Berlioz: A Personal Appreciation

By Guillermo Figueroa

© 2003 Guillermo Figueroa

    In the early 1970s, as a young student at the Juilliard School, I was hired to play a concert outside of the school in the real world, a ‘gig’, as we would call these necessary sources of income. I found myself in a huge rehearsal space, with about 300 musicians and singers, and brass and percussion instruments everywhere. From the back of the second violins, in that chaotic situation, it was impossible to make any sense of the strange, obscure music being played, which I had never even heard of. After a couple of days of rehearsals, the musical mist gradually cleared, and I will never forget the moment when, finally, at the concert, on the stage of Carnegie Hall, the full impact of the music hit me and Berlioz’s intentions became clear to me. I sat transfixed, struggling to play the notes while fighting back tears of profound emotion. What IS this music, I thought? Where has it been all my life? It was, of course, Berlioz’s great masterpiece and crowning achievement, the epic opera Les Troyens. From that moment on, life was never the same, as I had found music that spoke to me as nothing ever before, a composer that I had previously not understood and who had now become my artistic goal, and the central passion of my musical life.

    Why Berlioz? Why, indeed, is a question being asked all over the world in this, the 200th anniversary of his birth. For me there was perhaps a predisposition. The previous generation of Figueroas had all trained musically in Paris, and I grew up listening to my father, uncles and aunts speak French, and was schooled in the beauties and subtleties of the French musical style. But mainly I had this unexpected opportunity, at this ‘gig’, to actually LISTEN to Berlioz. And that is the central problem. Most people have never heard the great works. Hector had to fight so much in his life to have his music performed; many of his greatest works were actually little known if at all. His society admired the Italianate style above all, particularly Rossini, and didn’t want to be bothered by the demands on the listener made by his passionate, dramatic and revolutionary music. It was a time, in Paris, of "musical Philistines", in Hector’s characteristic prose. His greatest opus, the aforementioned Les Troyens, was only ever heard in his lifetime in a mutilated version of the second half of the opera. He never heard some of the greatest music he ever wrote. In fact, Les Troyens was not given complete until 1959 in London, over a hundred years after its composition! Imagine waiting that long to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or Brahms’ 4th, or Der Rosenkavalier! So the misunderstandings prevailed, and took a life of their own, many into our own times. "His music needs 600 players!", they said. "There is no melody!", they complained. "The operas cannot be staged, they are too long and noisy!" (Les Troyens is shorter than Parsifal). And of course, the often repeated, but true cliché, although always used in a condescending way, "he was a great orchestrator!" implying, of course, that’s all there was to him, i.e. no substance.

    But there’s the music, the incredible, passionate, sublime, all-consuming, magnificent music, which speaks directly to the heart and the imagination! All you have to do is be willing to listen without prejudice. Hear the drama and heroism of Les Troyens, the intimacy and poetry of Les Nuits d’été, the grandeur, austerity and other-worldly vision of the Requiem, the form-defying scale of La Damnation of Faust, the color and sense of landscape of Harold en Italie, the revolutionary innovation of the Symphonie fantastique. Thanks to the efforts of great pioneers, like Munch, Kubelik, and above all, the now mythical Colin Davis, who did the first complete recording of Les Troyens, Hector has emerged in our consciousness as one of the astounding geniuses of musical history, a composer of dramatic, overwhelming power, rooted in the great traditions of music, art, and literature. He was also the first of the great super-star conductors, in demand all over Europe, perhaps the finest music critic the world has ever known, and the author of one of the great autobiographies of all time. He was the inspired composer of the Fantastique, the première of which was one of three that I consider the most influential and far reaching events in musical history (the other two being the premières of Wagner’s Tristan and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring). A man that drew the finest of cultured Europe around him, whose intimate friends were the likes of Chopin, Liszt, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Paganini, Mendelssohn, who could recite Virgil and Shakespeare by memory, who championed Beethoven to the hostile Parisians. A man who loved and was loved passionately, and who was most ungratefully and tragically rejected by that very society he so much wanted to be accepted by.

    Perhaps it is a mark of the new Berlioz awareness that the magnificent second recording of Les Troyens by Sir Colin Davis was awarded a Grammy as Best Classical Recording of the Year. Imagine that. For a Berlioz opera! Perhaps it is also time to revise another of the enduring clichés of music, the idea of the great "Three B’s". It is no exaggeration to say that, with our recently-found knowledge of Hector’s work, it is indeed high time to add Berlioz’s name to that exalted Germanic trilogy of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

    As I embarked on my Berliozian discoveries, some relatively modest, but satisfying, events came along, such as the experience of leading the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Carnegie Hall with the extraordinary contralto, Maureen Forrester (Les Nuits d’été), and recording the solo violin part of Rêverie et Caprice, also with Orpheus for Deutsche Grammophon. But I always dreamt of having a great orchestra in time to celebrate the 200th anniversary. I am thrilled and deeply grateful to be able to say that I am about to realize that goal beyond my wildest dreams. Albuquerque, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, the  University of New Mexico and all the other participating organizations have embraced Berlioz with a passion befitting the composer himself. It is perhaps representative of our New Mexican society that we have adopted the Berliozian credo of openness, innovation, and freedom of spirit. With the concerts, lectures, plays, exhibits and other events, we are presenting perhaps the most complete picture of Berlioz’s art and times that has ever been given in one place. 

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* This paper first appeared in the Programme book of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra’s Berlioz Festival (March - November 2003). It is reproduced here with the kind permission of Mr Guillermo Figueroa, the Orchestra’s distinguished Music Director and Conductor. 

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