Today is the birthday of Hector Berlioz, who was born on this day in 1803. He is considered one of the masters, if not the founder, of musical romanticism. I have enjoyed his music by both performing and listening to them for almost fifty years. 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. There have been few figures in the history of music with so fascinating, almost hypnotic, an appeal for the present-day listener 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.
Among composers, Berlioz shares a 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.