The Hector Berlioz Website

Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions

Tom S. Wotton

Hector Berlioz



    In April 1781 Mozart, writing to his father, expressed his delight at having heard one of his symphonies given by forty violins, doubled wind, eight bassoons, and so on. It would not be difficult to find instances of a similar attitude amongst the majority of composers who have been skilled in orchestration. Incidentally, it may be observed that those who imagine that Mozart’s works ought to be performed under ‘Mozartean’ conditions may not be affording his shade any particular gratification. That Berlioz should dream of more gigantic orchestras than his predecessors was due to several reasons. Without doubt he possessed grandiose ideas. But, apart from that, we must allow for the curiosity of a born orchestrator. Such a one, having been impressed by the majesty of (say) three trombones, would wonder how a dozen would sound, and seize an opportunity for testing the effect. However original a man may be, he must be affected to some extent by the spirit of his time, and in France during the first Republic and first Empire works given by a large body of performers were not uncommon. Berlioz must have often heard from his old master of the two orchestras of Gossec, the three of Méhul, and the four of Lesueur himself. Indeed, the last-named appears to have contemplated some composition planning to celebrate a Napoleonic victory, which, in addition to a choir, organ, and orchestra inside Notre Dame, included a chorus, military bands, church bells, and cannon outside. And, wherever the idea of an orchestra on an operatic stage may have originated, it became a feature of the Grand Opéra in Paris, as Wagner realized, when he wrote his Rienzi, with its orchestra of thirty-four on the stage. In 1841 the King of the French gave what might be called a garden-party at the Galeries du Louvre, when the guests were entertained by an orchestra of 260 and a chorus of 140. The latter demanded less than that demanded by Berlioz for his Requiem (210 voices), but his orchestra (193 in the first edition of the score and 204 in the later ones) seems modest compared with that of the garden-party. As a matter of fact, the actual number of performers for the first performance of the Requiem was only 300 — the same number as was employed for Mozart’s on 15 December 1840 — which, as Bottée de Toulmon said in his notice for the first performance of Berlioz’s work,1 was considered by many as being too few for the vast church of the Invalides. It is unfortunate that Berlioz gave in his Treatise an example of the four orchestras of brass instruments and his array of drums. The book was read by every musician, with the result that the French composer was credited with requiring abnormal means for the expression of his ideas, and we had comparisons between his ‘acres of drums and yards of brass’ and the instruments used in Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. The gibe falls flat when addressed to those who know Berlioz’s scores, for few composers have produced such fine effects with restricted means. It is true that he said to Schumann2 that he ‘needed large means to produce any effect’, but this is contradicted by numerous movements and passages in his works. And, as he was commencing his Requiem, he would be anxious to forestall any criticism of the means he intended to employ therein. (Detached remarks from the writings and letters of a man have little force unless we know under what circumstances they were penned.) That he was fond of large orchestras cannot be denied, nor can the reasons he adduced for preferring them be disputed. He insisted that it was only possible to obtain a perfectly true note if there were a large body of executants. A string quartet, for instance, with each part doubled or trebled, even in the hands of first-class performers, would not sound well. The resultant notes, owing to the infinitesimal differences in the intonation of the several players, would not be perfectly in tune. In the case of a large number of performers these differences would cancel one another. And so with singers. He also insisted that it was only possible to obtain a true pianissimo of the strings when the orchestra was a large one. To illustrate his ideas, however, he was led to extravagances, and included in the programmes of some of his monster concerts items that were totally unsuitable for a large orchestra and chorus ; and this, after admitting that such pieces as the scherzo of Beethoven’s C minor Symphony and his own March to Execution lost much of their effect, when given by an orchestra above a certain number. His ideas on the size and disposition of orchestras are naturally of interest, but do not immediately concern us, save those recorded on his scores. By way of curiosity I would, however, mention an experiment he made at one of his ordinary concerts, that on 4 May 1844, for which he himself wrote the notice, duly signed, in La Gazette musicale. He commences : ‘I cannot endure that man ! He possesses the most irascible disposition, the most ungracious character, the most absurd imagination that one could meet in this world of ours sparsely peopled by admirable dispositions, charming characters, and cheerful imaginations.’ A specimen of Berlioz’s curious humour ! The orchestra — ‘that unhappy orchestra which M. Berlioz torments, racks, cajoles, bullies, and rends3 in so many deplorable ways !’ — was composed of 4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 (natural) trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 cornets, 2 harps, 1 ophicleide, and 4 players for the percussion instruments, against seventy strings. Unfortunately we are not told whether the composer was satisfied with the effect in the overture to Les Francs Juges and the Harold in Italy Symphony, the two principal items. I do not know whether he repeated the experiment. In any case it would be unwise to follow his example. His balance is so nicely calculated, that none but himself is entitled to disturb it seriously.

    Out of all Berlioz’s compositions, the Requiem alone really requires a huge orchestra and chorus in order to produce its proper effect, though Berlioz on occasion gave portions in Germany with much reduced means. From the commentary to the work in the German edition we learn that his original indications for the ‘Tuba mirum’ were wildly extravant — twenty-four horns and thirty-two kettle-drums figured amonst them !4 His Te Deum, though undoubtedly requiring the forces he has marked when performed in a large building, can be given with all due effect in an ordinary concert-room with an orchestra of fairly moderate dimensions. Indeed, from the indications in the French edition of the score as regards the trombones, I am inclined to think that he did not intend much more than an ordinary orchestra when he commenced his score, deciding on a larger one only when sketching the wonderful ‘Judex crederis’.5 The large orchestra of the Funeral and Triumphal Symphony may be said to have been almost a matter of chance. He was commissioned to write a work for a military band, and those of four or five regiments were put at his disposal. For the first performance — that is, before the ad libitum string parts were written — there were 207 musicians, a hundred less than the military band Berlioz heard at Berlin, when the overture to Les Francs Juges was given, arranged by Wieprecht. The fourth example of ‘architectural’ music is L’Impériale, a cantata written for the ceremony of the distribution of prizes at the Paris Exhibition of 1855. In the score there are directions for the performance of the work by an ordinary orchestra, with the two choruses reduced to one with a solo quartet. The cantata is not likely to be revived, although it contains an effect at the end which Berlioz counted amongst his best. As he facetiously wrote to Liszt, ‘I assure you that it is a Polka which makes you want to dance.’ Yet the means employed are of the simplest, apart from the large forces used at the first performance. The choruses (in unison) doubled by the trombones declaim the main theme — one taken from his cantata The Death of Sardanapalus — accompanied by repeated chords on the wood-wind and high tremolos for the strings, while the snare- and kettle-drums battent aux champs,6 ‘as if for the arrival of the Emperor’. It is an excellent example of the broad effects that are advisable when writing for a large number of performers. It is an irony of fate that we are seldom allowed to appreciate them at their proper value, since, as was complained with respect to the Requiem, they are almost invariably given in too large a building.

    Berlioz’s orchestration depends on much more than an inexhaustible fertility as regards tone-colour and in the invention of either absolutely novel combinations or the happy re-adjusting of those of his predecessors. His mastery of the orchestra is largely due to his intuitive feeling for balance and keen appreciation of the effect of contrast. In many cases his explosions seem tripled in force because of his previously carefully calculated reticence. Thus, some of the effect of the March to Execution and the Witches’ Sabbath is owing to the silence of the trombones and tubas during the first three movements. The end of the Ride to the Abyss is far from a lullaby, but he holds in reserve his trumpets and cornets for the Pandæmonium, besides the full power of the trombones and tubas, which have only been used in the Ride for a dozen bars, more for their colour than their force. In the Requiem itself his army of instruments is employed at full strength in two numbers only, and if we take the total number of bars in the work we shall find that the softer nuances predominate, a striking contrast to Rienzi, produced five years later (in 1842).

    Another characteristic of Berlioz’s scores is delicacy, which may be found even in his most strenuous passages. He is like some builder of a vast cathedral, who takes an artistic delight in carving dainty figures or tracery which are revealed only to close scrutiny. For instance, not only are the four orchestras of brass instruments of the Requiem of different disposition, but while the others are marked ff the third orchestra is merely f for the fanfare of the ‘Tuba mirum’. We can discover similar subtleties elsewhere, and we must not forget that they are all calculated, and often have some bearing on the laying-out of his harmony. On this and similar points the opinion of MM. Pierné and Woollett7 is of value :

With Berlioz, it must be insisted, there is nothing unnecessary, everything is in its place, the apparently most insignificant details have their concealed purpose, which is only unveiled by performance. With the greatest masters (even occasionally with Beethoven himself) there are passages where the interpretation demands all the attention of the conductor, all his energy, all his will, to give its proper value to this or that figure, either lacking in clarity or too much obscured. He has to ask one executant to moderate his sonority, another to exaggerate it, and even then it is not always possible to balance the orchestra. With Berlioz, all that labour is already done. He wrote nothing that he has not weighed with exactness, of which he has not calculated the absolute intensity, nothing (there differing from Wagner) that cannot be performed perfectly and easily.

Gabriel Pierné, of course, writes from practical experience. After having been for six or seven years assistant conductor to Édouard Colonne (who did so much for Berlioz’s works), he became, in 1910, sole conductor of the Colonne orchestra.

    According to the above extract it should not be difficult to give a performance of Berlioz’s scores, given, of course, a sympathetic conductor. But like every other composer skilled as an orchestrator, Berlioz is dependent on an orchestra of the strength and disposition indicated in his scores. It is obvious that a balance calculated on there being sixty strings is upset when less than half that number are available, and that passages for the wood-wind need some readjustment, if there are only two bassoons instead of the three or four demanded by the composer. It is true that an orchestra may vary between fairly wide limits without the balance being seriously disarranged, and of course the power (and delicacy) of a body of strings hangs on other factors besides mere numbers. But nevertheless there is a limit, and when it is overstepped, the conductor is compelled to exercise ‘all his energy, all his will’ in order to obtain some semblance of the composer’s intentions. It is possible that the fluctuations in the size of orchestras, and the frequent presentation of works with inadequate means, have something to do with the undoubted fact that orchestral colouring is not held in the same esteem as that derived from harmony. It may require a different order of mind to excel in the latter, but it is not of necessity a higher one. Orchestration is too often regarded as something plastered on to that which is music, instead of being, as Rimsky-Korsakov described it, ‘one of the aspects of the very soul of the music’. We read, even in musical journals, of composers who have finished their opera, and are now engaged in the orchestration of it. The miserable question of bread-and-butter has much to do with it, but it is odd to find composers, who have presumably expended much thought on the exact balance and precise coloration of their combinations, consenting to the performance of their work with meagre means and with parts either omitted or played on other instruments. They would be unlikely to agree to a similar treatment of (say) an eight-part chorus, even though a cynic might suggest that some of the notes of ultra-modern harmonies might be profitably omitted. For purposes of tuition it may be advisable to treat harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, form, and so on, as separate things ; but for all that they are not detachable garments that clothe some mysterious entity called music. They are music itself, and, in judging the musicality of a work, we must consider them as one and indivisible ; they resemble a chemical compound rather than a mechanical mixture, even though the formula may vary with every composer.

    Part of the want of appreciation of orchestration is due to it being confused with ‘instrumentation’. The latter is concerned with the study of the separate instruments, their capabilities, their compass, their different registers, and so on ; without this knowledge perfect orchestration is impossible. But because a piece of music is admirably written as regards the separate parts, it does not follow that it is well orchestrated any more than a knowledge of the text-book rules of harmony ensures a piece being well harmonized. Strictly speaking, instrumentation should be confined to the arranging [of] a piece for a number of instruments, such as one written for piano, or adapting an orchestral piece to the restricted resources of a seaside band of twenty or thirty. Orchestration is the art of writing for an orchestra without reference to anything else. The first might be compared to the arranging of an orchestral piece for piano, which, even if it be by Liszt himself, is never the same as a composition conceived for the piano. Half a dozen men can adequately instrumentate a piece, but only one can orchestrate it. Berlioz instrumentated Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz without, as he boasted, altering a note. It is astonishingly clever. But it is after all only a translation. Weber alone could make the original, just as no one else could write the melodies or harmonies, the other aspects of the very soul of music.

    Orchestration, in its truest sense, is a recent ingredient of music. To say that Berlioz invented it would be ridiculous, but he may be considered to have been the first composer who was invariably purely orchestral in his treatment of the orchestra, if only for the reason that he could not play the piano. He had, too, a great advantage over his predecessors in that at the commencement of last century there was a great advance in the manufacture of musical instruments and an improvement in the players’ technique, poor as the latter may have been compared with that of the present day. The invention of the Tourte bow during the closing years of the previous century alone accounted for much. The French master availed himself of these new developments, and thus was able to indulge in subtleties beyond the powers of the orchestras of those before him.

    In reading Berlioz’s scores there are some points that must be borne in mind. In the first place, except for a few numbers in his last two operas and (as far as I am aware) on three previous occasions,8 he always wrote for the now obsolete natural horn. There was nothing peculiar in his attitude, for, except sporadically, as in La Juive in 1835, valve horns were not employed in France until the nineteenth century was past its meridian. Anticipating the performance of his works in Germany, where the instrument was adopted much earlier, he was, however, careful to add occasional directions in case valve horns were employed. These concerned notes that he wished to be produced, not by means of the valves, but by the lips with the aid of the hand in the bell of the instrument. In the French editions these notes are marked as bouché (stopped or closed). In the German edition, and in the score of the Fantastic Symphony in the miniature edition, the direction has been altered to con sordino (with the mute), an analogous but not identical effect. It is true that most modern horn-players have lost much of the art of producing the closed notes, but that does not excuse the alteration. Berlioz, having marked muted horns in his Eight Scenes from Faust, never repeated the direction, and does not even mention mutes for horns in his Treatise. A more serious alteration made by the editors of the German edition is an occasional change of key in horn parts. Every possessor of a few miniature scores of the classical masters knows that in the parts for the (natural) horns there are blanks, easily explained by the fact that an ‘open’ note (i.e. a note of the harmonic scale, produced without the aid of the hand) is not available, and a ‘closed’ one is inadvisable. To throw the part into another key alters the part to one for a valve horn, when the blanks become meaningless. The part is changed into one that could be written only by a composer who understood neither the old nor the modern instrument. The transposition is exasperating in the scores of one so careful of details as Berlioz, and is a waste of labour, since a modern player, armed with his valve horn, will probably transpose all the parts, save those in F, to suit himself.

    In all his larger works (apart from his ‘architectural’ ones) Berlioz required four bassoons, and, judging from the indications in his scores, did not look upon the two extra instruments as being ripieni, but as integral parts of the instrumentation. We can find many passages where a single bassoon is marked, but, on the other hand, it is not uncommon to have a solo oboe or clarinet doubled in the octave below by two bassoons, when Mozart or Beethoven would use but one. In Berlioz’s day it was the custom, as it is now, for all well-equipped French orchestras to possess four bassoons, and hence his ideas on the employment of the instruments differed from those of German practice. He was so exact in all his other indications that I cannot believe that he was careless as regards those relating to the bassoons. Observe the directions to the bassoons in Juliet’s funeral procession — now one, now two, now four — and it is impossible to believe that in numerous pages he left the quantum of bassoon tone entirely to the discretion (or the want of it) of the conductor. Other examples equally emphatic might be adduced. The suggestions9 of the editors in the German edition as to the number of bassoons to be employed may be dismissed, for the very good reason that in so many cases they deliberately ignore Berlioz’s wishes. In works, such as The Roman Carnival and The Corsair Overtures, where he asked for four bassoons, only two are marked, for the puerile reason that the instruments are in only two parts throughout ; and in many passages, where the composer has indicated his requirements with perfect clarity, his indications have been altered. Thus, in the Harold in Italy Symphony (Min. Sc., p. 55) where he wants the four bassoons to play in unison or octave with the solo viola, instead of marking his customary unis, he writes in full ‘Les 4 Bns unis’, in order to avoid the slightest possibility of a mistake. He foresaw what conductors might be tempted to do, and the editors of the German edition have justified his forebodings by placing against the part ‘a 2’ instead of ‘a 4’ without a hint to the conscientious conductor of what were the express wishes of the composer. (Berlioz, by the way, indicated very rarely ‘a 2’, with its ambiguous double meaning.) He may have left something to conductors versed in the traditions of French orchestras as regards bassoons, but I do not fancy he felt himself in any way bound by those traditions. We shall not err greatly in taking his indications against the bassoon parts at their face value. That is, when there are two parts, each is taken by two instruments ; a single part with unis above is played by all four bassoons ; a single part, with rests beneath, is executed by two. And this irrespective of nuance. To ears trained on German practice the amount of bassoon tone may seem at times too much, but it was not only in the matter of bassoons that Berlioz differed from Teutonic demands. In any case the ideas of the late M. Charles Malherbe, who, as we shall see, was mainly responsible for the German edition, may be discarded. With few exceptions his simple plan of four bassoons for loud passages and two for soft ones is carried out with maddening monotony.

    For the benefit of admirers of the scherzo of the Romeo and Juliet Symphony I would add one more mildly technical detail. In modern practice harp harmonics are indicated by writing the notes to be plucked by the player, with a small ‘o’ or ‘sons harmoniques’ above them, the actual sounds being an octave higher. But for some years after the introduction of the effect into the orchestra by Boieldieu in La Dame blanche composers were uncertain about the best mode of notation, and Berlioz was no exception. In the Ballet of the Sylphs the plucked notes are given ; in the scherzo, the actual sounds are noted in all the editions, with the possible exception of the original one published in 1848.10 That is, the harpist must play his part an octave lower. Of this there is not a shadow of doubt. If the reader will collate the last bars of the second example in Berlioz’s Treatise with the corresponding ones in the miniature score, he will see that in the latter the harp notes are written an octave higher. In the section devoted to the harp in the Treatise the author explains how he meant the harmonics of the second example to sound — an octave above those in the example, but in unison with those in the miniature score.

    To detail all Berlioz’s orchestral innovations would be a hopeless task. His genius exhibits itself no so much in the invention of novel combinations, as in his general treatment of the orchestra. To repeat a simile employed by other writers, he writes for the orchestra as Paganini did for the violin, and Chopin and Liszt for the piano. Neither of the last-named can compare with Beethoven as a composer, but both excelled him as regards adapting their ideas to the medium of the piano, as indeed many minor composers, such as Saint-Saëns and Raff, have done. It is true that we should judge a musical work principally from the point of view of its musicality, but nevertheless it is a debatable question how far a composer is entitled to ignore the limitations of the medium he chooses for the expression of his ideas. It may be argued that the musicality of a passage or movement depends on there being an exact equation between the idea and its expression, that is, that orchestral ideas expressed on the piano, or vice versa, are not truly musical. From such a test Berlioz would emerge triumphant, failing only in one particular, in that at times he was inclined to treat his voices as instruments — a fault which he shares with other musicians.

    It is a mistaken idea to suppose that Wagner’s orchestration is any particular advance on that of Berlioz, and that the latter in this respect was a sort of John the Baptist to the Bayreuth master. As Pierné and Woollett have said,11 speaking of Wagner’s two last works :

The sonorous impasto is more and more supple, firm and warm (onctueuse), at times a trifle heavy, always rich and compact. Berlioz contributes more brilliancy, more originality, and also more delicacy ; it is erroneous to believe that Wagner’s orchestra constitutes a great improvement on Berlioz’s. It is merely a different one, which has a power, a dramatic intensity, incontestable and unequalled. We must not forget that the apparent brutality of it should be tempered by an execution in accordance with the master’s wishes ; the orchestra below the level of the stage, and the brass hidden behind the proscenium.

The two authorities, however, omit to add that, even under the conditions demanded by Wagner, the disposition of the orchestras of The Ring and Parsifal has been altered to some extent by successive conductors. An account of what really takes place in the cellar at Bayreuth would be of interest. The commanding genius of Wagner imposed itself on the composers of the latter end of the century in the matter of orchestration as it did in other directions, but probably the influence of Berlioz has been more permanent. The Russian school from the first moulded their orchestral methods on Berlioz and Liszt, who himself owed much to the French master. Indeed, Wagner acknowledged his indebtedness to Berlioz, and said, ‘I made a minute study of his [Berlioz’s] instrumentation as early as 1840, and have often taken up his scores since.’ It is doubtful, however, whether the latter part of his sentence is strictly accurate, since we find him in 1855 asking Liszt to lend him some of the French composer’s scores, in which Liszt could not oblige him, since he had already lent them. Wagner’s closest acquaintance with Berlioz’s works must have been at Dresden in 1842 [1843], when avec zèle et de très-bon cœur he assisted at the rehearsals for Berlioz’s concerts. His help would have been the more valuable, since he had heard all the several items in Paris two years previously, and of course to a musician such as he it would be easy to learn much from mere audition. Having recovered from its attack of Wagneritis, ‘the entire French school’ — to quote again MM. Pierné and Woollett — ‘is the daughter of Berlioz’, and though naturally the Germans have been prone to follow Wagner, ‘Mahler and Strauss owe more to Berlioz, who remains the great inspirer of the orchestral art of to-day’. Composers have realized that the orchestra of The Ring is as much a special one as that of Berlioz’s Requiem.

    It is a great advantage to any composer for the orchestra to be a conductor. He is, or should be, able to couch his ideas in practical form, and to mark the nuances and other indications precisely as he, in the role of the conductor, would have them. Without venturing to weigh the relative merits as conductors of Berlioz, Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler, I may point out that the first-named suffered from one disadvantage, which was shared by Wagner only during the early part of his career, and that was, as suggested above, the indifferent technique of orchestral players. Even within living memory matters have improved enormously in that particular. In 1895, when Sir August Manns gave the first performance of Till Eulenspiegel in England, he apologized to the audience for any possible shortcomings on the part of the players, since it was the most difficult piece that they had ever attempted. Yet a short time back that same piece was performed by the students of one of our musical academies. In Berlioz’s case the limitations of his players were in one sense an advantage, since, bearing those limitations constantly in mind, he was careful not to give his musicians passages that were too difficult for them. In the commentary to the Romeo and Juliet Symphony in the German edition we find the first few bars of the original accompaniment for the strings of the Invocation. The editors suggest that the composer abandoned it, because he feared that his orchestra would be unable to play the somewhat complicated rhythm correctly. Their surmise is probably true. He did indeed write parts that must have seemed to the players of his day almost impossible, but, thanks to his intimate knowledge of the several instruments and to his instructions at rehearsals, they would have soon found the difficulties by no means insuperable. Nowadays, of course, his music is easy to perform, and that makes for excellence. Composers of the present day are apt to forget that, because a passage can be played by our highly skilled musicians, it does not at all follow that it is advisable to write it. The player, engrossed with the difficulties of his part, can hardly be expected to endow it with all the requisite expression. Wagner was not so careful as Berlioz, and probably suffered on that account. It is difficult to believe that had (say) the Tannhaüser Overture been performed in 1845 as we hear it to-day, it would not have won favour more quickly.

    Berlioz differed from the other conductor-composers I have named in the fact that he allowed years to elapse before many of his scores were engraved, and during the interval he had opportunities for testing his indications from rehearsals and performances by different orchestras under different conditions, and making such further touches as he deemed advisable. As a specimen of these touches take Faust’s air in The Damnation of Faust, which was first performed on 6 December 1846, whereas the full score was not published till 1854. Except for a few pizzicato notes, the double-basses do not enter (arco) till four bars before the voice part ceases. They are in unison with the violoncellos, which, together with the upper strings, are marked pp. Berlioz knew, however, either instinctively or from his experiences at rehearsals, that the double-basses would be inclined to enter too heavily, so, in order to be on the safe side, he placed ppp against their part. In the next bar all the strings are pp against the p of the wood-wind.12 I have cited these two bars, since they are an example of what Pierné and Woollett have pointed out — that ‘Berlioz wrote nothing that he has not weighed with exactness, of which he has not calculated the absolute intensity’. This extreme attention to minutiæ is evinced in other directions.

    It has been remarked that composers who excel as conductors are inclined to be fond of the percussion instruments of the orchestra. The explanation is obvious. A conductor, who is worth his salt, must possess a keen sense of rhythm, though he may prostitute it at times to what he considers the proper ‘reading’ of a work, and, as a composer, he would wish to mark that rhythm. It is true that in the scores of Wagner the percussion instruments (apart from the timpani) are rarely employed, and then more for their colour than their rhythmic qualities, but his methods of composition were opposed to any strongly accentuated rhythm, and, although his ideas have largely affected the modern school of conductors and he himself often obtained excellent performances, as a conductor he was not in the same rank as Richter, Nikisch, von Bülow (in his saner moments), Toscanini, or Berlioz. The last named, as we know, inveighed against the use of the bass drum by Rossini and his school. To a superficial reader of the French master’s scores it might seem that here we have a case of the pot calling the kettle black. A closer examination of them will reveal a great difference. Study the arrangement of the Rakoczy march, and note the contradictory nuances assigned to the brass from the end of the trombone theme to that of the march. While the strings and wood-wind are ff throughout, the brass are p or f, and are never marked ff, though many notes are strongly accentuated. (As Berlioz, with the extra valve-trombone which enters at the commencement of the trombone theme, had four of these instruments, besides an ophicleide and tuba, he was probably anxious that they should not be too blatant.)  The percussion have also contradictory nuances, and the bass drum and cymbals are not invariably played at the same time.13 Every student of Berlioz’s Treatise realizes that, though written on a single line, the two instruments must be taken by separate performers.

    Berlioz did not originate contradictory nuances — we find them here and there in Beethoven — but he certainly was the first to employ them systematically, and in this he has been followed by the sensitive orchestration of the present day. It is unnecessary to add that in the French editions some of the contradictory signs are clearly faults of the engraver, but a decision must not be made too precipitately.

    Rather than reeling off a list of some of Berlioz’s innumerable novelties in his treatment of the orchestra, I have preferred to deal with questions that affect his methods generally, as I wish to combat the popular notion that his fame as an orchestrator rests mainly on the invention of startling effects. As a matter of fact, it is exceedingly difficult in art to declare dogmatically that this or that is absolutely new and original. Mr.  S. C. Kaines Smith14 tells us that ‘Cubism, unjustly fathered upon Cézanne, is as old as the sixteenth century.... Futurism ... was known in principle to, and used in practice by, Leonardo da Vinci.’ M .Charles Kœchlin has pointed out that the unprepared chord of the dominant 7th, the introduction of which is generally attributed to Monteverdi, was written by Pierre de la Croix (Petrus de Cruce) and Guillaume de Machaut in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and then forgotten for a couple of hundred years. The chords and modulations in Berlioz’s Cleopatra, which distressed Boieldieu, had been used by Bach, Purcell, and Scarlatti, though so far as Boieldieu and Berlioz were concerned they were absolutely novel. It is of interest to note the retouches to the orchestration (and harmony) when the Invocation of Cleopatra — the number in which these ‘new’ harmonies principally appeared — was introduced into Lélio, when the latter was published twenty-six years later. Berlioz’s supremacy in the art of orchestration is due in the first place to an intimate knowledge of instrumentation which aided his unerring sense of balance, and secondly, to an instinctive feeling for a perfect equation between a melody and the instrument that interpreted it. Even when he undoubtedly employed combinations found in the works of this predecessors, he often made them his own. Divided violins had figured in scores long before his time, but their use at the commencement of the last movement of the Fantastic Symphony and in the ‘Sanctus’ of the Requiem was novel. In his Treatise he tells us that Spontini was the first to discover the peculiar sympathy between piccolos and cymbals, and in the overture in Les Francs Juges he copies the effect. But in The Damnation of Faust, for the entrance of Mephistopheles, the addition of rapid chords for the trombone makes it his own. We have the chords when Mephistopheles warns Faust of Marguerite’s approach, but as the piccolo is absent the cymbals are not marked, though the editors of the German edition have for some reason suggested their use.

    Kastner tells us, in the Supplement to his Treatise on Instrumentation, that a trombonist of the Opéra named Schiltz pointed out to him the possibility of making use of the first harmonics of the trombone (commonly called ‘pedals’), though, as he suggests, they were probably known before his time. On the ordinary scale of the tenor trombone the lowest note is E below the bass clef ; the highest of the pedals is the Bb below that, the other possible ones being the next three notes descending chromatically. (The interval between the E and the Bb, with the exception of the B natural, is nowadays bridged on the tenor-bass trombone by means of a valve manipulated by the thumb.) Hérold in Zampa (1831) wrote the highest pedal for ten bars, but it passes unperceived, since it is marked pp and serves as the bass of the horns and bassoons. When Berlioz used all four pedals in the ‘Hostias’ of his Requiem (1837) with only three flutes three and four octaves above them, the effect was considered as an absolutely new one, as indeed it was. Principally perhaps on account of this use of the pedals, which Berlioz ill-advisedly repeated in the last number of his work — probably because he was pressed for time — and gives in his Treatise, a modern writer has accused him of having ‘a whole hive of pedal-bees in his bonnet’. As a matter of fact he employs them no more than seven or eight times, and usually for harmonic reasons. The only bass instrument of brass he could depend on obtaining in French orchestras during the greater part of his career was the ophicleide, with the lowest note B natural below the bass clef. If he wanted a low Bb or A, unless he marked the rarely used ophicleide in Ab, he could not obtain it except by means of the trombone pedals. For this reason we find pedals at the commencement of the Te Deum, and at the end of the Hamlet March and the prelude to The Trojans at Carthage. A modern composer wanting the harsh effect of the diminished 7th (A-Gb) in the bass (second bar after the double bars in the March to Execution) would possibly give the higher note to the trombone and the lower to a tuba, as was indeed done in the first impressions of the score of the March in the German edition, though I suspect that in this case it was done to oblige the third German trombonist of those days, who would often play a bass instrument on which it was impossible to obtain the Bb and A — a curious method of editing the score of a French composer ! Berlioz only marked the pedals twice on account of their tone quality, that is, for their dramatic effect — in the Requiem and in the ‘Judex crederis’ of the Te Deum. In the Ride to the Abyss, where they are in the midst of low notes for the bass clarinet, four bassoons and ophicleides, any peculiarity of tone is imperceptible. Had he had contrabass and bass trombones, contrabass and ‘Wagner’ tubas at his disposal, his picture of the ‘hideous shape’ pursuing Faust might have been drawn otherwise.The highest pedal may be said to have entered into general circulation, and the rest we can find here and there in Elgar, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schönberg, and others. In any case Berlioz’s hive of pedal-bees was not a large one.

    The above somewhat technical remarks illustrate some points as regards Berlioz’s orchestration. One of the principal differences between the modern orchestra and that of Beethoven and Weber is that the former possesses a greater number of powerful brass instruments capable of descending into depths unknown to the classical masters. Berlioz was worse off than they since he had not at his disposal a true bass trombone. (The trombone basse of French orchestras was merely a tenor one playing the lowest notes.) He wrote for three tenor trombones, and preferred them, as he tells us in his Memoirs, finding that if the third were a bass one, it was apt to overpower the other two. And naturally he required the true tenor instrument, and not modern tenor-bass trombones, which are bass ones in F cut down to the length of the tenor. We all realize the impossibility of performing the scores of Bach or Handel as they were played under the composer’s own direction, but few of us consider whether we hear those of Weber and Berlioz as they heard them, putting aside the greater skill of modern players and the improved intonation of modern wood-wind instruments. Weber’s alto, tenor, and bass trombones are now too often three tenor-bass ones, with the thumb-piston attached to the third : the modern German horns are of larger bore, which, though it may give them increased facility in coping with the elaborate parts of modern scores, entails some loss of delicacy : the tone of the clarinet is less reedy and more flute-like : the trumpets are no longer true ones, but instruments of half their length, and (in Weber’s case) the tone of the bassoon is not the same, as the reed is narrower. The differences may be slight — possibly no greater than those which exist nowadays between two performances of a modern work given in (say) Munich and Paris — but they do exist. And in criticizing or studying the scores of a hundred years ago we must bear them in mind, not so much on account of the difference of tone quality, but as regards the laying out of the score. As the oboes and bassoons of Berlioz were not the same as those of his German contemporaries, his treatment of the instruments was not the same. The fact that he wrote for three (true) tenor trombones explains his preference for close harmony on the instruments, and accounts for some of his unisons on the three instruments. Had his third trombone been a bass one he might have disposed his parts differently, as he certainly would have done for that wonderful common chord of Eb that ushers in the ‘Tuba mirum’, with fourteen of his sixteen trombones concentrated on Eb in the bass clef.


1. La Gazette musicale, 10 Dec. 1837.

2. Correspondance inédite, letter of 19 Feb. 1837 [CG no. 486].

3. A rough rendering of brise, tord, souffle, gonfle et crève, impossible to translate literally.

4. Gossec, for his second Te Deum, demanded fifty serpents and an army of snare-drums.

5. Six trombones are employed only in the first, second, and sixth numbers of the Te Deum proper, but while they are duly marked at the head of the first two, the indications in the course of them merely refer to three instruments — ‘Les 3 unis’, ‘2e et 3e unis’ (only two trombones), and so on. In the sixth number, the ‘Judex’, we find ‘1ers Tromb.’, i.e. two instruments for the part.

6. Battre aux champs is an expression applied to a somewhat irregular ‘battery’ for the drums of a regiment as a salute for a superior officer.

7. ‘Histoire de l’orchestration’ in the Encyclopédie de la musique, Part II. Unfortunately the authors have disfigured an otherwise admirable section by relying too much on the German edition and those in miniature score, with the result that they have been guilty of statements directly contrary to facts, such as declaring that Berlioz used mutes for his horns ‘fairly frequently’.

8. For his song On the Lagoons, for his arrangement of Schubert’s Erl-King, and for the fourth horn in the Hunt in The Damnation of Faust.

9. They are supposed to be always placed within brackets, but the plan is very far from being strictly carried out. Often it is impossible to know what emanates from the composer and what from his editors.

10. Throughout the German edition the notes to be plucked are indicated by notes with open diamond-shapes heads. As Bizet had already used these to indicate the real sounds, and as such notes are employed in violin practice with another signification, the method has little to commend it.

11. Op. cit.

12. While admitting that those indications are to be found in Berlioz’s autograph, the editors of the German edition have altered them, declaring that there is no reason for them. It may be so, though I doubt whether Berlioz often penned nuances without reason. He might at any rate be given the benefit of the doubt in a ‘faithful’ edition of his works. To assume that one is acting ‘in conformity with the evident intention’ of one’s author by deliberately ignoring what he has plainly set down would seem to be a dubious proceeding. (My italics.)

13. The point is doubtful, but, judging from the French edition, I fancy that for the five bars commencing twenty-four bars from the end of the march the bass drum plays alone, and not in unison with the cymbals, as in the German edition. The notes have no tails pointing downwards to indicate the latter.

14. Art and Commonsense, the Medici Society, 1932.

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