The commission of 1840
The three movements of the symphony
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Some of Berlioz’s major works had their origin many years before they were composed. Les Troyens, which Berlioz started composing in 1856, represented the long-delayed fulfilment of a dream which had haunted him ever since his childhood, when his father taught him Latin by teaching him to read Virgil’s Aeneid. The Requiem of 1837 originated partly in the Messe solennelle of 1825, and partly in his plan for an oratorio on Le Dernier jour du monde (The Last Day of the World) which he conceived during his stay in Italy (H 61). La Damnation de Faust of 1846 picked up where the early Huit scènes de Faust of 1828 had left off. So too Berlioz’s last symphony, the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale of 1840 had its antecedents, partly in the project for a military symphony on the return of Napoleon’s army from Italy which Berlioz conceived in 1832 on his journey back from Italy to France (H 62), and partly in a project of 1835 for a grand Fête musicale funèbre à la mémoire des hommes illustres de la France (Funeral musical festival to the memory of France’s illustrious men) on which Berlioz had started working in earnest, but then left aside (H 72). This project is known only from brief allusions in a few letters of Berlioz dating from April to August 1835; there is no mention of it in the Memoirs nor in other writings of Berlioz. The excerpts from the relevant letters are as follows:
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 429; 15 April 1835):
This summer I am going to write a third symphony on a new plan; I wish I was able to work on it freely.
To his father Louis Berlioz (CG no. 435; 6 May 1835):
I am going to be working hard this summer on the new work I am meditating, but it is on such a scale that I rather fear that it will not be ready for my concerts for next winter.
To his sister Adèle (CG no. 439; 2 August 1835):
For me nowadays time is money; and the money I earn is our livelihood for the whole family; so much so that lacking advances to wait a few months I am absolutely unable to work on a vast musical composition which I have started and from which I am expecting a great deal.
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 440; 23 August 1835):
With all this I have to combat the horror of my musical position; I am unable to find time for composition. I have started a vast work called Fête musicale funèbre à la mémoire des hommes illustres de la France (Funeral celebration in music in memory of France’s famous men); I have already written two movements. Everything would have been finished long ago if I had had just one month to work on it exclusively; but I cannot afford a single day at the moment without running out of necessities shortly after.
These allusions, brief as they are, do at last define the character of the projected work. It was intended to be on a vast scale, comprising no less than 7 movements in all. It was solemn and celebratory in character, dedicated to the memory of France’s great men, and suitable therefore for a large public occasion. Which two movements Berlioz did complete is not known, nor what the other five were. But the likelihood is that some of this music, whether written or merely sketched, turned up in later works dealing with similar subjects. This applies to the cantata on the death of Napoleon, completed late in 1835 though started years earlier (Le Cinq mai; H 74), and to the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale of 1840, though in his account of its composition (Memoirs, chapter 50), Berlioz gives no indication that it made use of music written earlier, and gives the impression that it was written at the time.
According to Berlioz’s account just referred to, the commission for the composition of the work that was to become the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale came from the French government as the tenth anniversary of the uprising of July 1830 was approaching. To celebrate the event a public ceremony would take place on 28 July 1840, in which the remains of the victims of the uprising would be transferred in a solemn procession for burial at the monument on Place de la Bastille, the Colonne de Juillet, which had just been completed. Berlioz implies that the commission came not long before that ceremony. It has sometimes been suggested that the project had been mooted earlier in the year, in spring (thus CG II p. 638 n. 1; David Cairns, Berlioz volume II  p. 207). But the evidence cited by CG, a letter of Berlioz of 3 April (CG no. 710), concerns a projected performance by Berlioz at the Panthéon of unspecified music, and has no clear connection with the July ceremony. The earliest clear evidence of the commission is an announcement in the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris of 7 June 1840, a journal with which Berlioz had close connections, that Berlioz had been entrusted with a funeral composition, to be performed at the ceremony on 28 July by 400 wind players marching through the streets (text cited by Peter Bloom, Mémoires d’Hector Berlioz de 1803 à 1865 (2019), p. 467 n. 1). There are several extant letters emanating from the French Ministry of the Interior which relate to the commission, from which the following excerpts may be cited:
The Minister of the Interior to Berlioz (CG no. 717; 11 July 1840):
Sir, I have the honour to inform you that I have commissioned from you the composition of a funeral march for the transfer of the remains of the combatants of July, and of another piece of music which will be performed while their coffins are lowered into the graves.
You will conduct yourself the performance of these two pieces.
Please visit the offices of the Beaux-Arts to make the official request for the expenses of the performance.
Edmond Cavé, for the Ministry of the Interior, to Berlioz (CG no. 720; 29 July):
My dear Berlioz, your music is beautiful, very beautiful, and has scored a complete success. All connaisseurs have admired your broad and elevated style, it is direct, novel, and beautiful, and it is therefore good. Even your detractors admit it.
The minister is very satisfied. He has asked me to compliment you until he is able to do so in person. He has one regret, that he was unable to hear to the end your last piece in front of the column.
The Minister of the Interior to Berlioz (CG no. 722; 31 July):
Sir. The new proofs of your talent that you have given in composing the pieces of music performed under your direction during the funeral ceremony of the 28th of this month, have made a powerful contribution to the success of the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the days of July 1830.
I feel the need, sir, to manifest to you my satisfaction and to congratulate you for a success which can only enhance your reputation as a talented composer.
These letters call for a few words of comment. First, the commission was publicly known early in June at the latest, yet the official letter of confirmation only came very late, on 11 July, just over two weeks before the ceremony was due to take place on 28 July. On the other hand the letters of thanks came promptly, the day after the ceremony and again two days later. One may question the sincerity of the official compliments and thanks that were expressed, but as far as administrative formalities were concerned Berlioz could for once declare himself satisfied with the way he had been treated by officialdom (contrast his account of the history of the Requiem in Memoirs, chapter 46). Indeed, Berlioz presented the Minister of the Interior, M. Charles de Rémusat, who commissioned from Berlioz the music for the ceremony, as an exception to the rule: though a political figure he was devoted to music. But years later in his own memoirs, de Rémusat himself poured cold water on Berlioz’s account and was anxious to dispel the idea that he had any strong devotion to music…
According to Berlioz, M. de Rémusat commissioned from him in 1840 the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale. But this is actually misleading: in the official letter, what the Minister commissioned was not a symphony, but two pieces of music: a funeral march and another (unspecified) piece which was to be performed while the coffins were being lowered into their graves at the Colonne de Juillet. In other words two pieces of music, not all the three movements of the symphony as Berlioz came to write it (CG no. 717). The funeral march formed the first movement of the symphony, the second piece became the third movement, the Apothéose, but Berlioz inserted into the scheme the present second movement, the Funeral Oration for solo trombone and wind band, which forms a kind of consolatory transition between the first and last movements, and turns the work into a balanced symphony, with three contrasting movements and a progression from the initial mourning to the concluding triumph. This raises the question of what music was actually played during the public ceremony on 28 July, when the band of wind and brass players marched through the streets of Paris conducted by Berlioz, who was walking backwards to be visible to his players. It is often tacitly assumed that all three movements of the symphony were played in sequence as they exist in the score. David Cairns states that at the Place de la Bastille, when the band came to a standstill after traversing the streets of Paris, the second movement (the Funeral Oration) was played, though the music was in the event drowned out by the sound of the fifty drums of the National Guard marching off (Cairns, Berlioz II, pp. 208-9). We do not know of any evidence that states or implies that the Funeral Oration was actually performed at the Place de la Bastille (still less inthe streets of Paris). This may have been Berlioz’s initial conception (see the second paragraph of chapter 50 of the Memoirs), but its implementation is difficult to visualise and is open to a number of objections.
First, even if the Funeral Oration was performed there, it is highly unlikely that it could have been performed during the hours of marching through the streets of Paris. It was possible for Berlioz to maintain ensemble with the first and last movements, as each was based on a single tempo and a steady pulse, sustained throughout each movement without any pauses. But the second movement had a number of pauses and no single tempo running throughout the movement. It started off with a recitative of the solo trombone (bars 1-39), which led to an andantino in 3/4 time (bars 40-58), which then changed to a concluding andantino in 4/4 time (bars 59-109), which then led straight into the final movement. It is very hard to visualise how this piece, with all its fluctuations of tempo and rhythm, could have been performed by a large band of wind and brass players on the march, and how the conductor could have communicated clearly the changes of tempo and maintained ensemble among his large forces. One may also wonder how anyone could have been able to time with any precision the repeated playing of the music through the streets of Paris and the moment of arrival at the Place de la Bastille (Berlioz says both the Funeral March and the Apotheosis were each played six times in all during the procession).
Secondly, the accounts that Berlioz gives of the actual performance in the streets of Paris, in his letter to his father two days after the event (CG no. 721), and in the Memoirs years later (chapter 50), make no mention of the Funeral Oration, but only of the first and last movements, the Funeral March and the Apotheosis, each repeatedly performed one after the other in the streets of Paris.
We suggest therefore that only these two movements were played in the open air ceremony of 28 July, and these were the two movements that the Minister of the Interior had specifically commissioned. Berlioz will have reserved the performance of the complete three-movement symphony as he had conceived it for the indoor performance at Salle Vivienne on 26 July, which was repeated on 7 and 14 August. One might add that, in addition to the practical difficulties and risks of performing the second movement in the open air ceremony on the march, it seems unlikely that Berlioz would take the liberty of adding to that ceremony a movement that the Minister had not specifically included in his commission.
In his chapter on the origins and first performances of the work Berlioz calls it from the start Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (chapter 50). But initially, as his correspondence shows, he referred to it as Symphonie militaire, and his correspondents also gave it that name (CG nos. 725, 726, 727). At some time in 1841 or early 1842 he revised the work and added to the last movement a string orchestra. In this revised form it was first performed on 1st and 15th February 1842, again in Salle Vivienne, but Berlioz still referred to it as Symphonie militaire (CG no. 765). Later in the year he then added a chorus to the last movement, with words by Antony Deschamps (transcribed below); this latest (and final) version was first performed complete at the Opéra on 7 November 1842, and this time Berlioz referred to as Symphonie funèbre (CG nos. 787, 789). The full title Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale appears in a letter of November 1843 (CG no. 860), which is the title on the printed full score which was published in 1844. The work was dedicated to the Duke of Orléans (cf. CG nos. 723, 724).
Berlioz never repeated himself: his fourth and last symphony differed greatly from its three predecessors. It was a work designed for a large-scale public celebration, with specific military connotations, an idea which had originated in his mind already several years ago, in 1832 and again in 1835. This determined the musical forces used, predominantly a wind and brass band, in which the strings initially did not figure. Even when Berlioz added a string orchestra to the last movement this did not fundamentally change its sound quality and character, as the strings are only introduced gradually to reenforce the ensemble (in that movement there are no passages for strings alone, in which they are contrasted with all the wind instruments). The work is spacious in character, written in broad paragraphs, with long-breathed melodies, and slow tempi in the first two movements. Even the last movement is not brisk and urgent in character, but unhurried, processional and celebratory. The role of the chorus is straightforward and simple, with none of the complexity and variety of its participation in Roméo et Juliette. One further difference is that the three previous symphonies all retained in some form the scherzo component of the symphony as developed by Beethoven, but in the Symphonie funèbre any kind scherzo would have been out of place, hence the symphony is reduced to three movements only.
I: Marche Funèbre
II: Oraison Funèbre
III: Apothéose (first and second versions)
The first movement, one of Berlioz’s grandest symphonic conceptions, is a vast funeral march in sonata form, remarkable in
particular for the sustained breadth of its melodic invention. When writing this movement Berlioz was no doubt mindful of the funeral march in Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.
The optional parts for double-bassoon and bass trombone have been included in this version, but not those for cellos and double basses.
Surprisingly there is only one metronome mark in the whole of the score, and none for this movement. Modern performances vary considerably in the speed adopted. In this version the tempo has been set at crotchet = 80. The deciding considerations are (1) that the movement as a whole must have one single underlying tempo (2) that the tempo, while slow, must have sufficient forward momentum to carry through the whole of this long movement.
The second movement takes the form of a wordless recitative and aria in which a solo trombone dialogues with the rest of the orchestra. In this movement and in other works of his, Berlioz adapted the idea of instrumental recitative from Beethoven (for example the start of the last movement of the Ninth symphony). It incorporates music originally composed for Berlioz’s youthful opera Les Francs Juges (H 23). This is one example among others of Berlioz’s skill in adapting music that was originally written for voices to an instrumental purpose. Other examples are the Rêverie et caprice for violin and orchestra, and the Carnaval romain overture.
The only metronome mark given in the score of this movement is for the last section (Andantino poco lento e sostenuto, crotchet = 72). In this version the first two sections, Adagio non tanto and Andantino, have been set respectively at crotchet = 58 and crotchet = 63.
The triumphant third movement follows
without a break, though for the convenience of listeners the second and third movements are presented here in two forms (1) as one continuous piece in a single file and (2) as two separate movements in two files. In the latter case the listener should therefore bear in mind that the last chord of the second movement (in G major) is also the first chord of the last movement, which is therefore one bar shorter in this version.
Additionally this movement is presented here in two separate versions.
1. In the first version the optional parts for strings and chorus have been omitted: this gives an opportunity to present the movement in something close to the original version of 1840, before the addition in 1842 of strings and a chorus.
2. In the second version, the parts for strings and chorus have been added. This latter version is presented with all due reservations: Midi cannot reproduce voices with words, and the chorus is in any case barely audible above the mass of instruments, which greatly reduces the impact of its entry in a real performance. Besides, the large number of staves involved causes the layout to appear rather congested, and the necessary use of a small font makes the score difficult to read on any but a large monitor. For this reason the full text of the words is transcribed below.
Berlioz again gives no metronome mark for the movement; in these two versions the tempo has been set at crotchet = 112, significantly slower than the Trojan March which might be thought to be comparable in character but which in practice is a much more urgent piece (for which the metronome mark is crotchet = 138).
The "pavillon chinois" used by Berlioz in this movement was a percussion instrument with numerous small bells attached; it was widely used in French military bands at the time, and was popularly known in English as the "Jingling Johnny". Berlioz mentions it briefly in his Treatise on Orchestration. There is no exact Midi equivalent for it; a triangle sound has been substituted.
Words by Antoni Deschamps:
Gloire! Gloire et triomphe à ces Héros!
Gloire et triomphe!
Venez, élus de l’autre vie!
Changez, nobles guerriers,
Tous vos lauriers
Pour des palmes immortelles!
Suivez les Séraphins,
Dans les plaines éternelles!
A leurs chœurs infinis
Brûlants comme eux,
Gloire et triomphe à ces Héros!
Ils sont tombés aux champs de la Patrie!
Gloire et respect à leurs tombeaux!
Because of its special character, a work written in the first instance for a public occasion of a ceremonial kind, and because of the large forces involved, the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale is not performed as frequently as the other three symphonies, and this was true in Berlioz’s time as well. This does not mean that the work is less worthy of attention than its predecessors; in its own way it is as much of a masterpiece as the three other symphonies. It might be worth citing here the verdict of none other than Richard Wagner, who heard the work in Paris in 1840. In an article he wrote for the Dresdner Abendzeitung of 5 May 1841 he said of the symphony:
I would really have no hesitation in placing this composition ahead of the other works of Berlioz: it is noble and elevated from the first note to the last…; a sublime patriotic enthusiasm, which rises from the strains of lamentation to the highest peaks of apotheosis, preserves this work from any exaltation of an unseemly kind. […] I must express with joy my conviction that this symphony will endure and exalt the courage of people so long as a nation with the name of France endures.
From his own wide experience of music-making Berlioz believed that music had to be performed in a closed environment with a suitable acoustic, such as a concert hall, opera house, or church. For him open air music ‘did not exist’, a view he frequently expressed in his writings, as for example in an article in the Journal des Débats of 1 April 1845, which addressed precisely the question of how military bands, which by definition often had to perform in the open, could make themselves heard. The commission he received in 1840 from the French government, for music destined for a public ceremony in the streets of Paris, therefore presented Berlioz with a dilemma; as seen above he solved it by arranging a public performance (the general rehearsal on 26 July in Salle Vivienne) which would precede the open-air public ceremony on 28 July. This would enable the public to form an accurate view of the work, whatever happened during the open-air performance. The open-air performance had to contend with numerous drawbacks, as Berlioz’s account describes. But the concert performance was so successful that it was repeated the following month (7 and 14 August 1840; CG no. 730). Two years later, on 1 and 15 February 1842, the work was performed again complete, in Salle Vivienne once more, this time with the addition to the wind and brass band of a string orchestra (CG no. 765). Later in the year Berlioz then added a chorus to the last movement, with words by Antoni Deschamps; this was performed for the first time in Brussels on 26 September 1842, during Berlioz’s first visit there, and the complete work in its definitive version with chorus was performed on 7 November 1842 at the Opéra, conducted jointly by Berlioz and Habeneck (CG nos. 787 and 789).
These performances of 1842 turned out to be the last ones of the complete work in Berlioz’s lifetime, whether in Paris or anywhere else. Thereafter only the last movement (III, the Apothéose) received a number of performances, with or without chorus, generally on its own, but occasionally preceded by the second movement (II, the Funeral Oration). The opening movement, the Funeral March, though musically perhaps the finest of the whole symphony, was never performed on its own; a long and sombre piece, it probably did not seem suitable for inclusion in a normal orchestral concert, whereas the rousing final movement was regularly a success with audiences. Here is a listing of the known performances in Berlioz’s lifetime after 1842.
Performances in Paris
1843: 19 November (II-III, no chorus; CG nos. 860, 866, 867, 868)
1844: 6 Apri,l at the Opéra-Comique (III, CG no. 892); 1 August, Festival de l’Industrie (II-III, with chorus)
1846: 24 July, Hippodrome (III, no chorus; conducted by Tilmant)
1855: 15, 16, 24 November, Palais de l’Industrie (III, with chorus; Memoirs, Postface). These were the last performances in Berlioz’s lifetime.
Performances outside Paris
1843: Dresden, 10 and 17 February (II-III with chorus; CG nos. 815, 816)
1845: Marseille, 19 June (III, with chorus); Lyon, 20 and 24 July (III, with chorus); Vienna, 16 November (III, without chorus)
1846: Lille, 14 June (III, with chorus; open air performance; CG nos. 1044bis, 1045)
1847: Russia, St Petersburg, 15, 25, 27 March (III, no chorus)
1848: London, Drury Lane Theatre, 7 February (II-III); 18 February (III, no chorus). While in London published in May 1848 an arrangement of the Apothéose for chorus and orchestra, dedicated to his friend Pierre Duc, the architect of the Bastille column (CG no. 1200).
Marche Funèbre (duration 14'7")
— Score in large format
(file created on 27.06.2000; revised 3.11.2001)
— Score in pdf format
& III: Oraison Funèbre followed
by Apothéose (duration 15'45")
— Score in large format
(file created on 11.11.2001)
— Score in pdf format
Funèbre (duration 6'49")
— Score in large format
(file created on 30.03.2000; revised 11.11.2001)
First version, without strings or chorus (duration 8'56")
— Score in large format
(file created on 8.10.2000; revised 11.11.2001)
with strings and chorus (duration 8'56")
— Score in large format
(file created on 12.10.2000; revised 23.12.2001)
— Score in pdf format
© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.
This page revised and enlarged on 1 February 2022.
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