of distinction.
Whatever he touched, in any medium, bore the mark of his volatile, yet strangely sober, personality. Unlike his predecessors Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, he was equipped to challenge the intellectual world on all fronts and make his charge across any field. This basic phase of Berlioz’s gift—its multiplicity in unity—has been admirably detailed by Jacques Barzun in this book. Barzun is one of the great teachers and thinkers of the our era. In his seminal work on Romanticism and the importance of Berlioz in the movement the author reveals Hector Berlioz in the perspective of his relationship to the other outstanding Romantics of his time, establishing the composer as the fountainhead of all that has come after him in virtually every sphere of symphonic and operatic music. As this long recital draws to a close the magnificence of the creator’s personality comes clearly into focus, the figures surrounding him emerge with warmth and humanity. The book, while having been surpassed by more recent scholarship, is still worthy of consideration due to its unique approach to Berlioz and his legacy. Mr. Barzun, treating a subject obviously congenial to him, commands an impressive range of scholarship and eloquence of style. Whether you love music or ideas or both this book is essential for you.
Berlioz and His Century by Jacques Barzun. University of Chicago Press. 1982 (1956)
Yesterday evening I attended a concert presenting selected works by Hector Berlioz performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Mark Elder. The concert began with The Corsair Overture, Op. 21, a brilliant overture whose title references the work of Lord Byron, one of several literary muses who inspired Berlioz.
Following this introduction the orchestra played two excerpts from his dramatic symphony, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17, selected by Mr. Elder. In addition to the sublime music two actors from Chicago Shakespeare Theater read excerpts from the text of the original play. In 1827 Berlioz attended performances of both Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in Paris. He was immediately struck by the poetic beauty of Shakespeare's work and subsequently created works including this symphony and a later opera. Following the interval the orchestra performed Harold in Italy, Op. 16, a "symphony in four parts with solo viola". The viola solo was performed with gusto by Lawrence Power, a violist who has performed extensively throughout Europe and America. The unique concerto in symphonic form was well-suited to the talents of the orchestra and soloist. The evening was filled with romantic music from one of the leading composers of that movement presented with the inimitable style of our own CSO.