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See also Berlioz Libretti; Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings
Composed in the autumn of 1826 for his youthful opera Les Francs Juges on a libretto written by his friend Humbert Ferrand, this powerful and imaginative work was the first convincing manifestation of Berlioz’s instrumental genius. The overture 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 opera was subsequently abandoned by Berlioz, and it has only survived in fragmentary form (H 23), but music from it found its way suitably adapted into several other compositions – notably the Marche au Supplice of the Symphonie Fantastique, and the second movement of the Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale. But the overture survived as a concert piece in its own right, and Berlioz was understandably proud of this early masterpiece, which he performed frequently during his conducting career (unlike the overture to Waverley, written not long after). It 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 to be given by Berlioz, and one devoted wholly to his own music, a novelty at the time (on this concert cf. the Memoirs chapters 18 and 19). He also published it comparatively early, in 1836, together with a piano reduction for four hands. This publication was a landmark for Berlioz – it was the first major orchestral work of his to become available for performance anywhere, and the work became rapidly popular in Germany where it contributed to spread his fame years before the start of his travels there in late 1842.
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)
© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.
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