The Hector Berlioz Website


By Melinda O’Neal

© 2003 Melinda O’Neal

Why is Hector Berlioz’s music so rarely performed by choral ensembles and vocal soloists? The answers are simple. There is a widespread misapprehension that he wrote only extended choral-orchestral works for incredibly enormous performing forces. A lack of readily available, recently researched and informative performance editions contributes to a general unfamiliarity with what pieces work well and to the assumption that his music will either be too difficult or not suit our ensemble or audience. Even accurately pronouncing his name [Berljo:z]1 – let alone singing well in French – is daunting for many of us non-native speakers and singers.

In general, nineteenth-century French repertoire is not entirely in our comfort zone, either. Of the French art song and vocal ensemble repertoire, compositions by twentieth-century composers Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Poulenc, Duparc, and Messiaen are more frequently heard than works by romanticists Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Auber, Cherubini, and Berlioz. We know even less about Berlioz’s predecessors Lully, Rameau, de la Lande, Gluck, Méhul, Reicha, and LeSueur. No matter how familiar we are with his name and how steeped in the Romantic era we may be, Berlioz is still an outsider to the canon of choral and solo vocal programming. He is viewed as original but weird, his works are too long, there’s too much French to learn, too many performers are called for, and there’s just too much expense and trouble.

Most musicians today remain grounded in the Germanic influence of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and under the operatic influence primarily of Italian composers Monteverdi, Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini. However, to be a composer in mid nineteenth-century France meant, first and foremost, composing opera. The essence of Berlioz, in all his compositions, is text, musical narrative, visualisation, and drama – as in an opera. Whether the genre is symphony (Symphony fantastique, Harold in Italy, the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette), opera (Benvenuto Cellini, Béatrice et Bénédict, Les Troyens), extended work for orchestra, chorus and soloists (La Damnation de Faust, L’enfance du Christ, Te Deum, Grande messe des morts), vocal solo with piano or orchestra (e.g. Les nuits d’été and many single titles), or individual choruses with keyboard or orchestra, Berlioz was writing to musically illuminate the text’s narrative and its drama.

By embracing the concept of dramatic underpinning in all of Berlioz’s works, choral conductors can gain access to the rich treasure of diverse vocal works by Berlioz, whether one performs the charming Prière du Matin for treble voices and piano or Hymne à la France composed initially for hundreds of singers and instrumentalists.

Berlioz with Piano?

No doubt we have listened to Berlioz’s astonishing feats of orchestration in Grande messe des morts or Symphonie fantastique. We have read that he thought in orchestral colors simultaneously with inventing melody and harmony. He played flute and guitar, which presumably unleashed his imagination for colour. Since he was not a technically proficient pianist, however, the perceived wisdom is that his piano accompaniments are not interesting and his entire compositional style depends on the essential colouristic elements of his orchestrations.

Contrary to the general characterisation of Berlioz as primarily an orchestrator, however, he composed many individual works for voices and piano, later orchestrating only some of them. He also reduced vocal works originally composed for orchestra to piano. Even so, can we in good conscience perform Berlioz’s works with only keyboard when his gift for orchestration is so compelling?

There is ample evidence that Berlioz strongly encouraged the performance of his choral and solo repertory with piano. In 1863, late in his life, Berlioz oversaw publication of a compilation of most of his individual choruses and solo songs composed from 1829 on: 32 Mélodies pour chant et piano par Hector Berlioz, Membre de l’Institut, which he reissued in 1864 as 33 Mélodies.2 Published by Richault in Paris, the title page of 33 Mélodies indicates that all selections were available transposed and in separate imprints. Many works have singing translations in either English or German underneath the French text in the score. It is fair to conclude that Berlioz was more than pleased to have his originally vocal-keyboard works performed not only in their later expanded orchestral versions in concert halls on tour or occasionally in Paris, but also in more intimate settings with only piano. In addition, works composed originally for orchestra and voices are reduced for piano and voices in this publication either by Berlioz or his chosen collaborators.3

Berlioz orchestrated only selected works to perform in concert halls and on tours; numerous titles remained only for keyboard and voice. Of the 33 Mélodies, eleven (one-third) are for keyboard and voice only (never orchestrated), others are piano reductions of later orchestral versions of early songs4, and some are piano reductions of orchestrated choruses commissioned for grand patriotic public occasions. All titles in the collection are set for keyboard and voice(s). By obtaining appropriate performance materials, two thirds may be performed also as vocal orchestral works.

The New Berlioz Edition Catalogue contains a concise summary of Berlioz’s comments from his memoirs and letters concerning performances of each of his works. These indicate that songs, arias or scene complexes from his operas or single songs were often performed with keyboard accompaniment for friends in their homes. In concerts, excerpts of his extended works were frequently performed with orchestra, as variety of topic and genre was tantalising to audiences and customary at the time. In light of this historical context, the idea of performing a mixture of Berlioz’s art songs and choruses in a choral concert is compelling, whether it be with piano or orchestra. Performing excerpts from his extended works, just as he did, is justified as well. Are these works any good without orchestra? Clearly, Berlioz thought so. Text, melody, harmony and form – the essential elements comprising a work’s drama – were what was most important to Berlioz in 1864.5

A Test Concert

In February, 2002, I tested the suitability and audience reception of Berlioz’s shorter vocal works, choral and solo (see Table 1), in a concert performed only with piano accompaniment (or, in the case of two solo songs, with additional obbligato cello). Our concert, "Vive la France! – Works by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Debussy,"6 consisted mostly of Berlioz works. His solo songs were grouped in the middle (although interspersing them throughout would have been interesting, too) and contrasting works by other French composers were performed by a smaller vocal ensemble.

Table 1  A Concert of Berlioz Works with Piano7


Title Time Date of Composition Version Voicing Accompaniment
I. Choruses
L’apothéose**+ (4:26) 1848 piano reduction Chorus, Mz or T soloists piano
Chant sacré* (5:27) 1829 second piano version SSTTBB chorus, T solo piano
Prière du matin (3:03) before 1846 only version SSA piano
Le Chant des Bretons (2:28) 1849 only version TTBB(or T solo) piano
Chanson à boire (3:25) 1829 only version TTBB, T solo piano
II. Solos
La Belle Voyageuse* (4:27) 1829 original version Mz solo piano
Adieu, Bessy (3:25) 1829 only version T solo piano
Élégie (4:48) 1829 only version T solo piano

(Here a small ensemble sang the following a cappella selections: Saint-Saëns’ Deux Chœurs,
op. 68 –Calme des nuits and Les fleurs et les arbres, his Ave verum corpus, and two of 
Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans.)

Premiers transports* (6:14) 1838 piano reduction version 
orchestrated for
Roméo et Juliette
Mz and chorus on refrain piano or harp with cello obbligato
La Captive* (4:10) 1832 earlier version Mz solo piano and cello in E major (one of six versions)
III. Choruses
Hymne à la France+ (6:15) 1844 reduction by
Auguste Wolff
SSTTBB piano
La Menace des Francs+ (2:26) 1844 piano reduction for TTBB (quartet or octet)/SSTTBB piano

Hymne des Marseillais



words and music by
Rouget de Lisle8 



* later orchestrated
** the concluding chorus of Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale
+ piano reduction by Berlioz or his collaborator of original orchestral version
Mz = mezzo-soprano; T = tenor; B = bass

Reflections on the Program

Since Berlioz was an idealist and a pragmatist, often improving or adapting his works for the next concert, the issue of versions is a bit gnarly.9 It is helpful to take an inventory of the works above. Five of the twelve total Berlioz titles in this program (three choruses, two songs) were never orchestrated. Five titles (three choruses, two songs) underwent later revisions or orchestrations by Berlioz (marked with * and ** in Table1). Eight titles were performed in their original or an early piano-vocal version. One, La Captive, is an intermediate of several versions; it was later expanded and orchestrated, then later that expanded version was reduced for piano. Four patriotic titles, L’apothéose and the final three works, are piano reductions from original orchestral versions (+), the last being an arrangement of a revolutionary song which became the national anthem of France.

All works in the program in Table 1 were issued in print with Berlioz’s approval; most he assembled into 33 Mélodies. Many are from Berlioz’s early years or are his first published conception of a work. Ian Kemp rightly observes, "In an age when the idea of uncovering a composer’s first thoughts no longer offends the fastidious, it may be accepted that to hear the music Berlioz discarded and to understand or even disagree with why he did so provides a fascinating opportunity to witness the composing process in action. It may also be accepted that a composer’s final thoughts are not necessarily the best and that an attempt to recapture the intensity of a composer’s original conception is a valid one."10

The music in this concert spanned three categories: patriotic, secular and sacred. Berlioz’s public occasion patriotic music opened and closed the concert. L’apothéose,11 Hymne à la France, and La Menace des Francs were composed for extraordinarily large performing forces and gatherings of thousands in either outdoor plazas or exhibition halls. French society, from the late eighteenth-century to well into the mid-nineteenth century, underwent recurring turmoil over the issues of royal extravagance, laws of primogenitor, lack of property and voting rights, hunger and poverty. In these selections Berlioz vividly displays the revolutionary spirit of the times – he is grandiose and visionary. Although the full effect is virtually impossible to replicate today, truly, these works, even performed with piano, are thrilling to sing and hear.

Although the singers most enjoyed La Menace des Francs, the audience responded more favourably to Hymne à la France. In this work, each vocal section had an entire verse to sing alone. Berlioz rehearsed this work in one-hour sectionals for each voice part, and then had only a one-hour tutti rehearsal.12 Berlioz’s arrangement of Hymne des Marseillais is the current national anthem version (violent and bloody as the text is). Few, however, seem to know of the fantastic double chorus TBB/ SSTB refrain, a scintillating passage, to say the least. Each of these works are quite manageable for singers but an excellent pianist is required.

The concert included two delightful male choruses, Le Chant des Bretons and Chanson à boire. Le Chant des Bretons can be performed without accompaniment; it has the style of a tavern song and can easily be sung anywhere and with one or more to a part. Chanson à boire (one of Neuf Irlandais, Berlioz’s earliest assembly of nine songs and choruses) is more about male camaraderie and enduring life’s trials; it requires an excellent tenor soloist. Both works are in verse-and-refrain form, and rousing, indeed.

Of the sacred genre, Prière du Matin (or Chœur d’enfants) was written for a hymnal and is among Berlioz’s last compositions. It is dear, full of naiveté and innocence, and easily performed by children or women’s chorus. In Chant sacré (also part of Neuf Irlandaise), Berlioz seems to exploit the reverberation possible in a church to illustrate God’s strength and omnipresence. At the opening we hear a single C from the piano, out of which emerges the chorus on an A_-major chord to illustrate dawn ("God almighty, God of the dawn, Who created the sweet law of love..."13), a double entendre for the dawn of our understanding. The tenor solo is brief and an excellent opportunity for a young singer. Evenly calibrating the crescendos and diminuendos over long notes or notes with fermatas will effectively create the effect of encroaching and disappearing worldliness and other-worldliness.

Five secular selections in the concert, a mix of solos and choruses, come from Neuf Irlandais.14 These works, composed at age 26, preceded Berlioz’s hallmark work, Symphonie fantastique, by only months. Although they reflect a youthfulness of style, they contain all the signals of the terrifyingly brilliant master. Chant sacré and Chanson à boire have been discussed above. La Belle Voyageuse is about a young woman’s discovery that virtuous Irish men – along with her headband of priceless rubies – protect her as she travels in medieval Ireland.15 Adieu Bessy and Élégie, the closing solo songs of the set, vividly portray Berlioz’s enduring and consuming passion for Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress whom he later married. His obsession both for her and the works of Shakespeare stem from when he saw her acting in Romeo and Juliet and Othello. Adieu, Bessy is a strophic farewell, plaintive and elegaic. Élégie, although never orchestrated, is more an opera aria than an art song and requires an exceptional tenor and pianist. The performers need to fully embrace the texts and their setting of these fine tenor songs – without reservation – to bring them off successfully.

La Captive was so popular during his life that Berlioz revised it for specific concert occasions; there were seven versions, including Stephen Heller’s piano reduction of the final orchestral version. It morphed from a beguiling strophic tune with guitar or piano accompaniment to a miniature tone poem with five varied strophes and a coda, significantly greater in length and dimension.16 The version we performed is an intermediary one to which Berlioz added the cello as a kind of alter ego to the voice. In Premiers transports, from the 1839 dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette based on the Shakespeare play, Berlioz evokes the alluring orange blossomed air of southern Italy and the lovers’ poignant passion. Cello joins the voice in the second verse, at times subsidiary and at others equal in importance.


What was the audience’s reaction? Standing ovation! What was the chorus’s reaction? There was a little grumbling about so much French to learn, but they were thrilled with the tunefulness, energising spirit, contrast of voicings, variety of moods and all-around fun of the music. Would the pieces that Berlioz eventually orchestrated have been better with orchestra? It would depend on the performance situation, especially the instrumentalists’ and singers’ abilities, but yes. Nevertheless, a fine pianist carried us through, and all with Berlioz’s tacit approval.

More important, the integrity and impact of Berlioz’s dramatic ideas succeeded through his poetry and music, no matter the length or instrumentation of these works. Berlioz’s clear-eyed intelligence, dignity, and his absolutely fresh, unreserved emotional transparency are all there. The music invites us to conduct it with his same verve, passion and utmost commitment.

Melinda O’Neal



1. Léon Warnant. Dictionnaire de la prononciation française. Paris-Gembloux: Duculot, 1987.

2. Berlioz added one work, the cantata for baritone and chorus, Le cinq Mai. For a complete list of songs and choruses Berlioz chose to include in 33 Mélodies, consult Holoman’s Catalogue, Vol. 25 of the New Berlioz Edition published by Bärenreiter. There are more songs and choruses by Berlioz; most of those were earlier, student works. See the Malherbe and Weingartner collection, Vol 17.

3. Stephen Heller, Auguste Wolff, Auguste Morel.

4. La Captive, one of his most popular solos.

5. Berlioz wanted the breadth of his output known and marketable. The hope for more performances of his shorter works in chamber settings or on the concert stage spurred him to assemble and publish 33 Mélodies.

6. The Handel Society of Dartmouth College is a student-community oratorio society of 100 voices. Normally performances are of choral-orchestral works with professional orchestra and guest soloists. We were pleased to present this concert twice and free of charge, in large off-campus church sanctuaries. Soloists were Erma Gattie, mezzo, and tenor Martin Kelly, with pianist Jeanne Chambers.

7. Of the works in this concert for chorus, only L’apothéose and Hymne des Marseillais are not in Berlioz’s 33 Mélodies; of the solos, Premiers transports is not in 33 Mélodies. A piano reduction of Berlioz’s final version of La Captive is in 33 Mélodies, in D Major rather than the earlier version in E Major with cello obbligato. Our singer, Erma Gattie, preferred to sing the work in E major, and this allowed us to have two works with cello obbligatto. The E-major version with cello is in Vol 17, p. 85 of the old Breitkopf edition.

8. Piano reduction of the Berlioz orchestration (presumably not provided by Berlioz) is available from Kalmus, reprinted by permission from Maecenas Music, 1989. All verses were not performed.

9. Refer to Holoman’s Catalogue for each title.

10. Ian Kemp. "Radical Fusion of Dramatic and Symphonic"; liner notes for Hector Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, Philips Classics, 1998.

11. L’apothéose is also the conclusion of Grande symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale.

12. NBE, vol. 12b, p. XIII, edited by David Charlton

13. Translation by Emma Klingenfeld, Almut Lenz, Derek Yeld.

14. Irishman Thomas Moore’s poems, influenced by Shakespeare, were translated into French by Berlioz’s friend, Thomas Gounet.

15. La Belle Voyageuse was later orchestrated; Berlioz subsequently added a second voice line, intending it to be sung by two-part female chorus and orchestra. See NBE, vol. 13.

16. David Cairns. Liner notes to John Eliot Gardiner’s CD Mélodies, 1990. Erato.

Back to Berlioz Bicentenary Special main page

Back to Home Page

Retour à la Page d’accueil