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It was apparently in 1842 that Berlioz first thought of going to Bordeaux to give a concert. In a letter of 5 February to his sister Nanci Berlioz writes (Correspondance Générale no. 765, hereafter CG for short):
[…] I am being invited to Bordeaux to organise and direct a Festival in September. A special hall is to be constructed for the purpose, there will be six hundred performers, and the city will contribute 30,000 francs. So far I have only received an unofficial approach and I await the official letter. This is probably going to come off, so on to the Lacrymosa, the great cataclysm of the Requiem, and the finale of Romeo and Juliet! With four hundred voices one can give a passable rendering of those songs. […]
Nothing further is heard of the project – few letters of Berlioz survive for this period – and in September Berlioz was off to Brussels with Marie Recio on an exploratory visit to prepare the ground for his first large-scale trip to Germany.
Three years later Berlioz was considering a more extended visit to Bordeaux, and mentions the plan in separate letters to each of his sisters on the same day (6 June 1845). He writes to Adèle (CG no. 969; cf. 968 more briefly to Nanci):
[…] I am going to Bordeaux to give concerts while waiting for something better to turn up; I am led to expect some positive result from the curiosity of the southerners. But I am petrified at the thought of their orchestras and of all the sweat they are going to cause me given the present heat. I am finding it increasingly difficult to put up with bad music. I will be away for a month at most. […]
In both letters Berlioz curiously fails to mention that he had already decided to accept an offer to visit Marseille in June, a visit which was followed by one to Lyon in July which gave him the opportunity to see his father again at La Côte-Saint-André. In the event the Bordeaux project was postponed till after his trip in August to the Beethoven celebrations in Bonn, though Berlioz kept planning for it. George Hainl, his friend the conductor in Lyon, made soundings in Bordeaux on his behalf but by early August had not received any answer (CG nos. 987 and 989). On the recommendation of some friends Berlioz was moved to approach himself a music dealer in Bordeaux (CG no. 989 [full text in vol. VIII]; 7 August):
[…] I am leaving today for Bonn where I will be staying until the 18th. My intention is then to leave for Bordeaux where I would like to give a concert; I am writing to ask you to smooth my path by having my arrival announced for the 24th or 25th and by asking the director of the theatre or his representative whether he is prepared to accept the conditions which the directors of Marseille and Lyon recently set for me. These are: the sharing of the receipts after deducting 300 fr of expenses for the theatre, and the sharing of the special costs such as those for additional musicians, posters and programmes. He would make available to me the use of his orchestra and chorus at no charge; I would bring all the music and conduct the rehearsals and the performance. The price of tickets should be somewhat increased. […]
As in 1842 nothing came of this: in the autumn Berlioz started composing the Damnation of Faust and in late October was off to Vienna at the start of his second major trip to Germany.
In 1852 Berlioz received another proposal to give concerts in Bordeaux in February, but the project failed again to materialise (CG nos. 1444 [4 February] and 1454 [22 February], both to Liszt). Instead Berlioz soon departed to London where he gave a series of six concerts between March and June. In 1856 yet another projected visit did not come off (CG no. 2130 [23 May]).
It was only years later, in 1859, that Berlioz accepted an invitation from Bordeaux which this time was carried out despite his initial lack of enthusiasm: among many other worries his health was poor and he was struggling to get his new and greatest work the opera Les Troyens performed in Paris. On 13 April he writes to his sister Adèle (CG no. 2366; cf. also nos. 2364, 2368):
[…] At the beginning of June I will be leaving for Bordeaux; I have decided again to accept an invitation to go and conduct a concert there, always for financial reasons, because I find this a pain in the neck.
Baden-Baden is different, there at least I am involved in great art…… […]
France was unable to replicate the ideal conditions provided by Édouard Bénazet in Baden-Baden – one concert every summer over which Berlioz had complete control. The concert in Bordeaux was at the invitation of the Société de Sainte Cécile; it was a charity concert in which Berlioz would conduct some of his own music – the second and third movements of Romeo and Juliet, the Flight to Egypt (part II of l’Enfance du Christ) and the Roman Carnival overture (CG no. 2368) – but other works were to be performed as well under the direction of Costard de Mézeray, the conductor of the Société (Berlioz’s letters are silent on this part of the concert). A letter of ca. early May probably addressed to him concerns the sending of orchestral parts for the Flight to Egypt and makes recommendations for the rehearsals which were conducted ahead of Berlioz’s arrival (CG no. 2372):
[…] I believe you will soon be starting your orchestral rehearsals. In this connection I urge you to select with care some good musicians for the percussion parts, otherwise we will cause chaos with the errors in rhythm that the cymbal, bass drum, tambourine, and other players inevitably make. And then bad musicians lack finesse in their playing and are only capable of producing a ridiculous noise.
This is very dangerous. […]
A letter of Berlioz dated 19 May to an unknown recipient requests a free railway pass for the trip to Bordeaux, on the grounds that the conditions offered by the Société were very modest (CG no. 2373). Berlioz left Paris on 5 June (CG no. 2371) and stayed in Bordeaux for just over a week (CG nos. 2368, 2378). The concert took place in the theatre on 8 June, which implies that Berlioz had only a few days to rehearse before the concert. The orchestra numbered 110 and the chorus 140 (CG no. 2377). The day after the concert a banquet was held in Berlioz’s honour. Berlioz was back in Paris on 12 June (CG nos. 2377-8). No letters survive from during his stay in Bordeaux, but on his return to told about the visit to friends and family. On 12 June he writes to his sister Adèle (CG no. 2378; cf. 2377 more briefly to Auguste Morel):
I am back from Bordeaux. A grand and fine performance in the theatre; a monumental success, crowns, decorations offered by the orchestra, before a vast audience, banquets, applause, curtain calls, in short everything that can be done to fête an artist. This festival took me only eight days and has at least brought me a thousand francs. But on coming back I am worried at not having received news from Louis… He should have arrived… I do not understand.
I am still unwell, but the southern air seems to have done me some good; perhaps also the warmth of this fine Bordeaux public and of the musicians has a great deal to do with it. […]
How are you coping with the anxieties of the war? For me it is a source of extreme worry and tension. Poor Mme Espinasse, my neighbour in Rue de Calais, was also my neighbour in Bordeaux when the préfet came to announce to her the death of her husband… it is terrible…
The war referred to is that between France and Austria which had just broken out and which for a while threatened to jeopardise the summer festival in Baden (cf. CG nos. 2379-80, 2383-4, 2386).
A few weeks later Berlioz writes to his brother in law Camille Pal (CG no. 2381, 3 July):
[…] I am still not very well. Nevertheless a trip I have just made to Bordeaux seems to have reinvigorated me a little. I had been invited to conduct some of my works in a Festival; everything went perfectly, the superb theatre was full to overflowing. I was applauded, called back, presented with a crown of gold and foliage, a banquet was held; in short I was fêted in every possible way, and the performance was very fine. […]
Berlioz never returned to Bordeaux subsequently, and the concert on 8 June 1859 was thus the only one he gave in that city.
All the pictures displayed below have been scanned from early 20th-century postcards in our own collection. © Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.
The Grand Théâtre of Bordeaux was designed by the architect Victor Louis (1731-1800) and inaugurated on 17 April 1780. It is the oldest timber-framed opera house in Europe not to have burnt or required rebuilding. In 1991 its interior was however restored to its original colours. Today the theatre is home to the Opéra National de Bordeaux.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel
Austin on 18 July 1997;
Berlioz in Bordeaux page created on 11 December 2006.
© Monir Tayeb Michel Austin for all the pictures and information on this page.
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