This interview with Sir John Eliot Gardiner was conducted by Anja-Rosa Thöming in August 2023, shortly before the first of a series of complete concert performances of Berlioz’ opera Les Troyens which were to be given on August 22-23 (at La Côte Saint-André), 26 August (Salzburg), 29 August (Versailles), 1 September (Berlin), and 3 September (London, BBC Proms). In the event Sir John only conducted the performance on 22 August, and was replaced for the remaining performances by his assistant Dinis Sousa. For details of the performances see the entries for August and September 2023 in the Archive of performances of Berlioz’ music.
The interview was originally published in German on August 17th in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. We are very grateful to Dr. Thöming for sending us the original English text of the interview for publication on this site. © Anja-Rosa Thöming.
The music of Berlioz is very much appreciated or even loved in the English speaking world, especially in Britain. In the 1960s Sir Colin Davis conducted several concert performances of Les Troyens year after year. In 1968 a critical edition of the score was presented by Hugh Macdonald and published by Bärenreiter. Could you talk of your first experiences with the music of Berlioz and, more specifically, with Les Troyens?
John Eliot Gardiner
I first came across Berlioz in my teens when I heard a performance with the London Symphony Orchestra and Colin Davis. I was completely “bouleversé”, overwhelmed by the sonority of Berlioz’ music, so different from anything I’ve ever heard in terms of its variety, its imaginative use of instruments, its colour, its incredible rhythmical zest and imaginative power. That was confirmed at university when I played under Colin Davis’ baton in some of the operas and Berlioz concerts. But that only grew into something significant and real when I was at the Opéra de Lyon where I started a new orchestra. I visited La Côte St. André (1 1/2 hours drive from Lyon), his hometown which brings his whole life into focus. You can visit the house where he was born in, the bed that he slept in, the books that he read with his father, Dr. Berlioz, the landscape that he looked out into, the Dauphiné, and how much that influenced his whole “Wesen”, his whole being. You can hear his perception of nature in the scene “Nature immense” in the Damnation de Faust.
The family letters in the Berlioz Museum are very touching as well…
Yes, I collect Berlioz’ letters. My strong feeling is that if Berlioz had never written one note of music he would be recognized as one of the most interesting romantic writers, because of his use of French literature, and his use of the French language in its written form was exceptional. All his literary sympathies which started with Virgil and Homer which his father read to him and continued with Shakespeare and Goethe and Schiller. They are all in evidence in his criticisms and letters. One shouldn’t ignore the impact of Berlioz’ literary background.
Les Troyens is based on the classical epic poem the “Aeneid” by Virgil. Berlioz learnt it as a boy in Latin with his father and obviously loved the poem very much. Later, as an experienced composer, he must have been struck by the idea to actually transform these “chants” of Virgil first into French, then into his music. How could his imagination of “singing” — also regarding the orchestra — be described?
That’s a huge subject. There’s no question that his love for Virgil from his childhood onwards is almost an obsession, and his thoughts about composing a grand opéra on the subject of the Trojan war started early but came into fruition only in the 1860s at the end of his life and it is his masterpiece. In my judgement it is a misunderstood and superb summation of his whole life’s work. Berlioz is a romantic radical in his desire to express the inexpressible but he is also a classicist. He is deeply influenced by the symphonies of Beethoven and there is also a continuity with Mozart. There are many conventional and classical elements to Berlioz’ writing in Les Troyens. So you’ve got this contrast between a romantic spirit and a classical form. You've got a huge amount of radicality in the way that he approaches the narration and there is a tension between that and the lyricism in the second part, The Trojans in Carthage.
The first part, La Prise de Troie, has an inexorable drive which leaves you breathless. It ends with the suicide of Cassandre and the Trojan women and that has an enormous impact, whereas the second part is much more of a lyrical contemplation, a more romantic evocation in a sensual way. The love story which of course is torpedoed by fate by Aeneas being told by the ghost of Hector that he has to follow his destiny to go to Rome to establish a new civilization.
To me that is so powerful today because the whole tension of Les Troyens is something that we are experiencing in our society today; the war in Ukraine is an example of it. Everytime I am looking at the score preparing for the performances we are about to do I keep seeing resonances, a brutal military power and the suffering of the conquered people which brings back the whole situation of the Trojans as they are invaded by the Greeks.
One has to remember that Les Troyens was misunderstood, ignored, derided, mocked by French audiences for many many years. It had been given as opening of the new Opéra Bastille in 1989 but it was not complete. When we gave it in 2003 at the Théâtre Châtelet in one evening it was complete and it was a breakthrough with the audiences who were very sceptical about Berlioz and his art.
The intensity and the passion as well as the orchestral colours that had never been heard before in the use of the saxhorns were part of this breakthrough, and I was very proud of that and encouraged because performances are now much more common, although sadly they don’t use Berlioz’ instrumentation. Berlioz was a friend and great defender of Adolphe Sax the famous instrument maker of the saxophone, but people forget that it was his saxhorns that were the radical novelty of the day because he built them for military use in the French army to arouse soldiers to go into battle. They have a totally different sonority to their modern equivalents. Between the lowest instruments to the very high little / petit saxhorn suraigu in E-flat they have a way of tapping into the emotion in a more immediate way than any other brass instrument that I know of.
You founded L’Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique to perform music of the late 18th to mid 19th century with instruments of the period. Berlioz has a clear idea of instrumentation in Les Troyens. How challenging is it to follow these instructions?
We are very lucky to have come across a private collector of French brass instruments who was kind enough to lend us his collection of brass instruments, especially saxhorns. They are so special and so integral to the impact that Berlioz is trying to create; they just have a different colour. In his libretto he refers to Phrygian trumpets for example. And there is also the haunting call of the hunting instruments in the scene with Hector’s ghost.
In the score Berlioz writes that apart from the ordinary theatre chorus a performance will need around a hundred additional voices.
I am afraid we can’t afford that. But you have to remember that the opera chorus in Berlioz’ time was not of a great quality. They weren’t particularly disciplined or vocally flexible or powerful.
With the Monteverdi choir I have a chorus that I think and believe and hope will do justice to Berlioz’ choral writing in Les Troyens.
Cassandre in the first part and Didon in the second part are the two fascinating main roles for high mezzo-soprano. Could you comment on Berlioz’ approach to the human voice in Les Troyens?
In the 1840s, 50s and 60s Berlioz was struggling to find enough of the voices of quality that he was looking for; he describes it in “A travers chants” — a wonderful book. He wanted singers who have purity of vocal emission, a command of the French prosody, the language, who have the rhythm and intelligence to follow the inflections of the French language and also to be respectful of the composer and of his works.
He had a wonderful ally in Pauline Viardot, the famous French mezzo. But unfortunately her voice had gone by the time of 1863. She was upset, höchst beleidigt, that she didn’t get the part of Dido.
Apart from mortal men and women Berlioz introduces the voice of Mercury the God and the voices of ghosts, the ghosts of Hector, Cassandre and Priam. Would you agree that Berlioz created a musical connection to the other world, the world of myth?
Yes. He learnt that partly from Gluck. His musical heroes were Gluck, Beethoven, Weber and Spontini. Certainly in Der Freischütz and even more in Gluck’s Orphée and in Alceste there are “unheimliche Stimmen” and that’s what he's trying to do in the ombre scenes, there are spooky connections with the other world, with the underworld.
And he had the imagination how to use those voices and how to underscore those voices with amazingly original orchestral timbre. Particularly when the “ombre d’Hector” is addressing Aeneas accompanied by cors bouchés, which creates a really weird, eerie sensation. It’s magical.
Why is Les Troyens misunderstood? If we perceive the opera without prejudice, even if it is such a huge work, it appears to be accessible, even entertaining because of its variety.
I agree totally, it’s accessible, entertaining and very touching. It’s emotionally harrowing. When you think of the suicide of Cassandre and the Trojan women in the first part, or, in the second part, Dido’s situation is unbelievably harrowing.
But it’s complex and the French musicians found it very difficult and challenging at the time.
It is paradox: The French are the most chauvinistic people on earth when it comes to their wine, their food, their haute couture, their literature, their painting, their sculpture, but not when it comes to music.
It always puzzles me, till very recently, this reticence about their own homegrown music and composers, for example Jean-Philippe Rameau, the exact contemporary of Bach, how difficult he found it to get his music appreciated.
Berlioz was up against so much prejudice in his own time, and the audience was very fickle and unsupportive and didn’t like the fact that he was a music critic as well as a composer, they found that peculiar. They didn’t understand his wild expressions of fantasy and it was the range of his imagination that was disturbing to them. They found Wagner’s Tannhäuser which was staged just before Les Troyens much more to their taste, and Verdi’s Rigoletto. So you have this tragedy that the French to a large extent rejected his music which was neglected in the second half of the 19th century. And it’s really abroad that his music was valued, in Germany certainly, in Dresden, in Leipzig, in Russia and in London.
The revival of Berlioz started really with British conductors, first Thomas Beecham, then Colin Davis. It’s so encouraging that the French themselves now have woken up to the greatness of Berlioz. When I conducted the Symphonie fantastique recently in Paris I worked trying to recapture with the orchestra the colour, the passion and the rhetoric that’s in the music. Things are much better now.
You will begin this extraordinary tour with Les Troyens — 5 performances in 13 days in 3 countries — in La Côte Saint-André, hometown of Hector Berlioz; is this a special place for you to conduct his music?
Very much so. The whole town is a buzz. The people flock there now.
It’s a wonderful place, evocative. The landscape has not changed much, on clear days you see above the plain of the Dauphiné and you can see the Alps in the background.
Will you perform Les Troyens in all venues, in Salzburg, in Versailles, in Berlin as a concert piece?
Not entirely. We’re performing in concert halls so we don’t have a full scale production. But there will be movement, there will be action and there will be some surprises, there will be a bonus for those who expect a concert performance.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 1 September 2023.
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