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3 Pieces for Alexandre’s melodium organ (H 98-100)

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Berlioz’s three pieces

This page is also available in French

See also: An autograph letter of Édouard Alexandre to Édouard Colonne


    In the musical world of his time Berlioz had numerous acquaintances and friends — orchestral players, virtuosi, singers, writers and critics, and others. One small group of particular interest is that of instrument manufacturers, among whom in Berlioz’s case two names stand out as of special significance: the Belgian Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone and of many other instruments, and the Alexandre family — the father Jacob Alexandre (1804-1876), who founded the family business in 1829, and his son Édouard Alexandre (1824-1888), who effectively ran the business during the time that Berlioz became close to him. There is very little about Jacob Alexandre in Berlioz’s writings, and in practice what is known of his relations with the Alexandre firm relates to the son Édouard. The Alexandre firm specialised in small organs, for use in domestic contexts, in churches, theatres and small concert halls. The firm prospered: by the late 1850s it employed more than 600 workers, according to a letter of Berlioz to the emperor Napoleon III in which he recommends Édouard Alexandre for the award of the Legion of Honour (CG no. 2237ter [in vol. VIII]; 15 July 1857): ‘This ingenious manufacturer is already employing more than 600 workmen and is certainly the most famous representative of this branch of French industry’. Édouard Alexandre was in due course awarded the Legion of Honour, though this came only in 1860 (Journal des Débats, 23 February 1860).

    Relations between Berlioz and Alexandre are attested from 1844 onwards. In a letter dated 5 November to his sister Nancy, Berlioz tells her how busy he is: among other commitments ‘I must complete within a fortnight a small collection of pieces for the melodium-organ which have been commissioned from me by the manufacturer of this new instrument’ (CG no. 924). Earlier than this comes the first mention of the instrument in one of Berlioz’s articles (Débats, 23 June 1844). It may well be that Berlioz and Alexandre had known each other for some time; but the invention of the new instrument, the organ-melodium, dated itself from 1844 and this is what provoked the commission from Berlioz. Over time Berlioz and Alexandre became closer; Berlioz came to regard him as a friend, and Alexandre on his side was very supportive of the composer. Not many letters of Berlioz to Alexandre have survived (since they both lived in Paris there was less need for correspondence). Alexandre figures prominently in Berlioz’s correspondence of late 1852 and 1853: Liszt was keen to have built for himself enhanced keyboard instruments, one a ‘clavi-harp’, and the other an instrument which could simulate ochestral sounds. Berlioz recommended Alexandre to Liszt as the man who could do the job; Alexandre on his side was enthusiastic about the project, made a trip to Weimar for the purpose, and eventually devised instruments for use by Liszt (see esp. CG nos. 1549, 1552, 1556, 1558, 1559, 1568, 1589, 1617, 1620, 1624). It is worth quoting a passage from one of these letters as it shows Berlioz’s own attitude to musical instruments (CG no. 1568, to Liszt; 23 February 1853):

If possible, I would also like the instrument not to be ugly in shape. This is not unimportant. I cannot suppress the revulsion I feel with some musical machines, such as melodiums and small organs, which more or less resemble a chest-of-drawers or a wardrobe for storing linen. If I am so fond of the harp, its appearance probably has something to do with my affection for it. I would like to see you ruling a handsome slave. I will have a word with Alexandre about it.

    Alexandre was very helpful to Berlioz on a number of occasions. In 1859 he offered to advance 50,000 frs to the impresario Carvalho to encourage him to stage Les Troyens at his Théâtre Lyrique (CG nos. 2405, 2407, 2519). In 1862 he bought a plot of land in Montmartre Cemetery and donated it to Berlioz in perpetuity for the burial of his two wives (Memoirs, Postface). In 1864 Alexandre is presented as trying to devise a ten-year source of revenue for Berlioz, and also promoting the naval career of Berlioz’s son Louis (CG nos. 2863, 2864).

    Berlioz on his side actively promoted Alexandre’s instruments, particularly the melodium, in his articles in the Débats. See especially on the melodium 23 June and 29 December 1844; 14 February 1847; 25 December 1852; 12 January & 3 May 1856; 14 May 1863. On another keyboard invention of Alexandre, the piano-organ, see Débats 15 November 1856, 26 April and 24 September 1857.

    It has been suggested (CG vol. VII, p. 50 n. 2) that Alexandre actually paid Berlioz an annual subsidy of 2000 frs over a period of time, and that this influenced Berlioz’s praise for Alexandre in his feuilletons. But Berlioz’s correspondence shows that he genuinely admired Alexandre’s talent (see for example the letters to Liszt referred to above); he also came to regard him as a close friend. When he drew up his will in 1867, Berlioz appointed Alexandre as one of his ywo testamentary executors (the other was Berthold Damcke). In his last tour of Russia in 1867-68, Alexandre was one of a select group of friends to whom Berlioz wrote in detail about the success of his concerts (CG no. 3315; 15 December 1868, from St Petersburg).

    On Alexandre’s continued support for Berlioz after his death, see the page An autograph letter of Édouard Alexandre to Édouard Colonne.

Berlioz’ three pieces

    The melodium was Alexandre’s best known and most successful instrument; the original version was launched in 1844 (Débats, 23 June 1844), then underwent a significant improvement in 1847 (Débats 14 February 1847). Berlioz devoted a chapter on the melodium in the revised 1855 edition of his Treatise on Orchestration, substantial excerpts of which are available on this site in English translation (by Michel Austin). He discussed the technical characteristics of the instrument and its expressive possibilities. He says in particular: ‘As the sounds of the melodium are somewhat slow in production, they are more suitable for the legato style than any other, very appropriate for religious music, with gentle and tender melodies in a slow tempo’. He evidently had his own characterisation in mind when in 1844, in response to the commission by Alexandre. he wrote his pieces for the instrument. They are, incidentally, rare examples of instrumental music by Berlioz. The only other comparable piece is the Trio for 2 flutes and harp which Berlioz included in Part III of l’Enfance du Christ, a piece of chamber music inserted in an oratorio. The 3 pieces are among Berlioz’s least known works. Performances are rare, and there are few modern recordings (see Berlioz Discography).

    The letter which mentions the commission (CG no. 924) does not specify how many pieces Berlioz was asked to contribute. In the end he wrote three, and in the publication which came out, presumably with little delay, it included a fourth piece, a prayer by Meyerbeer. The first two pieces do sound like genuine Berlioz. The atmosphere of rustic devotion which pervades them recalls the second part of l’Enfance du Christ; with the first one may also compare the Serenade (3rd movement) of Harold in Italy. Both carry a direct echo of his experiences in Italy in 1831-2, where Berlioz was delighted by the music made by the so-called ‘pifferari’ in Rome and the mountains of the Abruzzi. By contrast the third piece, simply called Toccata, is something of a puzzle. It does not sound like Berlioz, rather like a scholastic exercise, without any expressive character of its own. It may be that Berlioz, facing nultiple commitments all at once, simply did not have the time to write something more distinctive.

    There are no metronome marks in Berlioz’s score. Tempi have been set as follows. 1st piece, andantino, dotted crotchet = 52; allegro assai, dotted crotchet = 96. 2nd piece, crotchet = 69. 3rd piece, minim = 60.

    1. Rustic Serenade to the Virgin on the theme of the Roman pifferari (duration 2'52")
    — Score in large format
    — Score in pdf format

    2. Hymn for the Elevation (duration 4'22")
    — Score in large format
    — Score in pdf format

    3. Toccata (duration 2'19")
    — Score in large format
    — Score in pdf format

     (files created on 26.04.2000; revised 22.10.2001)

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.

This page revised and enlarged on 1 March 2022.

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