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See also Berlioz Libretti; Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings
Berlioz’s career as an operatic composer in France was punctuated from the beginning with setbacks. It was only his last opera, Beatrice and Benedict, that did not bring him grief, but its relative success was achieved abroad, in Germany, and it was never performed in France in his lifetime.
Berlioz’s first operatic venture, entitled Les Francs-Juges, came early and was started in 1826, the year he formally enrolled as a student at the Conservatoire. It was a collaborative effort with his close friend Humbert Ferrand, who supplied the libretto for the work (Memoirs, chapter 11). Much of the music was written in 1826, though Berlioz continued to work on it till 1829. The opera was initially intended for the Odeon theatre with which Berlioz had close relations at the time, but in 1827 the theatre was refused the hoped-for permission to stage new French operas, which were reserved for the larger Opéra. Berlioz subsequently submitted the libretto to the Opéra, but it was turned down (June 1829), and that marked the end of Berlioz’s hopes for his first opera. To quote Berlioz (Memoirs, chapter 11):
The libretto [of Les Francs-Juges] was refused by the committee of the Royal Academy of Music [the Opéra] and my score was thereby condemned to obscurity, from which it has never emerged. Only the overture has established itself. I have used here and there the best ideas from this opera and developed them in some of my later compositions. The rest will probably be treated in the same way, if an opportunity arises, or will be destroyed.
The complete score of Les Francs-Juges is now lost; the extant fragments are collected in NBE volume IV. A pioneering study of the lost work was published by Julien Tiersot in his Berlioziana series in 3 articles in July 1906 and is reproduced on this site. The reader may also be referred to the page Berlioz and his Music – Self-borrowings for the re-use of music from the opera in later works (notably the Marche au Supplice of the Symphonie fantastique, and the second movement of the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, adapted from the vocal original to become a purely instrumental movement).
The overture survived as a successful concert piece in its own right, and Berlioz was understandably proud of this early masterpiece: it was the first convincing manifestation of his instrumental genius. It shows in parts the influence of Weber (Der Freischütz), though goes beyond him in its expressive power and imaginative use of orchestral sonorities. Most remarkably, it was first conceived and written well before Berlioz discovered Beethoven’s symphonies in 1828. The long second subject of the allegro which Berlioz develops at length (bars 119-173, 343-390, 530-570) was derived from an early quintet written in 1818-1819 before Berlioz came to Paris (Memoirs chapter 4, cf. also chapter 13 on the trombone theme in the slow introduction).
The overture was first performed at a concert at the Conservatoire on 26 May 1828 together with the Waverley overture and other pieces by Berlioz, the first orchestral concert he gave (though he did not conduct it himself); the concert was devoted wholly to his own music, a novelty at the time (on this concert cf. the Memoirs chapters 18 and 19; CG nos. 91, 93). Thereafter the work was frequently included by Berlioz in his concerts in Paris in the following years: in 1829 (cf. CG nos. 140, 142), 1830, 1832 (cf. CG no. 304), three times in 1833 (when on 24 November Berlioz conducted it for the first time himself), and again in 1834, 1835 and 1836. There were further performances in the 1840s (1842, 1844, 1845), and Berlioz conducted it in Paris for the last time in 1850, at one of the concerts of his Société philharmonique (22 October). Late in Berlioz’s career the overture was performed twice by Pasdeloup, a champion of Berlioz’s music, at his Concerts populaires (1865, 1867). The last time Berlioz conducted the work was in December 1867 in St Petersburg, during his final trip to Russia, coincidentally not long after Pasdeloup’s performance in Paris.
Berlioz published the overture comparatively early, in 1836, both in full score and in an arrangement for piano with 4 hands, for which, no pianist himself, he benefited from the advice of a number of experienced players. The work was dedicated to the conductor Narcisse Girard, as a reward for the help he had given Berlioz in the early 1830s, though they subsequently drifted apart. By enabling others to perform the work independently, this early publication played an important part in spreading Berlioz’s reputation in France and abroad, notably in Germany (cf. CG no. 493). At the start of Berlioz’s first tour of Germany in December 1842, one of his early admirers in Germany, J.-C. Lobe in Weimar, wrote to him: ‘I was your friend from the moment I heard the Francs-Juges overture, and shall remain so to the end of my life’ (CG no. 793). Berlioz included the overture, already popular in Germany (cf. CG no. 549), in several of his concerts during that tour, in Stuttgard, Mannheim, Weimar, Leipzig and Hamburg, and in Berlin he was treated to an arrangement of the work for a large brass band. As a footnote on the popularity of the work it might be mentioned that it was the first piece by Berlioz to be performed in the United States in his lifetime (New York, 7 March 1846), though Berlioz never went there himself.
Two technical points. (1) Because of an apparent bug in the software it has not been possible to notate as written by Berlioz a pair of grace notes in the flute and clarinet parts in bars 256 and 272, and semiquavers have been substituted. (2) The metronome mark given by Berlioz for the main allegro (semibreve = 80) is extremely fast and difficult to sustain in performance (cf. Hugh Macdonald in Berlioz Studies, ed. Peter Bloom [Cambridge University Press 1992], p. 24). In this version the tempo has been fixed at semibreve = 69, with a speeding up in the concluding pages from bar 580 onwards to reach semibreve = 80 at bar 604.
Les Francs Juges (duration 11'46")
— Score in large format
(file created on 24.1.2001; revised 11.12.2001)
— Score in pdf format
© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.
This page revised and enlarged on 1 October 2021
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