This page has been created to provide a forum for people from around the world to share and exchange their experience and encounters with Berlioz’s music. You are invited to contribute to this page if you would like to share your feelings about and views on Berlioz and his music. Please email us your contribution; it will appear here under your own name. There is also a counterpart to this page in French, Berlioz, sa musique et vous.
We are most grateful to John Winterbottom whose account of his personal experience with Berlioz’s music was the inspiration behind this page. He subsequently responded warmly to our invitation to make the first contribution to the page.
Last update: 6 February 2014
Copyright notice: Contributions published on this page are the intellectual property of their respective authors and are subject to UK and International Copyright Laws. Their use/reproduction without the authors’ explicit permission is illegal.
Berlioz saves the Proms! – by Edward Venner
Just looking at your site again and in particular the various memories of people getting to know HB’s music I was put in mind of something rather fantastic which I felt might be of some interest to you, whilst thinking about my Berlioz experiences: Roman Carnival as a teenager, Cellini at Covent Garden in 1976; Harold in Italy in 1981 under de Burgos in Basle – my few Berlioz Gramophone Records and this:
It was – I am not sure of the year – probably the early 1990s, and there was a strike of (I think) all the orchestras at the time (July) of the commencement of the Promenade Concerts in London’s Royal Albert Hall. A week or so passed and eventually to everyone’s relief amid rising annoyance the strike was finally settled. The earlier concerts were gone – written off – but the first work of the now delayed start of the Proms was the Symphonie Fantastique (the BBCSO – relieved to be performing again – I think). Was there ever a more appropriate start to a delayed Proms than that! – it was as if – especially in the last two movements – Berlioz was commenting on the frustrations caused by the strike. The Prommers were ecstatic at the end, as well they might be – I heard it on the radio but the atmosphere was unmistakable. I find it difficult to find the words to adequately describe the experience.
First Encounters with Berlioz – by Adam Ridley
In the autumn of 1955 I joined my school orchestra. The centrepiece of our next concert was Bizet’s Arlésienne Suite. For someone familiar only with the traditional Austro-German orchestral repertoire and modestly so at that, Bizet was a delicious surprise: transparent textures, sparkling instrumentation, urgent rhythms and a clarity… where did it come from? After the concert, my music-loving mother told me that if I liked Bizet so much, I would love Berlioz. I should try his Symphonie Fantastique. So I borrowed the 1953 LP by Markovich and the Berlin Philharmonic from the school record library.
We could only listen to records at school on the house’s cheap early 1950s radiogram, with its worn needle, plummy bass and thin distorted treble, at inconvenient times in the bleak, unheated recreation room of the sanatorium. To make matters worse, this LP was dusty, crackly and scratched, like so many library records. Nonetheless, I was bewitched as soon as the Idée fixe appeared. What on earth was this wayward, hesitating, mesmerising tune with its erratic accompaniment? The sleeve notes were of no use as they had been largely torn away… the Scène Au Bal at least was familiar ground; but what were harps doing in a "symphony"? And as for the last two movements… how could anyone write music like this only a few years after Beethoven’s death?
If I wished to get to grips with what Berlioz was up to, my mother suggested I should read his memoirs. He was, she said, a brilliant author and had written graphically about the extraordinary circumstances of the composition and its early performances. I doubted his writing could match his music. But I quickly found myself swept up by his passions, his enemies, his bêtes noires and his prose. At the same time, to a romantic teenager at a boys-only school his accounts of Harriet and Estelle glowed like an illuminated manuscript.
But then a surprise: l’Enfance du Christ, in a Christmas broadcast (possibly by Adrian Boult and BBC forces). Not at all what I had expected. One or two lollipops, but otherwise so archaic and subdued. What had become of the scintillating young Berlioz? My interest waned. And then, one day, I found a second-hand Decca 78 rpm (short play, shellac) of the Carnaval Romain played by the LPO under Victor de Sabata, probably recorded shortly after the war. It was in good condition, and sounded very well on the family’s pre-war EMG Handmade Gramophone. This marvellous anachronism reproduced sound acoustically via a triangular Burmese cane needle held directly against a metal diaphragm at the end of an immense papier mâché horn. Once again Berlioz worked his magic, and my enthusiasm was rekindled, at a time when by chance the Covent Garden Trojans and the activities of Sir T. Beecham were provoking a growing flow of critical interest and public comment.
Back I went to my reading, this time determined to spread the word. So in 1959, in the teeth of friendly puzzlement and scepticism, I delivered a half hour talk on Berlioz to fellow 6th-formers in the school essay society, without the support of any musical examples. Thanks to Berlioz himself and the brilliant passages I was able to quote from his memoirs, the talk intrigued and interested even the most musically philistine of my contemporaries… and 53 years later I continue to spread the good news.
Berlioz: My Guide – by Marcella Acone
I am just a newcomer to the classical music world. I ‘met’ Hector Berlioz at one of my last exams at university, and I just knew nothing about music or about him. I could not ignore such a great personality.
The first thing our professor said about him was, almost literally: this man is mad. That awful statement made me think: I am going to like him. Then he started with a little resumé of Berlioz’s biography: the escapade from Rome to Paris [in 1831], the Machiavellian plan to kill three people and himself, all that kind of stories... which were far from making me think badly about him! And we listened to the Symphonie fantastique... That was better than a movie: I could exactly imagine what Berlioz was thinking, and at the same time I was free to see his dreams in my personal way. So he guided me, and that satisfied me.
I know very little about the great operas of Berlioz, I cannot say more than that I admire him, and that I have read almost 10 different biographies of him since my first lesson about his music. I am not a musician, I can only read music... like a 3 year old child... But I think I am an artist, and I feel very close to everything I read about Berlioz. So my only way to let the world know of my passion is by drawing it.
I would like to explain better the matter of the guide... not only in music, but in a more general way. He was not only a musician, of course... He was a story-teller, a great and learned man, a bright and living spirit, full of energy... he had no frontiers. I adopted him as a point of reference not only in music but in history, and, because I am always out of the world, in how to face life; I know perfectly how many differences in culture and in time divide us (not to mention the fact that I am a girl...), but I try to have him as an example, to work hard, to follow dreams and not to be let down by accidents... even if they happen to be huge... I also know that a man with a great and brazen personality like him could not be easy to deal with... but I do not expect this of an artist. Even if he is far in time and in place, I sometimes feel I know him.
For his time, he was too much. But we do not have to forget how hard education was in that century: young people like him had every reason to run away from their world, too full of rules to follow, conventions, social obligations... Berlioz had never been rude, even when speaking about great passions or orgy scenes. Never hypocritical, always sincere. And always faultless. That is how I imagined him, reading about him and listening to his music.
I invented a lot of stories, I mixed up centuries and names, but he himself is clearly recognisable. I portrayed him as some might imagine him: with black hair and dark eyes, circled in black and with shadows under them (proof of the fact he never shuns hard reflections and work). The Mediterranean soul, an ideal representation (I did the same with Mendelssohn, but reversing colours and showing him as a ‘boy of light’). There is no pretence of reality, just my clumsy way of saying: That is it, I like it!
I thought I was making it up when I made drawings about the great friendship between Berlioz and Mendelssohn: I was fascinated by the great difference of their personalities, and I wondered how one could put them together; then I discovered that it was true. Berlioz and Mendelssohn did meet in Rome in 1831 then again in Leipzig in 1843 when they exchanged their batons as conductors.
I know only the Symphonie fantastique and the titles of his other masterpieces. It is the first time, after ages, that a person who really lived interests me so much, so this is my best way of showing it.
With my first sketches, while I was studying for that exam, I had a dream of Berlioz as a pirate... so... But in the last ones I tried to follow a different path, and my character changed, being closer to the real one. He is always himself, however.
It is a work I am proud of, though I am hardly even a beginner in this kind of world.
See also on this site Berlioz sketches by Marcella Acone.
My Litany of Love – by Alan Merryweather
|A prophet is not without honour, save in his
own country and in his own house.
St Luke 11 57
This backwards glance through memories of a lifetime’s devotion to the life and music of Hector Berlioz was prompted by the grotesque English National Opera production of The Trojans in October 2004 along with the discovery of this exceptional website, enabling me to give birth to my thoughts. Some is nostalgia of little consequence but I hope that it will be of interest to all enthusiasts.
Born in London in 1934, I was put to the piano but never found any particular pleasure in music, until something strange happened at the end of 1949. In those post-war days, the BBC broadcast only three programmes, the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme, this last being considered very esoteric. We were mainly Home Service (now Radio 4) listeners and the wireless was frequently on. Almost every day and some evenings an orchestral concert was broadcast, so unconsciously I absorbed lots of good music.
In the school holidays, Haydn’s 104th was played on the 29th December and I must have paid some attention to it as in the night I had a kind of numinous experience, waking and sitting up in bed and ‘hearing’ some of it. (Bars 20-23, 1st movement as I learned later). It might have passed for just another soon-forgotten dream, but surprisingly (for those days), the symphony was broadcast again the very next day on the Light Programme and I made a point of hearing it. Interest aroused, I became totally absorbed in classical music, listening to everything I could, making lists of works heard and when, and starting to read biographies. School work suffered, so obsessive it all became.
We were not so bombarded then as now, with so many different kinds of music / noise so some of it was very hard to get used to, such as Delius and Sibelius. The first time I heard a Martinu symphony, I couldn’t believe the sounds that reached my ears as they seemed so totally extreme and crazy. Musically immature, the Romantics did not always make for easy listening either. Brahms seemed particularly dense and impenetrable, but I persevered.
An unexpected musical experience was our class being taken from school one morning to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden without any warning, for a performance of Barbarina, the reduced version of The Marriage of Figaro. In that still grey, post-war world it was something that readily imprinted itself vividly on my memory. I’m pretty sure that Geraint Evans was one of the singers. Around 1990 when I went there with my wife for a dress rehearsal of the full opera I sat in the same seat, or one very near it.
Back to around 1950. One evening, on the same radio, standing in the corner of same room as it was when the Neville Chamberlain gave his memorable speech of the declaration of war against Nazi Germany some ten years or so earlier, I heard the Roman Carnival overture. It attracted me as it seemed unusual but disjointed, and a little sad. But it also intrigued so much I had to investigate it further along with the life of its composer. Berlioz was beckoning.
Was that experience the seed which fell on ground partly prepared by being hopelessly in love-at-first-sight from the age of about 12 and from the influence of my eccentric church choirmaster Albert Frederick Bolton? Whatever, heady Berlioz and an impressionable mind meant the start of a lifelong love-affair and an allegiance which has never faded.
My first Master Musicians biography, Handel, was bought in early 1950, then Haydn and Mozart. J H Elliot’s book on Berlioz in the same series was a Christmas present from my girlfriend – but the inscription was cut out following heartbreak.
I still have a 1951 Christmas present, a first edition of Barzun’s Berlioz and the Romantic Century and writing these notes has prompted me into reading it again.
I was fortunate that my school was near a library which had a record lending department and heaps of scores. At that time, although the library didn’t stock all of them, it might have been possible to carry under one arm all the then current Berlioz shellac 78s recordings. I probably started with the Fantastique as I wanted a preliminary hearing before a performance at the Royal Albert Hall. I sat in the arena one afternoon and heard Victor de Sabata’s rendering. The Waltz had been easily assimilated from the discs but the rest really needed more time to mature in the mind before the concert, so I was insufficiently prepared and it was a bit disappointing. Being so very earnest then, I didn’t think much of a violinist who I believe was the late Granville Delmé Jones sharing a private joke with another fiddler, grinning at each other during a tremolo passage of the Scène aux Champs. And in my ignorance, I was disappointed at finding that real bells were not used.
However the most important revelation was to be the Serge Koussevitzky Harold en Italie which became totally captivating. Making sense of it was aided by the Eulenberg miniature score and understanding gradually emerged out of the fine chromatic fugal Introduction. The violist was William Primrose. These discs (recorded in 1944) were accompanied by as much reading as was possible mainly from Elliot’s biography. Its overall negative critical comment allied to Berlioz’s rather sad life made it a dispiriting read. Although it was republished in 1969, in a new Preface the author said he saw no reason to revise his opinions of more than thirty years previously, which had repeatedly criticised Berlioz for ‘unevenness’, ‘lack of staying power [and] musical maturity’.
My exasperated father rented for a few pence a week, an extension speaker from Radio Rentals, (yes, it sounds odd but that was how most people acquired radio apparatus then). I could now have my music on in the kitchen relayed from our small living room’s newly acquired Ferguson automatic radiogram and the rest of the family got some peace. We argued much about loudness and I was totally unreasonable of course. Much later, Dad vicariously got his revenge by my being tormented by the next generation; the illiterate heavy metal row my son played.
After replacing the radiogram’s automatic turntable with the cheapest Decca 33? rpm model, (another row with Dad!), I saved up the money to buy an unbreakable LP, issued 1952 of Roméo et Juliette excerpts and the Royal Hunt and Storm. The Paris Conservatoire Orchestra under Charles Munch played on this Decca disc and the French horns had that silky sound not heard so often nowadays.
The seemingly meaningless meandering violins of the opening of Roméo seul made sense as a typical fine Berliozian melody once it had matured in my mind. The later purchase of the HMV complete Munch Roméo was revelatory. The days of puzzling over the miniature score wondering what the unheard music sounded like were over. The spiritual love scene, the agonies of the tomb scene! And how brilliantly Berlioz captured the gathering of the anxious and excitable Montagues and Capulets and their retinues at the end of the work.
By the way, full price 12" LPs cost nearly £2.00 each – a huge chunk from my starting salary of £3.12 0 (£3.60) per week. Decca, (who dropped the term unbreakable in favour of flexible), had been the first UK company to issue LPs whereupon HMV archly declared that they saw no future for the format – but they had to relent some fourteen months later.
Among the first clutch of Decca LPs was a work almost unknown at the time, Les Nuits d’été sung by Suzanne Danco with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Thor Johnson. Despite this being a cheaper 10" disc, price had put it beyond reach.
This was before I left home to go into the Royal Air Force, serving mostly in the Egyptian Canal Zone where I bought (purchase tax free!) Beecham’s Te Deum and Scherchen’s Les Troyens à Carthage. I managed to hear the Te Deum there once only – a wall of sound which later needed repeated hearings to appreciate. Alas, the parcel sent back to the UK containing these discs was opened by Customs and they scratched the delicate LP surfaces.
Excepting Sir Walford Davies’ March Past, oft heard on the parade ground, the RAF was a musical desert so these works were much played during the holiday I took before going back to office life.
Berlioz could not have known Masefield’s Where does the uttered Music go? but all the music on these discs is deeply, deeply embedded in the walls of my London home – and much more in all the other houses since lived in. I don’t think it’s solely because she was my first Dido that I still regard Arda Mandikian as the finest. for her passionate, Latinate approach to the role. Like most of the other principals who may not have the finest of voices, she has a rare clarity of delivery which I value over richness of tone. Also, I adore French nasal tone.
In those days when there were few works performed, and there was a tendency to see Berliozians as a vocal minority of irrational and prejudiced zealots whose hero could do no wrong, it was a rare privilege that my second live Berlioz event was the Carl Rosa Opera’s Benvenuto Cellini at the New Wimbledon Theatre. A Society member guided me through the work and I think I met Ron Bernheim there and noticed in the audience a very short comedy film actor who I believe was Robertson Hare.
What a joy to have been at Covent Garden on the 14th June 1957 for The Trojans. The conductor was Raphael Kubelik with Jon Vickers and Amy Shuard (Cassandra), Blanche Thebom (Dido) and Lauris Elms (Anna). A clear recollection is of Thebom circling the funeral pyre with her waist-length auburn hair; but my treasured programme, (now in the Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin archive), shows Elms as Dido and Thebom as her sister, Anna. I took the opportunity to e-mail Joan Carlyle who sang Ascanius and she confirms that Thebom did indeed sing Dido, and Elms her sister Anna. Closer examination of the programme shows that Dido and Anna’s details had been reversed. Joan Carlyle also mentioned Dido’s ‘ENORMOUS diamond ring’ which as Ascanius she would have playfully removed just before the Act 4 quintet.
A treasured memory is of a devoted operagoer friend from our local gramophone society who came up to me after the performance. Enraptured, referring specially to the love duet he said, "Now I know what you mean about Berlioz!"
Rhydderch Davies, who went on to greater things, was the second soldier. It was very sad to hear him relate in a 2004 radio broadcast that he lost his voice and had to work as a taxi driver.
The purple-covered catalogue of the magnificent 1969 Centenary Exhibition Berlioz and the Romantic Imagination at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London is a richly illustrated mine of information. To have seen the score of the Te Deum loaned from Russia and so many pictures, letters, prints and memorabilia and so on all in one place was a special privilege. And how touching was a corner exhibit where one stepped up and stood in front of a small semicircular velvet padded barrier, (as if at the front of a dress circle), and peered down quite a long way it seemed, at a small stage on which a tiny Ophelia, dressed in white appeared and re-appeared and maybe spoke a few words.
Berlioz truly had arrived – in Britain at least.
This was the same year that I was with David Suffolk my closest friend over the past 54 years, a very knowledgeable Berliozian, when we heard the Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale and the Te Deum in St Paul’s Cathedral, sitting well back in the nave. A better place would have been the choir stalls where I sang for several years at the annual December Church Army service when in a church choir. Family priorities were probably why we were not together when a few days later David went to hear the Requiem at the same place.
We’d become pen pals through the Berlioz Society when I was in Egypt after I took up David’s offer to buy photographs of Berlioz which he was printing. (He now tells me he copied them from Barzun. Tut, tut!).
It is fair to say that I’ve ‘kept the faith’ less consistently than David, but my ardour has been no less.
I missed being a founder member of the Society by a month or two. The roneoed pages of the Bulletins were read and re-read, all the time learning more. The American Berlioz Society started a little later and their output arrived as well. These documents would be of great interest now but did not survive one of my house moves.
Berlioz was served well in 1969 as the centenary of his death coincided with the City of London Festival. Despite tickets being hard to obtain, (and very expensive as also was the 100 mile journey to London), I phoned Covent Garden to try to get to Benvenuto Cellini under John Pritchard and was lucky. But shortly afterwards the box office phoned back and said there had been a mistake and the booking was cancelled. The spirit in me of Berlioz militant was aroused. I reminded them of the law of contract, (of which I knew very little), and somehow the booking could be honoured after all. Quite why I sat among about a dozen empty seats I know not. Immense care had been taken to restore to this production some of the cuts and revisions the work suffered from in the composer’s lifetime.
Opinion about Berlioz has changed greatly over the past hundred years. For example, in The Story of Opera (E Markham Lee, 1909), he is curtly dismissed:-
Passing over that eccentric genius, Hector Berlioz who made a few bids for popularity in operatic composition, with remarkable lack of success, we must notice the brilliant Auber … .’
That comment is partly counterbalanced by:-
An eccentric genius among musicians. Wrote operas such at Les Troyens and Benvenuto Cellini which contain fine music, but which have never pleased the public and remain practically unperformed.
Cellini had been unjustly neglected, and it’s not hard to see why Berlioz was so deeply wounded by its rejection and treatment in France and England. With my wife I was at Covent Garden in 1972 for the Colin Davis Trojans. The production was traditional and sumptuous with a brilliant solution giving credibility to the Trojan horse whose legs only could be seen, thus implying its huge size. Cassandra with the chorus of Trojan Women had seemed a dull and lengthy tuneless episode in the Kubelik production, but as always Berlioz knew best and familiarity with the music and its being played at a decent speed has revealed superb melodies of which I never tire.
The Dido and Aeneas love duet ended most beautifully with the couple, their voices fading and echoing as they slowly walked hand in hand towards the back of the stage.
The mezzo-soprano Marie Collier who was the head of the Greek women in the earlier production had originally been chosen to sing Dido, but at a party held to celebrate the forthcoming event, she fell from a window in Leicester Square, London, tragically dying from her injuries.
The production was everything I believe Berlioz would have wanted; i.e. the staging was founded on his directions. His vision of Virgil’s Carthage was a Romantic one from paintings by artists such as Turner, Guérin and Delacroix and being immersed in this tradition I cannot come to terms with the nonsensical 2004 smouldering aircraft wing, jump suits and table dancing. There are several tart quotes from Berlioz’s writings which I believe he’d hurl at the perpetrators of such travesties.
It has taken many years before being able to enjoy Aeneas’s Inutile regrets to the full. I’ve never heard the Georges Thill 78, described in The Record Guide (Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Edward Sackville-West) as ‘the loudest record ever made’. (I wonder where my first edition copy of this book is now, readily identifiable with my name written in it).
In 1990 I was alone at the London Coliseum for the colourful English National Opera production of Beatrice and Benedict. I don’t know the exact date, so the Beatrice could have been either Ann Murray or Ethna Robinson and as Benedict, Philip Langridge (Ann Murray’s husband), conducted by Mark Elder or Lionel Friend. David Suffolk was with me at the Royal Festival Hall in August(?) 1992 for the same work, with John Wells as a rather unfunny narrator.
David reminded me that on our annual jaunt to the Royal Albert Hall Proms we heard the Requiem on the 23 July 2000. The combined Orchestra of the Guidhall School of Muisc & Dram and the Paris Conservatoire were conducted by Colin Davis.
Again with David, at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham on the 6 January 2000 for a powerful and, as we were at the front of the stalls, at times an ear-splitting Requiem under Roger Norrington. How good to know that there were (and are), so many talented youngsters in the Youth Orchestra of Great Britain equal to the task of performing this work.
I self-published my family history in September 2000, heading the Preface with Berlioz’s words ‘I have lived my life with this race ... I know them so well that I feel they must have known me.’
Serendipity took a hand when I was transcribing for the Friends of The National Archives (formerly Friends of the Public Record Office). One project I contributed to entailed inputting from the large registers, written in beautiful copperplate, full descriptions of 250,000 copyrighted 19C photographs in the care of TNA.
COPY 1/405 folio 211
21 Jul 1891
Photograph of Celebrated musicians: Kriehuber [portraitist], Berlioz, Czerny, Liszt and Ernst (Copy annexed)
Name and Place of Abode of Proprietor of Copyright. Joseph Percival Crawley, 140 Stephens Green, Dublin.
Name and Place of Abode of Author of Work: Joseph Percival Crawley, 140 Stephens Green, Dublin
Kriehuber’s original print was dated 1846.
And now for a particularly pleasurable episode. My night school French tutor had urged a visit to Le Parc de Monceau, despite its being well away from the main Paris tourist areas. So, with my wife, during a short holiday we walked there very early one October morning and found it to be a place of much charm and beauty. It was made especially attractive by the morning mist swirling in the gentle breeze allowing brighter light to break through. Parisians were hurrying to work and a lady was feeding the birds. It was well worth all the walking.
It is a park of shady walks, leafy bowers, ponds, imitation natural springs, an Egyptian pyramid, a Dutch windmill and so on – everything that makes for complete informality. The famous Naumachie, a pond surrounded by a semi-circular colonnade of fluted Corinthian columns, partly broken, partly missing, is so overgrown with vines that it looks as though it has been standing there for centuries. Contrasted with the splendid formal Parisian gardens, there is absolutely no order here. The trees grow naturally, the walks curve around in the most unexpected manner, and everywhere remnants of broken Roman columns, archways, parts of ancient ruins, forgotten statuary.
So where is the Berlioz connection? A re-reading of Cairns Volume 2. Servitude and Greatness, provided a pleasant surprise on reaching p.718 which recounts Berlioz’s visits around 1864 to this very park, one of his favourite haunts where he liked to go very early enjoying it in the first light of dawn. In a letter to Pauline Viardot he wrote:-
I own a fine garden which costs me nothing, despite the two or three gardeners who are kept busy constantly tidying it and varying its adornments.
Some of the above detail about the park was cribbed from its website. I asked for the description to be expanded to refer to the above quotation. Within a day it was changed, not quite in the way I wanted, but at least our hero now gets a well-deserved mention.
Remarkable too, was that at about the same time the House of
Commons was debating the vexed subject of Living Wills, I’d been reading
Cairns Vol 2, p.444 where Berlioz’s agnostic views on euthanasia are quoted
from a letter to his sister Adèle, following the death of their sister Nancy.
Miscellaneous Berlioz connections and ephemera
At the 1969 London Exhibition, two commemorative ceramics ashtrays were on sale, one of them had Berlioz’s head on it.
Ci-gît une Rose que tous les rois vont jalouser (Here lies a rose that every king will envy), from the final verse of Le Spectre de la Rose were words that came to mind at the time of Princess Diana’s death. I wondered if they might make an appropriate epitaph, but as time passes they seem less and less appropriate.
It must be nearly 50 years ago that BBC televised a serial The Infamous John Friend, (Mrs R S Garnett, 1909), a tale woven into Napoleonic times. The late Barry Foster played a leading part. This turned out to be a mini festival of Berlioz excerpts. I can’t recall any apart from each episode being introduced by the opening bars of the 4th movement of Harold en Italie.
I was able to make a third visit to La Côte St André in 2005 to pay homage and tour the enlarged museum. When I was there about 5 years before, the assistante de conservation of the Museum, Madame Paris, coped with my schoolboy French and seemed impressed with my lifetime’s devotion to the man whose home she guarded, and she produced the Visitor’s book for me to sign. Alas, fine words failed me so my entry is rather feeble – made all the worse since many illustrious musicians have signed and commented.
A person born around the year of Berlioz’s death could have heard only a fraction of his output so I’m specially privileged by having heard almost all of it. But nothing can recapture those far-off days, (Gone alas like our youth, too soon), when so little of the music was accessible and one had to let the imagination take over from books. Only later came the joy of hearing the music itself. Today those circumstances would be difficult to encounter.
To my mind, there are two central enigmas surrounding Berlioz and his music. The first is the wonderment at how a youth from remote rural France could have arrived in Paris with comparatively little musical knowledge and in a few short years produce a symphony of such maturity. But this is the equivalent of pondering what Mozart or Schubert might have achieved had they lived to old age – and is rather pointless. The second is why Berlioz exerts such a hold on his admirers. His music can take a long time to work its way into the mind but even after repeated hearings it comes up fresh time after time, always with more to discover and enjoy. Like Christmas carols, the music never tarnishes. His life being inseparable from the music and so very interesting, has much to do with this endless fascination.
It is so very hard to choose my favourite Berlioz music. The four successive items, from Act 4 Scene 2 of Les Troyens, Iopas’s aria to the end of the love duet would be the last music I would hope to hear on this earth. If pressed to refine this choice it would be the quintet in which the shade of Berlioz’s beloved Gluck, which broods throughout much of the opera, is particularly evident.
My musical voyage of discovery, the journey of a lifetime, continued with performances in 2007 of La Damnation de Faust at Birmingham and Benvenuto Cellini at the Barbican is coming towards an end; but it is good to know that the music and reputation of this truly great and fascinating man is in good hands, in this country at least. Whatever part I’ve played is but a very tiny one of support, but I hope that it has helped to keep the torch aflame, to carry it forward and add lustre to the man, who in Elliot’s words, ‘remains himself, Hector Berlioz, the unique’.
January 2005; March 2009 (Revised)
Falling in love with Berlioz’s music – by Ashley Donaldson
In my junior year of high school, I took advantage of my school’s music theory class. The first half of the year was dedicated to learning scales, basic keyboard skills, and the like. The second half was dedicated to music history – mainly studying composers. When the first day of our study of the Romantics finally came about, we were told about the life of a man named Berlioz, who had fallen madly in love etc. etc. As the music began (March to the Scaffold), I was instantly rooted to my seat. The brass fanfare was enough to make up my mind that this was by far the best composer I had yet heard. He remains so to this day, and will surely never be replaced.
In the first couple weeks after our introduction, I could not go a day without running across something related to the great man in my own life. The next day, Symphonie fantastique was played on the National Public Radio. The day after that I found a first edition of Barzun’s translation of the Evenings with the Orchestra. A couple of days later my friend pointed to a copy of Berlioz’s Memoirs right under my nose at an antique store. Cellini’s autobiography nearly jumped off a shelf at me at a second-hand bookstore around the same time. What were the chances?
In my senior year of high school, my show choir spent a weekend in New York City. We could choose whatever we wanted to do that Friday night. I wanted to see a musical, but, being a weekend in NY, they were all sold out. Then I discovered that Sir Colin Davis would be conducting the NY Philharmonic that night. I jumped at the chance, emailing the powers that be to see if I would be able to get the chance to meet him after the performance. I was told it would, but, unfortunately, it did not work out.
I discovered that Sir Colin would be conducting a Pure Berlioz concert at the Barbican Centre in December of 2007. Adding to the list of reasons for my wanting to go to London, I blew all of my graduation money on the trip. Once again, I emailed the powers that be and was told that I would have no problem talking with him backstage after the concert. Before the concert, I had a wonderful dinner and chat with the incredible creators of this site.
When the time finally came, I dodged the security guard (care of the principal second violinist) and made my way backstage where I was able to chat with Sir Colin. All-in-all, it was a perfect day, thanks to Hector!
(click on the photo to enlarge)
Discovering Berlioz – by Haydn Greenway
I discovered Berlioz, as a teenager, in 1969 – the significance of that centennial year was, then, unknown to me! The music was Symphonie Fantastique – a reel to reel tape, Otto Klemperer was the conductor – the Scène aux Champs was more Mahler than Berlioz, but the March was wonderfully heavy!
Having been brought up on the symphonies by Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, my first experience of the Fantastique was one of incomprehension and a certain bewilderment. Then, after several listenings, the penny dropped! Those long sequences of lonely, sparsely accompanied notes became beautiful, extended melodies. This, I realised, was an overwhelming piece of musical drama – powerful and TRUE – a fusion of opposites. How can the elegant, if somewhat vulgar, waltz exist without the brutal and barbaric March to the Scaffold? I now recognise this fusion in all of Berlioz.
I next heard Harold in Italy, and this piece had an immediate impact. I love this symphony – and it is probably my favourite Berlioz piece. The evocation of colour and imagery, as in most of his music, is almost hallucinatory. Those weird viola arpeggios, played sul ponicello during the Pilgrim’s March are other-worldly, and the mellow ‘burnt Sienna’ sound of the viola, simply beautiful.
Another work, La Damnation de Faust, is positively psychedelic, where Faust’s positive experiences are perpetually annihilated by the Devil, in a blinding flash!
Les Troyens is classical opera, interpreting classical Virgil in glorious, if tragic, orchestral and choral Technicolour.
The Requiem is astronomically cosmic – the depths are blacker than black, the climaxes white hot! This evocation of visual imagery brings me to a very interesting episode in my Berliozian ‘trip’.
Soon after my discovery of Berlioz, I read his Memoirs – the man struck such a chord in me, that, in a sense, he became a ‘friend’ – I became fascinated by his life, his work, his appearance – his incredible facial physiognomy – I began drawing and painting pictures of Berlioz. When I was studying for my physics, chemistry and biology ‘A’-Levels, in 1970, my chosen extra-curricular subject was Art. One of my projects was clay sculptures of Berlioz. It was at this time that I read an article by the artist Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) in the ‘Great Musicians’ series of records – ‘Berlioz Part Three’. This record introduced me to the Benvenuto Cellini, Roman Carnival and Corsaire overtures and the Rêverie and Caprice for violin and orchestra. Michael Ayrton’s article was a revelation – it was entitled ‘He’s a Friend of Mine’ and he expressed his love and obsession with Berlioz in sculpture and painting, just like me! In my teenage naivety, I wrote him a letter, expressing my astonishment that a like-minded soul had found his expression of his love of Berlioz in Art! And to my utmost astonishment he replied (see letter). In the ‘Great Musicians’ article, Ayrton wrote, ‘[Berlioz] has an extraordinary capacity to evoke the quality of sight by musical sound’.
Recently, since I’ve joined the high-tech digital age, I’ve created, on my computer, montages of my paintings and sculptures, past and present, inspired by Berlioz. Of particular interest is my Harold in Italy montage, since it includes an image of one of the clay sculptures of Berlioz I made way back in 1970. Monir Tayeb has kindly posted this montage onto the Berlioz Website (Berlioz-Inspired Works of Art : www.hberlioz.com/arts/greenway.htm).
Actually, this particular montage is something of a family affair – the Paganini image is from a recent oil painting of mine, and the viola is a creation of my father – now 86 years old – an amateur violin, viola and cello maker. His favourite composer is Haydn – hence my name – and he was the one that bought me the Klemperer tape of Symphonie Fantastique, all those years ago!
A visit to the Musée Hector Berlioz in La Côte Saint-André – by Sue Vernon
Our visit started much sooner than expected – as we approached Lyon from Grenoble airport I was already being tantalised by the signs for La Côte. Incredibly a roadside sign for the town came into view, a lovely picture of H. B. himself set against musical bars from one of his own scores. Despite my cries to stop so that I might photograph this, it proved impossible to do so, and I really hoped to do this another day.
On Thursday 5th April, a cool but sunny day, we returned to La Côte for our proper visit – and as we approached the town the prettier did the countryside seem to become. The area, close to the Rhône-Alpes, in this part has gently rolling, part-wooded hills with trees now coming into blossom.
Parking quite close to the 900-year old church where Hector Berlioz was baptised, we walked down into the town, making our way past a few chocolate shops, another famous product of La Côte. I thought I resisted that rather well, but I was focused on other things!
The museum itself was instantly recognisable to me, and it was with great anticipation and excitement that I walked through that door. We were greeted and issued with tickets and supplied with audio guides in English by two most charming French ladies whose English was as limited as was our French. Somehow we did manage to understand each other.
From then on, we had the museum to ourselves for what must have been three hours. What struck me first of all was the feeling of ‘family home’ it still retains. Beautifully laid-out patterned wooden floors abound throughout, also you step on what must be the original stone flags on the stairs, the staircase having a lovely wide aspect which gives the house itself a real sense of importance. Berlioz was indeed lucky to have been born into this household. The family’s background and the times in which they lived come to life as you journey through the exhibition.
Doctor Berlioz, a fascinating character himself, appears to have been largely self-taught, finally finishing his formal training and study for just a few months in Paris before gaining his title and returning home to his practice as a town doctor. How different it would be today!
The audio guide is rather splendid, perhaps one of the best and most informative that I have come across. Pictures, paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, letters – all were introduced and explained and we were left freely to soak up the atmosphere and examine whatever we wished.
A life-sized sculpture in a downstairs room took my breath away – I don’t think I have seen this one before, it shows a pensive looking Berlioz and commands the room even from a side wall.
Upstairs many exhibits are in cabinets with sliding drawers. Much of the contents are original items and left me literally gasping – there was the very familiar handwriting in reality in front of me – Berlioz was ‘alive’ in everything, you had only to close your eyes to imagine him popping his head round a door at any moment.
It was in Hector’s bedroom where I stood and gazed out over the garden imagining the young Hector and his sisters and brother going out to play. I turned and looked at the blue walls, when the thought came to me of Hector looking at those very same walls as I was now, and it was suddenly overwhelming. I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a few tears in that room. Apparently Ken, bless him, had been waiting for this! I don’t like to disappoint …
Upstairs I was also particularly taken with a large window blind covering the whole window – this was printed with a faint photographic image of Berlioz – an absolutely beautiful effect.
There are computerised terminals in one of the last upstairs rooms where extracts of some of Berlioz’s works could be chosen and played. Ken selected sections of Symphonie fantastique and what a wonderful way to hear it, in Berlioz’s own childhood home.
The last upstairs room is very sad. It focuses on Berlioz’s final years, including a silver grey curl of his hair and leads you inevitably to his death-mask. I found this incredibly hard to approach but when I did, I was struck with the profile of that much loved face. You can see very clearly that the many paintings and photographs we all know so well do in fact give a very true likeness. There is no mistaking that amazing profile. Nor in fact that amazing music which could not possibly have been written by any other composer.
In the auditorium downstairs, the last room before the exit, I gloried in the Te Deum, and the Grand Symphonie funèbre et triomphale. It seemed a fitting way to leave it with that wonderful music still resonating in the air….…
As we were leaving, Ken pointed out the busts for sale in the shop – we had seen so many throughout the house that I had stopped even registering them. As it was my birthday this was a timely and precious acquisition, and it now has pride of place in my front room.
What a fantastic visit – I loved the museum, so carefully and lovingly realised and exactly what I would have wanted for Berlioz myself. Tasteful, not over commercialised, in this Musée the French have done Berlioz proud. I came away so happy and satisfied and we ended our visit to La Côte with a wander around the lovely church and town.
I have one thought or suggestion for the museum. They really should produce a souvenir guide in several languages with photographs both of the house and some of the permanent collection. Wouldn’t that be a lovely reminder of what we have seen? I hope they will do this.
Now I just want to go back. After all I never did get to photograph that road sign!
Berlioz’s music and me – by David Friesen
I first began listening to Berlioz’s music my freshman year of college. I was hooked the moment I heard the idée fixe theme, and wore out my stereo with the Fantastique. I listened further, to Faust, Troyens, Harold, the Requiem and Te Deum – everything I could get my hands on. Reading his Memoirs was a delightful experience and it remains one of my favourite books. (If anyone is interested, the book Berlioz Remembered, compiled of contemporary anecdotes about the composer, makes a nice companion read.)
During the revival year of 2003 I made a pilgrimage to New York, where I caught a performance of the Requiem, in Carnegie Hall. The tenor sang a singular "Sanctus" from one of the balconies; the "Dies Irae" was staggering.
A year later, I was fortunate enough to make a trip to Paris, where I was disappointed by Berlioz Square, a tiny park in an out-of-the-way neighbourhood that contains what I consider a rather poor sculpture of the composer. I proceeded on to London where, at one of the book sales along the Thames, I made a mistake that I regret to this day – I passed up a copy of David Cairn’s biography signed by Cairns himself! What was I thinking?! Sure it was expensive, the exchange rate had taken me for a sucker, and my bags were already stuffed, but I should have sprung for it. Oh well, I’ll always have Paris...
To me, Berlioz remains one of the most human of the great composers, a creator of beautiful music, a man who struggled his whole life because he simply knew that he must; I have often wished to be able to feel as he must have, to be as moved by music, to have such finely tuned sensitivity and such a passionate temperament.
A visit to the Musée Hector Berlioz in La Côte Saint-André – by Mary Weber
As a natural culmination of more than two years’ immersion in the life and creations of Hector Berlioz, I paid a visit to the Berlioz family home in La Côte Saint-André in May 2006, in the company of fellow Berliozian Alan Merryweather. Although I have often wished that Berlioz had been given a museum in his adoptive city of Paris to provide greater access, having seen his family home in its natural setting, I now believe that his museum is appropriately located. The creator of Harold en Italie, the fantastique, Cellini, Béatrice et Bénédict, and Les Troyens belongs to this exquisite rural setting of sunlit farmlands and winding rivers within the frame of rock-faced hills and distant snow-capped Alps far more than to the teeming avenues and boulevards of Paris, although they have their legitimate claim on him as well.
Our first visit day, however, was far from the sunny ideal I could imagine. To begin with, I got us lost on some back roads after being confused by a sign to an alternate route. There were tense moments as we looked at our inadequately detailed map for guidance out of the maze. Eventually we wound our way back to the highway, almost back at the source of the original mistake. Too bad we were too anxious to enjoy the lovely scenery of woods and lake! Then, at long last arrived in La Côte, an unseasonably cold and wet wind assailed us at the feet of the Berlioz statue in Place Hector Berlioz, which now finds itself out of necessity converted into a city car park, not the most attractive setting for such a lover of beauty as Hector. Grey skies served as a backdrop for my photos of the master, reflecting as he leans against his podium. We were happy to find shelter through the open blue doors of the stately old Berlioz home just a couple of blocks up the hill. Oddly enough, its front with its iron grillwork and tall wooden shutters reminds me of homes I’ve seen in photos of New Orleans.
We were greeted by two gracious receptionists who issued us honorary tickets at no charge after inquiring the names of our home cities and countries. On a late Wednesday morning in early May, we had the house to ourselves. Such a privilege! We began with the very large displays on the ground floor which provided an overview of the high points in Berlioz’s life as they influenced his compositions. These displays were well illustrated with period prints and photos. I wished for English translations, but, after all, I was in the depths of la belle France! And, to be fair, I had passed up the opportunity to rent headphones with English commentary. I was rather surprised that the introductory displays were not arranged chronologically (or such was my impression).
The house is constructed as though it were two houses fused back-to-back on different levels, for one must climb a staircase to reach the rear of the house, with its garden. This was true of the transition from the front to the rear of the house on each level. The public rooms (what was perhaps the doctor’s surgery and above it several drawing rooms) and the master bedroom occupied the front of the house, along with some smaller rooms on the top floor above; the rear contained the kitchen, dining room, the doctor’s study, and the children’s bedrooms. There was also a spacious basement, now housing an intimate theatre/lecture room and modern washrooms. It was a touching experience to enter Hector’s childhood bedroom behind his father’s study on the middle floor, one of the most remote and hidden rooms in the house. I wonder whether he felt a captive there, with interior access only through his father’s study. (I do remember a second door from Hector’s room to an exterior balcony running the length of the garden side of the house.) The room was painted a sort of Wedgwood blue with (if memory serves me correctly) a scrollwork painted in deep rose along the top of the walls. These colours, discovered during restoration, were described as original to the room. Hector’s bedroom featured only one rather small window in its deep outer wall which did not supply much light and reinforced my impression of its dungeon-like quality. Overall, I was surprised at the size and grandeur of the house as well as its almost Italianate appearance from the garden side.
For someone who is fascinated with Berlioz, the museum is a treasure trove of delights. The originals of family portraits and photographs, autograph scores, original letters, presentation batons and silver wreaths, travel notebooks, a few musical instruments from the period, and proclamations from royalty honouring Berlioz – too much to absorb in a single day. We returned two days later (this time without losing our way) to revisit the letters and scores. I regretted not having enough time to read all the many letters stored in illuminated drawers on the top floor. Also on the top floor of the front of the house, we encountered a display which played selections from Berlioz’s works. (I personally would have enjoyed Berlioz’s music to be played softly throughout the house, but perhaps others would find it distracting.) His music was playing softly in the theatre in the basement. When we returned after our lunch break, the receptionists kindly played the television film Moi, Berlioz just for us in the theatre. Running nearly an hour, it is a dramatisation of key moments in the composer’s life, with wonderful clips from performances of his music. Would that the film were available on DVD for purchase! The receptionists assured us that it is rare and unavailable.
Of all that we saw and experienced in the museum during our two visits, nothing moved me more than the plaster head of Berlioz modelled from his death mask. I first saw it in a photograph in Barzun’s Berlioz and the Romantic Century, but seeing the original and knowing how it was made brought Berlioz the man closer to me than any of the other artefacts. How sad his sunken face looked, with its beak of a nose and its frame of wild hair, apparently scattered against his pillow! Beside the sculpture was a long lock of Berlioz’s coarse white and curly hair, also bringing the person alive for me.
What would I have had different in my experience of the Berlioz museum? Having the captions for the displays placed with the displays rather than, as often happened, at the nearest doorway or on a hard-to-read panel nearby, would have made viewing more convenient. I did appreciate the reproductions of the portrait or document found alongside the captions as a key.
Is it presumptuous of me to request English translations beneath the French? (An analysis of the home country data requested at the ticket counter would provide an answer regarding numbers of English-speaking visitors.)
I found the lighting throughout the house maddeningly inadequate. Many portraits and illustrations on the walls or in cabinets needed their own illumination. I also thought that captions were often in print too small for convenient reading by more than one person at a time, but better lighting would have helped.
I would have liked to see more furniture from the period throughout the house. However, I was so pleased and touched to see one tasselled armchair surviving from Berlioz’s Paris apartment in the master bedroom and the Erard piano which he bought for his nieces in the drawing room. I remember another period piano and a music stand similar to the one on the Berlioz statue. The kitchen was nicely re-fitted so that I could imagine the cook working and, indeed, living in there (for there was a bed in the alcove). I would have liked to have the same sort of impression about the rest of the house, but space probably would not allow for both exhibits and furniture.
Finally, I sincerely hope that the grand old Berlioz house soon receives a well-deserved fresh coat of paint, especially on its garden side!
In the ground floor reception area an interesting array of books and postcards of Berlioz was on sale. Since taking photographs is not permitted, I would have liked more than the one postcard of the house’s interior. I was surprised that the publications of the ANHB (Association Nationale Hector Berlioz), headquartered in the house, were not also on offer, but probably there is some regulation which makes this impossible.
It is my dearest hope that this account has inspired the reader to visit or re-visit the Berlioz house museum in La Côte St. André. Like the musical and literary masterpieces of Berlioz himself, it will yield its beauties to those who take the trouble to find it, to linger, and to reflect on what influences are at work in the development of genius.
San Diego, California
Discovering the Young Berlioz – by Robert Kolar
I come from Slovakia and I am one of those devoted Berlioz-lovers one can find all over the world. My enthusiasm for Berlioz started – not surprisingly – with hearing the Fantastique, many years ago, when I was about 14-15 years old. Then it was Harold that made me love the viola tone, then I heard some excerpts from Roméo and my love affair with Berlioz and his music continued.
Thanks to the Institut français in Bratislava I had a chance to discover much of his music that I had not known before, including those legendary recordings by Sir Colin Davis. Some two years ago, I noticed a CD of the Messe solennelle conducted by J. E. Gardiner. A fantastic piece! Beauty combined with fierce temperament. And what a performance! An astonishing originality, richness of melodic invention and a masterful orchestration. Energy of a young man breaking conventions. He was 21 when he wrote it, and the themes of his later, more famous works can be heard here. This work is simply a must for every Berlioz-lover!
My great desire, since I’ve known the work, is to hear it performed live here in Bratislava, with Mr. Gardiner conducting. As far as I know, it has never been performed in Slovakia. Bratislava’s St. Martin’s Dome would be an ideal place for it. Handel’s Israel in Egypt, Bach’s Mass in B minor and Pärt’s works have been successfully played here, and I believe that Berlioz would receive an equally warm welcome especially from young listeners...
Berlioz and Sense of horror – by Alessio Rastani
I would just like to add that what really attracted me to Berlioz’s music was that upon listening to his Requiem, it frightened the hell out of me! I listened to the "Dies Irae" of his Requiem, with the beatings of a dozen bass drums, and wow, what a sound effect! I had no idea such terrifying sounds were possible to be produced in the 1800s. But Berlioz totally managed to capture the hellish and horrific aspects of the human psyche with his music. In particular, the bells that ring in the Witches’ Sabbath movement of his Symphonie fantastique was a work of genius. You cannot help think about Death and the macabre when you hear that music.
My Life as a Berliozian – by David Teitelbaum
I first want to thank Drs Tayeb and Austin for such an amazing site. It is unreal that such a comprehensive site with all this data can be found about my favorite, yet mysterious composer. I have been visiting this site since 1999, when the content, already impressive, was not nearly as broad as it is today. I can’t express my gratitude for the site enough.
I must start the story of my life with Berlioz from the beginning, for I am amazed myself how I was ushered into the complexly exquisite – and exquisitely complex – life as a Berliozian. Anybody who encounters me knows right away that I have an obsession with this "Frenchy" – and though it turns heads here in America, especially among my contemporaries, I am adamantly unapologetic for this infatuation.
As I’m still a young impressionable man, I am susceptible to acquiring overblown passions for what might be very small subjects. So was the case in my eleventh year – with considerably more power – when I saw for the first time this famous caricature of Berlioz:
There is something that triggered within me a "love" for this man in the picture. I knew not his music, nor his story – or why indeed he was depicted in such a mocking fashion. But, as the old adage goes, "a picture says a thousand words", I was overtaken by a sense that this man in the picture was larger than life in many ways – his music notwithstanding.
At the time, since I was just a kid and unfamiliar with this man, or even his name, I’d pronounce his surname "Berli-Oz" as in "The Wizard of Oz.", I was always looking for some kind of reference about him, concerts featuring his music, recordings of his music – anything that would make me more familiar with this figure in the caricature.
Soon (I was about 14-15 years old) I came across a cheap recording of the Fantastique conducted by Alberto Lizzio on the Piltz label, in a discount store. I was infatuated! I’d certainly never been in love by then, but I was in love now! I listened to the recording at least three times a day, every day, until it was coming out of my ears. I could just not get enough of Berlioz. The Fantastique is all I had, however.
I devoured whatever information I could about Berlioz and I found some very interesting facts – which I found later to be incomplete or flawed, for the most part – and I was now impressed by the man as much as the composer. I could not imagine how a man, who wrote such outstanding music, did not play a single instrument! Of course it is not entirely true – we know he was quite good at playing the guitar, flute and timpani; but I found that fact very "cool" at the time. I was also intrigued by a weird instrument he wrote for – the viola. Again, I was a young kid with not much knowledge about music, despite my overpowering love for it.
I wanted to hear what the viola sounded like and how Berlioz of the Fantastique could pull off an impressive work for Paganini for this instrument. (I was always familiar with Paganini – long before even encountering Berlioz.)
Soon I took out a recording of Harold en Italie from the library with Toscanini and his principal violist Carlton Cooley (in the discography on this site you fail to mention this recording, by the way) – and I was smitten with love for this composer all over again!
At around the time I came across this site I was 17-18 years old, and I was desperately seeking to own some more music of this amazing composer. I was particularly looking for that second symphony – the viola symphony.
The summer I came across this site was fruitful musically in many ways. I, a New Yorker, was spending the season in Iowa (a place close to every Dvořák lover’s heart; in fact I was not far from Spillville, where he resided) and I had many opportunities to do “research” on the many musical topics I was curious about. I guess I started my musicological career that summer.
I came across the double CD of Bernstein/Previn on the EMI label of the first two symphonies and overtures on e-bay, and promptly bought it. I still don’t like the recordings of the symphonies to this day, but Previn’s overtures surely are pretty good.
Over the ensuing years my awareness, knowledge, appreciation and larger-than-life love for Berlioz just grew and grew.
I was very aware about the bicentennial that was approaching, and I had only one idea of how a Berliozian can spend it. I had to go to la Côte St-André. I put together the money, made my impulsive plans (that means no plans) and made my way to the airport for a Berliozian experience in France!
Thankfully, there was a large snow fall in New York on the day of the flight; the flights were running on time; I missed mine… I’m thankful, because if I’d gone I’d still be there, a fugitive of the law; I ran out of money before I even got to the airport. Of course, this ordeal would not be unlike similar experiences in Berlioz’ life; but this is the 21st century.
Dejected, I returned home, not knowing how I’d celebrate my ‘Musical Grandfather’s’ birthday. By chance I heard that Susan Graham was going to be joining some Berliozians in New York City at a pub known for its musical stage (Joe’s Pub) and sing/talk Berlioz on December 11th. I promptly made my way to NYC that evening. Tim Page, the renowned musicologist/journalist, of New York Times, Newsweek and Washington Post fame, was going to be there to address the gathering.
It was the most awesome experience I ever had. It is now 2006, and I still remember that night as vividly as if it were yesterday. Susan Graham ended the "concert" with the first two songs of Les Nuits d’été. It was so amazingly heartfelt; she and everybody else in the room wore their hearts on their sleeves, and I could really feel the impact of the words that made up the motto of the evening, "THEY ARE FINALLY GOING TO PLAY MY MUSIC", Berlioz’s very last words…
I left the pub on a cloud. Later that winter I went to two Berlioz performances at Lincoln Center, conducted by the two greatest Berliozians alive today, Sir Colin Davis and Charles Dutoit. The violist of the Davis concert was Paul Silverthorn; he is an amazing violist and his reading of the symphony was uniquely exceptional, considering I had heard many readings by various violists.
Since that Year of Berlioz many things have occurred in my life, including my decision to go to college. As I am a composer, following Asger Hamerik’s example, I seek out the spiritual and practical side of Berlioz, in order to create my music in tribute to Berlioz and his unique insight.
I am a Young Turk at the age at which Berlioz was already working on his Messe Solennelle. I therefore have to take his example and work harder at maintaining his vision for the future.
I have clear plans to conduct in the near future and expose Berlioz to the world for what he truly was – the greatest Romantic composer in history…and that is not an understatement!
My Passion For Berlioz – by Thérèse Bédard
This passion started fifteen years ago. As a teenager, I knew La Fantastique as anybody else but never thought of going farther in his music. But in 1990, I suddenly found myself alone and helpless so I remembered Berlioz. I therefore went to the record-dealer and enquired about the available selections for Berlioz. The clerk answered "You know he did not compose much and it is mostly vocal music".
At the time I did not like vocal music and I told myself that Berlioz must lack inspiration. In spite of this I asked if he had composed another symphony, so I bought Harold en Italie. I liked it so much that I decided to take a risk and purchase a vocal piece called La Damnation de Faust which I simply adored! I have been wiped off my feet ever since!!! I read the Memoirs in which I liked so much his strength of character and sense of humour that I bought all his recordings as well as his writings including his correspondence.
I must say that he is as much a great writer as he is a great composer. I must pay tribute to Maestro Charles Dutoit who has done so much for Berlioz in Montréal. The moral of all this is that we should perhaps not discourage customers who wish to explore the works of composers. I end by stating that maybe we should stop denigrating him and take him as he is.
A memorable meeting with Madame Henriette Boschot – by Daniel Jacobi
Daniel Jacobi has sent us the following comment concerning the death on 15 January 2005 of Mademoiselle Thérèse Husson, for many years the secretary of the Association Nationale Hector Berlioz:
What a sad loss to her family and to every music lover. The role she played in launching and promoting the publication of Berlioz’s correspondence is only one of her many achievements on behalf of the composer which secures her an everlasting memory.
May I take this opportunity to reminisce about another front-ranking Berliozian, Madame Henriette Boschot, the former keeper of the Musée Hector Berlioz at La Côte. I am happy (and proud) to have met her around the mid-1970s. A boy of about 16 or 17 at the time, I had urged my parents to go to La Côte during our regular trips to Spain where we would stay every year in our holiday house. Although my parents shared – and had initiated – my love for classical music, they were astonished that their son was so immersed in everything related to his favourite composer and his own heart.
It may seem sentimental, but I discovered the Fantastic Symphony as a child of 6, two years before the centenary year of Berlioz’s death. I can still remember asking myself: "These bells; what does this music have to do with Sunday?"
Fate intervened. At La Côte I met a venerable lady with snow-white hair – she reminds me today of Estelle Fornier on the old photos or even the pictures of the aged Berlioz in St Petersburg in 1867. She seemed to be amused by the passionate boy and did him the great favour of talking to him. She introduced herself to me as the daughter of (Adolphe) Boschot, the biographer of Berlioz. I was a mere child, shy and nervous in front of a person who looked like an "apparition" such as the emperor in Turandot. Of course I possessed at least two volumes of the famous biography. So I could easily grasp how important she was, if that were necessary, so marvellous was this lady. Today I cannot remember much about our conversation. But I do remember very well what she said about her father: he had told her that Berlioz liked to hit chords on the piano (I had told her that I was learning the piano). Granted that Berlioz neither played this instrument nor liked it particularly it may be interesting to know that he sometimes used the piano to test the effectiveness of certain tonal combinations. It is a pity that I do not have a picture of this splendid woman. But enough of these sentimental journeys... In April 2005 I will go to La Côte again.
My full realisation of Berlioz genius – by Hugh M. Monaghan
I first discovered Berlioz in my early 20s when I saw and heard the New York Metropolitan Opera’s first production of Les Troyens in the early 1970s, with Jon Vickers. Subsequently, I saw it at the Met every time it was revived, including a performance in the mid 1980s when Jessye Norman sang both Cassandra and Dido in the same performance. I will never forget it! And the most recent Met production too, with Deborah Voigt as Dido.
I also had the great pleasure of attending a rare staged performance of La Damnation de Faust at the Opera Company of Philadelphia in the 1980s.
But what has turned me into an absolute Berlioz fanatic was seeing/hearing the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere production of Benevenuto Cellini in December 2003. It’s hard to explain, but the power of this work triggered within me an awareness of the genius of Berlioz that was remarkable (especially given that I first discovered Berlioz via Les Troyens, which is – together with Wagner’s Ring – one of the greatest musical works ever created).
Marcello Giordani was fabulous as Cellini, the great British bass Robert Lloyd unforgettable as Pope Clement and both Isabel Bayrakdarian and Kristine Jepson remarkable as, respectively, Teresa and Ascanio. I attended two performances, and can’t wait until it is revived at some future date.
The effect of these performances of Cellini on me was amazing. I have since acquired recordings of every Berlioz work I could get my hands on, and now own the 24 CD Philips set of Berlioz works, and numerous other recordings. I also devoured the autobiography, and purchased, and am now reading, David Cairns two volume biography.
I am looking forward to hearing Roméo et Juliette with the Boston Symphony at Carnegie Hall on December 6th, and La Damnation de Faust next April with the New York Philharmonic.
Hugh M. Monaghan
Atco, New Jersey
Experiences of a Berliozian in Paris – by Mary Weber
Having in the last eight months fallen in love with the music and the writing of Hector Berlioz, I could not visit Paris without thinking of him as I walked its streets and visited its buildings and museums. Since my visit was limited to three days, my attempts to reach back over the years to places he had known were just a few, but possibly of interest to readers.
Walking along the rue Saint Honoré, I came upon the church of Saint Roch where young Berlioz premiered his first major work, the Messe Solennelle, in 1825. I remembered that, during the performance, he personally had hit the gong so loudly that the walls reverberated (and caused, no doubt, his listeners’ ears to ring!). In his letters Berlioz wrote that his teacher, Lesueur, deeply moved by hearing the Mass, assured Berlioz that he would be not a doctor or an apothecary, but a great composer. I walked inside the great cavern of a church, looking for evidence of his music. On the information stand I was able to find only a tiny flier advertising an upcoming performance of the Requiem de Mozart by the Orchestre Lyrique de Paris; nothing of Berlioz. However, in my imagination I could hear the magnificent Resurrexit echoing through the dark and empty church.
While breakfasting in our hotel, I spoke at length with the sweet-faced young maitre d’ whom I knew from previous visits there. To my surprise, I learned that Christophe is not only a trained professional singer, but he is an avid lover of Berlioz, has read the Memoirs and the Cairns biography, and sings Les Nuits d’été! In fact, he sang an excerpt for me sotto voce! Furthermore, he deplores Berlioz’s continuing lack of status in Paris. Christophe is aware of how much modern music owes to Berlioz, including the introduction of the song cycle to the French. I told Christophe how wonderful the HBerlioz website is and gave him the address. I also lent him my CDs of Hector Berlioz: Romantic Spirit and he played them (softly!) on the hotel PA system during the quiet part of the morning. He also indicated on a Paris map where the Berlioz statue was.
My husband and I took the Metro to Le Musée de la Vie Romantique, where a special exhibit of George Sand was showing. It was disappointing not to find a single reference to Berlioz among her artifacts, despite her involvement with Chopin and her friendship with Liszt and Pauline Viardot. I did see two George Sand photos (by Nadar) and one of Pauline Viardot (by Petit). Pauline looked much more attractive in that particular photo than in the one on the website. The home which forms the core of the museum was built in Berlioz’s time in a section of Paris popular with artists from every discipline. Ary Scheffer, the painter who lived there from 1830 until his death in 1858, held salons. Perhaps Berlioz visited his home in the company of the Viardots. I like to think that once he climbed the same steep narrow concrete steps to the front door as I did.
Following our visit, we walked over to the Berlioz statue just a few streets away. From the clothing I assume that it was to have depicted Berlioz in the 1830s. I knew it wasn’t the best likeness, having seen the website photo. I couldn’t identify much from his actual features; the emphasis was on making Berlioz look heroic. The material from which it is made is quite rough, like concrete. Rather disappointing, on the whole. As we left the little park, I turned for one last look. With total lack of respect for the dignity of this great man, a pigeon had perched on Berlioz’s bare head!
Another day we visited the Musée d’Orsay. As we walked through the rooms, I kept my eye out for the famous portrait of Berlioz by Courbet which I knew was in the collection. We finally found the Courbets in a huge area which had been the foyer of the museum prior to the conversion of the west end as the new entrance. There were many, many Courbets, from wall-size to portrait size. No Berlioz! We asked at the information desk. The young woman helping us didn’t even know the painting and seemed to doubt my information. However, she obliged by looking it up on the computer. In Storage! Just months after the 200th anniversary of his birth, poor Berlioz, never understood by the Parisians he was loyal to his entire life, was consigned back to the basement! I told Christophe about Berlioz exiled to the basement at the Orsay. Although his expression was grim and he shook his head sadly, he stated that he was not in the least surprised, commenting that this was typical of Parisians’ attitude toward the master.
The conclusion that I am forced to draw from several brief attempts to touch Berlioz’s traces in his adopted city is that Paris somehow manages to hide the evidence of her most brilliant composer, almost as though she is ashamed of his errant genius. The music of Berlioz, however, will continue to move us to the bottommost depths of our souls; it speaks for itself and cannot be suffocated by the city of its birth. Perhaps a future visit to Paris will bring me to places where the memory of Berlioz is honored, not suppressed.
San Diego, California, USA
October 19, 2004
Berlioz and Me – by Sue Vernon
I had joined a music class at Leicester University and we were learning to read scores. Every week we took a lesser known work by a different composer, we were also given a brief introduction to the composer behind the work. Well, about the third work chosen in the term was Berlioz’s Harold en Italie. I was already intrigued by my classmates’ response to this composer. Our tutor, himself a composer, was enthusiastically talking about the Memoirs, but I was picking up a certain amount of prejudice against Berlioz amongst my fellow students. One of the class confided to me in a jokey aside, that the composer was of course a ‘complete madman’. I was not at all impressed by his throwaway attitude and that may well have made me pay more attention to what was to follow . . . .
We eventually settled down to listen to Harold en Italie and I was so surprised by it; I just knew there was no way a ‘madman’would or could have written such a beautiful piece of music. I came home and found my long lost copy of Symphonie fantastique, which I had never really listened to properly, having previously listened to it once, finding it completely incomprehensible, and putting it quickly away in the cupboard! Now, years later I blew off the dust, and I listened, almost with new ears; I was amazed that I could have just dismissed this before! Encouraged by my music teacher’s enthusiasm, I made tracks for the music library, ordered the book, and two weeks later I set about reading Berlioz’s Memoirs.
Well, that was it! I discovered someone else had been alive who shared the same feelings and responses as myself! Someone else who loved Shakespeare, Music and Art above all else. And someone who was not afraid to feel, however painful he might find it. Berlioz became very real as I read further, he seemed to speak directly from the page personally to me, or so it seemed. Colleagues were intrigued as I sat in the staff-room at breaktimes, always with this book, frequently unable to stop myself from laughing out loud. His ironic sense of humour touched such a chord with me! My feelings of being one on my own became almost a thing of the past. At last a kindred spirit, even if he was around no more! I felt I knew him and understood him; his music overwhelms me still. He was so brave in his music creating new ways of expressing his ideas, as he also needed to be in his struggle to promote it. He was always true to his inner vision and made no concessions at all to mediocrity or public taste. He was so brave in his personal life too, beset as he was with family troubles, his own illness and the awful tragedy of losing his much loved son Louis; yet even in his sixties he remained a wonderful romantic figure, remaining true to his real friends and rediscovering his long lost love Estelle. And the magic of his music continues . . . .
Out of the Dark: My personal experience with Berlioz – by Karen Considine
I was about 15 years old when I was introduced to Berlioz. I had been going through a really rough time and was taking very heavy medications for depression and anxiety. The drugs literally put me into a haze, and school was just about impossible. Orchestra was my first class, and one morning I came in and found new music on my stand. At first I thought "Oh great, something else to hate". Then my director came in with a very very old vinyl and put it on the turntable. "This is what we will be taking to national competition. So pay attention." It was an ancient recording of the New York Philharmonic playing the 4th movement of the Symphonie fantastique. At once I felt a rush of emotion. I understood the whole thing. Whoever Hector Berlioz was, I knew exactly how he felt when he put those notes on paper. And a thought occurred to me. I might end up at the bottom, like the unfortunate character at the scaffold getting his head cut off, if I didn’t start changing my ways. A month later I gathered the courage to take myself off the medications and stop using other drugs I shouldn’t have been using at all. I spent hours researching Berlioz and reading everything I could find about him. It took me several months to get my hands on a copy of the Memoirs, and I ended up finding it 3 hours out of town, but I got it.
So did Berlioz’s music save me from a life of drugs and depression? Probably not. But it gave me enough hope to keep living. It gave me the strength I needed to change. And I will be grateful for that as long as I am alive.
Since then, my family, my friends, and especially my husband (who adores Bach) has learned more than they thought they would ever know about Berlioz. I talk about him a lot, and I tell everyone I can to listen to his music. I am incredibly excited about spring, when I will be performing the Symphonie fantastique in its entirety for the first time with the local symphony orchestra. ( I plan on getting my parts WAY ahead of time, they send us music a week before the concert. Not quite enough time to prepare for something like that. I want to play it perfectly!)
Last year, my cat, Aleah, who I had had since I was 4 years old, died of kidney failure. It was devastating, my mom was out of town at the time, and had lost her Maine Coon, Rosie, to feline leukaemia only six months earlier. I had to call her on the way back from her beautiful vacation and tell her Aleah had died. I made the decision to bury Aleah at my dad’s house out in the country. During the 40 minute drive, we listened to the Requiem. A fitting piece, I thought, for the little furball who had been such a big part of my life.
Well, that is my personal Berlioz experience. I haven’t read the others yet, I just hope you find mine as interesting as I will find yours!
Experiencing Berlioz: Joy and Tears – by Mary Weber
How is it possible that a happily married woman turning sixty can announce to the world that she has fallen in love with Hector Berlioz, dead these 135 years? I blame my brother. In inviting me to a January, 2004, Los Angeles Philharmonic performance, under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, of an all-Berlioz program featuring Tristia and Harold in Italy, he planted the seed that became my obsession with the man and his music. The Symphonie Fantastique, L’Enfance du Christ, and the Requiem had been lifelong companions, but the program I heard that day was unknown to me.
In reading the program notes, I was inspired to learn more about Berlioz and his music. That decision led to a search for the musical works remaining to complete my collection (sadly, not very many, if one compares to Beethoven or Mozart). At the same time that I was listening to Berlioz music on my daily walk, I was spending much of my reading time with the David Cairns two-volume biography (a masterpiece, in my opinion), Berlioz’s own Memoirs (which caused me to fall in love with his writing and his boundless wit), then his Selected Letters (edited by Hugh Macdonald) and a book of recollections by contemporaries, Berlioz Remembered, by Michael Rose. After all this reading, I was so mad as to invest in Volume 26 of the New Berlioz Edition, The Portraits of Hector Berlioz, which did serious damage to my retirement account! With loving fascination I studied in particular each photograph, trying to bring the man to life in my imagination. (Alas, I will never see his smile, hear his manic laugh, know what colour his wild hair really was, or find out what his voice sounded like.) I can still look forward to reading both a biography and a novel about Harriet Smithson, Berlioz’s first wife. And I have yet to begin with the remaining four of Berlioz’s own books. (By the way, I owe my knowledge of most of this library to this wonderful resource, HBerlioz.com.)
What have I learned from living intensely in my imagination with Hector Berlioz and his unique, sad, glorious, arresting, bizarre, joyful and altogether unforgettable music? That he was a man who lived, loved, and created masterpieces of music and literature by means of his brilliant imagination. That, most of the time, he made and kept friends for life and over distance by means of vividly written, charming letters. That he had an unfulfilled home life because the people closest to him (fiancée, wife, mistress, and son) could not live up to his expectations of them. That he led a painful later life during which he lost, one after the other, every one of his immediate family members. That the few triumphs of his later life were paid for by a chronic and debilitating intestinal disorder that confined him to his bed immediately after. That he had to spend much of his considerable energy and precious time attending musical performances of mostly inferior quality in order to make a living writing reviews of them, a career he came to detest despite the insight, integrity, and talent he brought to it. That he somehow found time and energy to write, in addition to his memoirs, four books on a variety of musical topics which are still in print today. That he was continually passed over for musical positions and honours for which he was uniquely qualified. That he had to bow and scrape to be granted permission for concerts he funded out of his meagre savings and conducted himself because others misinterpreted. That he was saved from the depths of despair by the strength of his character and his extraordinary wit. That the joy of his greatest triumphs was never quite sufficient to ameliorate the pain of his greatest failures. And yet, despite all he had to endure, he was nevertheless able to write music of surpassing tenderness, delicacy, and poignancy, and also music of overwhelming power and majesty. The range of Berlioz’s inventive genius, whether in the musical or the literary arena, is awe-inspiring. I love the music and the writing; most of all, I love the man as I have learned to know him.
San Diego, California, USA
September 14, 2004
My favourite Berlioz work: La Damnation de Faust – by Fumie Sakurai
Hello. When I found The Hector Berlioz Website Home Page, I fell into raptures! Because in Japan the information on Berlioz is very limited and some of his biographies are out of print now. So I really appreciate this site. It is detailed and rich in content. Reading various articles, I can immerse myself in the world of Berlioz.
This year, 2003, is the bicentenary of Berlioz’s birth. So far I have gone to two Berlioz concerts. I listened to the Symphonie Fantastique played by Kenichiro Kobayashi and the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra in February. And the Portrait of Hector Berlioz. The concert was given in April. Monsieur Jean Fournet, aged 90, conducted the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. It was an all Berlioz programme which included the overture Le Carnaval romain, excerpts from La Damnation de Faust (the Menuet des feux follets, Ballet des sylphes, and Marche hongroise) and the Symphonie Fantastique.
La Damnation de Faust is one of my favourites. And I think it’s Berlioz’s masterpiece. I like the recording by Sir Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Berlioz bewitches me with his music and I’m lured into the fantasy. In the first scene, in early morning, Faust feels in his body the plains of Hungary, lyrically singing Le vieil hiver. The transparent voice of Nicolai Gedda fits Faust well. When I listen to the Ronde des Paysans, I don’t know why, but I feel like crying. Then his music carries me freely to the noisy Auerbach cellar or the peaceful groves and meadows by the Elbe. The Ballet des sylphes is brief but exquisite. Berlioz must have been inspired when composing it.
Listening to the Menuet des feux follets, I can imagine the spirits of fire actually dancing in front of me and disappearing one by one under Méphistophélès’ orders. Then comes the serenade of Méphistophélès. This mocking song has an unforgettable melody. In part 4, La Course à l’abîme is the great climax. The scene in which Faust and Méphistophélès gallop together to hell is so powerful that the listeners may feel as if their breath is taken away.
I think that Berlioz was born 200 years before his time. La Damnation de Faust already has in embryo the music of later composers such as Verdi, Wagner and even the music of Hollywood movies. He is a real genius who could invent colourful and vivid music.
Berlioz wasn’t highly evaluated during his lifetime in Paris. But he is great because he always believed in his creative talent and continued to compose despite harsh criticism and an unhappy married life. He might have hoped that someone would understand his works. What would he say if he knew he has an enthusiastic fan in Japan 200 years after his birth?
Berlioz for a Darkened Theatre – by Kris De Ruysscher
I discovered the music of Berlioz in a rather unconventional way I must admit: it came to me through the French Gérard Oury film "La Grande Vadrouille", starring French comedians Bourvil and Louis de Funès and Terry-Thomas as the commander of 3 stranded RAF-pilots. You could compare it to a fully theatrical version of "Allo Allo".
In this movie, Louis de Funès is the conductor of the Opera of Paris and is rehearsing the Hungarian March from La Damnation de Faust. Apart from the obvious Toscanini-isms, the music is real and the orchestra really is the orchestra of the opera.
At a certain point the conductor, disturbed by all the noise in the hall sends away Mephisto, Faust and Marguerite who were assisting to the rehearsal. He speaks the immortal line: "Je ne veux personne dans la salle lorsque je répète; je ne veux que Berlioz et moi!" [I don’t want anyone in the hall when I rehearse; I want only Berlioz and me!]
As a kid (and now as an adult) it was a gas to watch – THE Berlioz anachronism of the movie is that the introduction of La Damnation [le vieil hiver etc...] isn’t sung, but played by the clarinet! No vocals anywhere!
I even undertook a Berlioz/La Grande Vadrouille pilgrimage in 1995 starting at the Paris Opera, driving all the way to La Côte St André to visit his house.
This music had a decisive impact on my life: I studied lutherie [plucked stringed instrument making], musicology and composition and am currently working for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe.
I still LOVE his music dearly and am still as unwilling to accept the inaccuracies and idiocies about Hector Berlioz. A site like this one can only be lauded!
Kris De Ruysscher
Berlioz Music and Me – by Cyril Perrier
Not being a trained musician, or even able to read music, I m rather chary of making a contribution to this site, but my fascination with Berlioz encourages me to overcome the disinclination. It was probably the Roman Carnival Overture, with what a friend described as those lovely gurgly noises, and Schumann’s enthusiastic critique of the Fantastic Symphony that started me off, sometime in the early sixties. I bought what was then a recommended version of the Fantastique by Jean Martinon and the French Radio Orchestra (I m playing it as I write – those cornets!) and was hooked for ever.
The basic reasons lie perhaps in the above remarks: Berlioz’s orchestration is like no-one else’s, he rarely repeats himself, and is almost never boring, even in such unlikely ventures as Lélio – though this can try the patience in parts. Also, like Schumann, he writes perceptively about music, both his own and other people’s. Now I have almost the complete œuvre on disc, sometimes in several versions, and would be loath to part with any of them. Nothing, of course, beats live performance, as numerous attendances at Sir Colin Davis’s and others’ concerts testify. Only there are too few of them: let us hope the 2003 bicentenary will bring lots more – and a new recording of Benvenuto Cellini would be wonderful.
Meanwhile, my copy of Nadar’s famous photo will be moved centre stage in my living room on 1st January, surrounded by left-over gold and silver glitter from Christmas!
Tunbridge Wells, England
My love for Berlioz – by Keith Gunnar
My musical tastes have changed a lot over the years. As a young person I primarily liked jazz, and frankly couldn’t imagine ever listening to classical music. After college I slowly began to expose myself to classical music, usually to the masters such as Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Beethoven. One time I was listening to the Seattle classical music station and heard Berlioz’s King Lear Overture. I was awestruck by it! Such passion! I then bought a record of the Symphonie Fantastique and once again was blown away by the beauty and passion, especially the March to the Gallows and the Witches’ Sabbath. One day I was quite ill and stayed home. The local radio station played Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and I had never heard any music in my life that affected me as much as that did. It still remains my favourite, to me the most majestic music ever written by anyone. In the meantime I have listened to virtually all of Berlioz music and it has become a major force in my life. All of his overtures are wonderful, as well as Harold en Italie, Roméo et Juliette, Les Troyens and the Requiem. I dearly love both Béatrice et Bénédict and Benvenuto Cellini. I have only heard a few Berlioz works live – the overture to Béatrice et Bénédict, the Symphonie Fantastique and best of all The Damnation of Faust, with the Montreal Symphony conducted by Charles Dutoit. I listen to Berlioz often, especially when driving my car. He is a constant source of inspiration and energy.
I am very pleased to have found this wonderful website and greatly appreciate all the work that Monir and Michel have put into it.
Langley, Washington USA
Memories of a Performed Lélio – by William Brewer
Finding your web site inspired me to share with you a memory that will live with me until my dying day.
As a student at Carnegie Mellon University (in the 60s), which was then Carnegie Institute of Technology, I sang in the chorus although I was a clarinet/music education major.
One year the then conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, William Steinberg, decided to perform Lélio, a work I and many others had never heard of. We performed in combination with the chorus of Duquesne University. Our choral director at the time was Roland Leich and I believe Duquesne’s was Donald Wilkins.
In any case, what a thrill it was to perform such a fascinating work. After performing in Pittsburgh, we all travelled to New York and performed it in Carnegie Hall. I’ll never forget the one place where the whole theatre was completely blacked out and Maestro Steinberg conducted the orchestra with a pen light while they performed the section of music from memory. Although I never saw the actual orchestral score, I understood that Berlioz was extremely specific in his directions. I can remember that my clarinet teacher, Louis Paul, who was then the principle clarinettist with the orchestra, had to put a little silk bag on the end of his clarinet to play the portion called "the Aeolian harp," which has a beautifully haunting clarinet solo in it.
I was impressed by the various languages employed in this unique work. I know that we sang in French, Italian, and a tenor solo was sung in German, while Maestro Steinberg accompanied that solo on the piano himself.
I remember the fascinating narration spoken in French, the sound of it alone being most moving and dramatic. I didn’t understand a word of it, but loved hearing it.
Thank you for the privilege of remembering again this once in a lifetime adventure.
The First Passion of My Life – by Al Renino, Jr
I was born in 1955. One year later, the music of Hector Berlioz had become the first passion of my life. My father, a music teacher and aspiring conductor, was always playing recordings of the classics. One piece in particular reached out and grabbed me by the ears. It was Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet – Second Part: Romeo alone – Sadness – Distant sound of Music and dancing – Great Festivities in Capulet’s Palace. The recording was RCA LM1019: NBC Symphony conducted by Arturo Toscanini. It was probably recorded about 1953. According to both of my parents, when the "Grande Fête" began, I would stop everything and stare into space, completely transfixed. Near the end of the piece I would start to cry, realising it was almost over. My father would then immediately re-start the piece, and again I would cry near its conclusion. This would sometimes mean playing the piece 3-4 consecutive times. It continues to be, and always will be my favourite piece of music in the world.
I also remember that when I was 4 years old I could not say "Symphonie Fantastique," so I would occasionally ask my father to play "Bong Berlioz" – my name for the 5th movement: Dream of the Witches Sabbath, because of the bells!
At age 16 I was taking clarinet lessons from my uncle (my father’s brother), who lent me his score of Romeo and Juliet. While driving home from my lesson that day, I remember thinking, "please, God, don’t let me die before I have a chance to see the score!" Two years ago my uncle attended a family dinner, where my parents recounted the story of my reaction to Berlioz as a one-year-old. My uncle corroborated it saying, "it was eerie! I mean, you couldn’t even get your attention!" That same year I started reading Berlioz’s Memoirs. My first reaction was: "Of course! I know you!" There were absolutely no surprises to me as to his personality or who this man was: I already knew him!
The next year at age 17 I began composing my very first orchestral piece while in school at lunch time, on 26 March 1973. I continued working on it through my eighteenth year, then gave it up without completing it. It was composed in complete silence, without the aid of a single musical instrument (I don’t play piano). Despite my father’s profession, I had never studied music theory or composition. Never having heard the piece, I therefore decided to recreate the score with the Sibelius music notation software I just purchased several months ago, as one of my first exercises to learn the programme. As my musical direction has evolved in the past 27 years, I decided I would not finish the piece or even attempt to revise, edit, or correct a single note!
What you will therefore hear in this file is the first inspiration, rough draft only, mistakes and youthful compositional immaturity included, along with much more than just a mere hint of my Primary Influence! With my knowledge and experience of today, I could refine and polish the work, but for me to finish or correct it at this point would not be altruistic to my original innocent intentions of 27 years ago, and therefore would not pay tribute to Berlioz properly. Viva Berlioz!
Here is this youthful composition: Overture No. 1*
Al Renino, Jr
* Note from the Editor: This score has been produced using the music notation programme Sibelius. To view and play it back you will need a special plug-in called Scorch, which works with Internet Explorer 4 and above and Netscape 3 and above. This is available as a free download from www.sibelius.com, where you will find full instructions for downloading and installation.
Berlioz’s Memoirs and Me – by David Winn
I am a volunteer classical music host at two non-profit radio stations in Victoria, BC (Canada): CFUV-FM 102 (at the University); and 103.1 CKMO (at Camosun College).
A special interest of mine is the combining of music and the spoken word for radio broadcasting, one of my projects being ‘The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, told in his own words and music, and in the words and music of others.’
I started with the Berlioz Memoirs, in the English translation by David Cairns, plus a few other books, and worked out a series of episodes, seeking to bring in key events, and also seeking to use his writings, and other people’s, to illuminate his character, and his approach to music, and his relationships with other people. I incorporated some brief passages in French (followed by the English translation).
While I was selecting the text, I was also working out what music would go with the words, often of course his own music, but also music of Gluck, Beethoven, Weber, Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and even Stravinsky.
I decided not to use a single voice for Berlioz himself, but a diversity of readers, male and female, an arrangement which seemed to me to be appropriate for his volatile temperament. Readers were recruited from friends and acquaintances with reading experience.
The results, I would say, are uneven. Some episodes I am pleased with; at times the music and the words illuminate and intensify each other. But some episodes are technically sub-standard. Some readings I recorded with portable equipment that behaved itself much of the time, but not always.
For the mixing, I was working with three pieces of equipment, a cassette deck to record the mix of music and spoken word, a second cassette deck to play the voices, and another cassette deck or a CD player to play the music.
And often, contrary to the favourable impression of the balance between voices and music, from the earphones I was using for monitoring, on the subsequent playback I would find that one overwhelmed the other. Or both would be under-recorded. And I would go back and start again. Or if it wasn’t too bad, I would let it go, bearing in mind that I might be spending a couple of hours just trying to mix one 20-minute episode.
So after completing and broadcasting 30 episodes, I put the project aside to reflect on it. The entire Memoirs, according to my plan, totals 59 episodes, of differing lengths, ranging from 8 minutes up to half-an-hour or more. When an episode is one item in a two-hour Classical broadcast programme, there is no particular problem in having unequal episode lengths.
But I have wondered about reorganising the project into a smaller number of episodes, of a standard half-an-hour length, which seems more conventional. This would require some careful thought, to avoid awkward and abrupt transitions between different scenes, and also some curtailment of pieces of music that under the original flexible-length scheme could be played in their entirety. One possibility is to create 30-minute parts or instalments, each of one or two distinct "episodes."
If I did start again, I would hope to use computer facilities for storing the voices and music, and for mixing the two, as this method promises to be less time-consuming and to give superior results.
PS: I have already reorganised and grouped the original 59 episodes into a smaller number of 30-minute instalments; this in itself is a major task. This time, I have also created a set of working notes, to show the structure of the series, and to draw attention to allusions, cross-references, and other points that may not be obvious in the script itself.
My Friend Berlioz – by Didi Stewart
Online at last, I decided to search for a website related to my favourite composer. I was delighted beyond words to find the Berlioz Society page! I’ve met very few Berlioz enthusiasts (the fact that my background is in rock ‘n’ roll might have something to do with that).
My introduction to H.B. was literary rather than musical. I read Evenings With the Orchestra while on the road, travelling to New England club gigs in a van that broke down every other weekend. Immediately hooked, I bought every Berlioz disc I could find in the used record shops. Then I started going to the Boston Symphony whenever a Berlioz piece was played. I have fond memories of watching Boston’s blue-haired lady concert-goers dashing for the exits during performances of the Fantastique and Lélio.
Whenever I was in New York, I’d drop by Steinway Hall to see the bust of Berlioz. Guess my adoration was all too obvious. One day, as I entered, one of the guards smiled and said, "Ah. You’ve come to see your friend." I was so embarrassed, I never went back!
The Berlioz Effect – by Aaron Valdizan
I must say that Berlioz’s music has had the greatest effect on my life. I was first introduced to his music when I was 14 years old. All my life I had disliked "classical music" and thought it something to put me to sleep until my junior high school wind ensemble director gave us a simplified arrangement of March to the Scaffold. He played for us a recording of the march and I was instantly overcome by the passion and verve of the music.
Up to that point in time I had decided I was going to pursue a career as a jazz trumpet player but this all changed that. I borrowed a recording of the entire Symphonie Fantastique from my director and my mouth dropped open in awe at the opening chord of the first movement. I found myself nearly in tears with the arrival of the idée fixe and by the end of the symphony I was numb from the power of such music. I felt as if I could fully understand the violent and sorrowful love it portrayed and with time that understanding has become greater and greater. I could relate with the tortured heart of the hopeless romantic and I felt the pain the music foretold. I knew right then and there that I wanted the passion of Berlioz and I was going to spend the rest of my life immersed in such art.
Through Berlioz’s music my passion for classical music grew and I would spend hours upon hours absorbing fine recordings such as the Sir Colin Davis recordings of his works. With time I realized that the best way for me to completely satisfy my love for music and have the interpretive control I desired was to be an orchestra conductor. This was just the beginning of my musical quest.
Within a few short years I became assistant director of the vocal and instrumental groups at my high school and got a taste for the podium. I loved every minute of it and the musicians loved to rehearse with me because the passion I put into the music made it come alive. It is amazing to think that all of it would never have come about if I had not been forced to play a watered down Berlioz piece several years ago!
Earlier this year I attended a performance by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in which they performed the Fantastique and to hear it live produced a whole new effect on me. I wandered out of the concert hall in a daze from the sheer power and awesomeness of the music. Never before in my life have I been so inspired and the effect is still with me today. The following week I purchased his Memoirs and could not put the book down. His writing was as poetic and masterful as his music and I found myself highlighting quotes throughout the book just because of the pure brilliance of them.
Now that I have begun studying the scores to his works it is amazing to see the complexity of his writing and how he creates unique timbres and balances. Recently I have discovered his Lélio and have fallen in love with it, it is a dreadful shame that the work is never performed (especially since Berlioz gave explicit instructions to have it performed immediately following the Symphonie Fantastique)!
I am currently studying orchestra conducting at the Chapman University School of Music where I hope to gain the tools necessary to adequately interpret all classical music but especially the works of Berlioz. It is my strongest desire to become an expert on his music.
Tustin (California, USA)
Berlioz – Past, Present and Future – by David Suffolk
As we approach the Millennium it is time to review the position of Berlioz and his reputation in relation to the future. In several articles I’ve written for the Berlioz Society Bulletin there has been the tendency to look back to the 50’s when, as a teenager, I was first attracted to the man and his music and to compare the situation then with that of today.
As one ages the past does appear to hold greater attraction, however aged or not we should all look to the future as well!
Several questions come to mind. What of the Society? It was founded in the early 50’s and many of the original members, self included, are still around. However much has happened in nearly half a century (sounds more impressive than 50 years). Has the Society kept pace with events? I doubt whether it will ever be a world-wide so-many-thousands-members affair. But, with all the ‘enlightenment’ around there must be many more enthusiasts about who should be, would like to be, members.
One problem is the centre of gravity lies in London. For those provincials North of the Watford Gap this often entails complicated travel and expense. Some incentive is needed to attract us folk ‘up there’ to make us eager to attend meetings and – when the subscribers and fat-cats haven’t swiped all the reasonably priced tickets – attend those all to rare concerts as well.
There’s another point. Concert-going life is changing whether we like it or not. High-powered hype and glossy stardom, plus excerpts and extracts seem to be the main attraction. The type of concert I knew seem to be getting rarer and rarer, more expensive and shorter! A look at those advertised in our national newspapers show a depressingly familiar programming to the 50’s. Except we are now offered ‘period performances’ of Tchaikovsky’s 6th.
When the surge of interest in Berlioz’s music reached its peak around the 1969 centenary I fondly believed that from then on we would have regular performances of his major works on an annual basis. Rather like the great musical festivals he imagined for his musical city of Euphonia. Today the resources are available but where are those willing to produce such works? The Birmingham production of ‘Faust’ two years ago, showed that such concerts do attract audiences. It’s not a case of trying to convert the others to his music, rather. Here is a great, unique composer who deserves the right to have his major works performed on a regular basis, just as we get Bach Passions at Easter, plus Handel’s Messiah – and Beethoven Symphony Cycles. To me this is an essential part of musical education and a ‘right’. There is a great deal of talk about ‘rights’ these days, and precious little done about it.
Of course a glance at the ‘Penguin Guide to CDs’ or the ‘Gramophone Good CD Guide’ reveals most of his works are available on disc. So-wadaya want concerts for? Because I may be able to make myself familiar with the music via disc but to experience its full impact nothing can take the place of a live performance! I find that having heard a piece live I subsequently derive greater enjoyment from the recording. But where is the complete recorded edition of his works? Philips have reboxed their Berlioz Cycle with useless duplications and several glaring omissions. Nobody else seems interested. The Bärenreiter edition slowly comes towards completion. I am well aware of the problems such an enterprise must encounter, but when the edition commenced the prospectus informed us that it would be completed within 25 years. Well? Berlioz does seem to receive some rough handling from the establishment even when it claims to be sympathetic towards him!
Three years after the Millennium comes the bi-centenary. We have some idea of what to expect from the bulletin. How much will actually materialise? Shall we have some pleasant surprises? Already the Paris Opera has announced it cannot produce Benvenuto Cellini as singers are not available, time, expense etc. I’m sure there will be much to be grateful for – and yet? Greater co-ordination of those who are interested may help. A Berlioz Society with a good firm, assertive voice! How about a competition: "What I would like to see the bi-centenary celebrations encompass!" Prizes, I leave to your imagination.
Looking ahead to the Twenty-First century I would like, even if not around to see it, that Berlioz receives his just dues and maybe in whatever lies ahead for humanity, his works, both musical and literary as part of our heritage will help to sustain us in the incredible power of what I call, for want of a better word, the human spirit.
David A Suffolk
Hagley (West Midlands, UK)
Berlioz and Me – by Phillip Rutherford
I got into music seriously at the ripe old age of 19. I had decided to get into more serious music and composing. I went to a particular music school, and the guys basically laughed at me for my lack of knowledge in music history. I told them that I played brass instruments, and they told me, "You must know of Berlioz’s music then?". When I replied that I didn’t, my interview was over, and out I went, in a bit of a huff, realising that I really didn’t know everything I thought I did.
Anyway, I decided to start my serious music education myself, by buying a CD of every important composer I could find cheaply. I found Berlioz fairly quickly – the Symphonie Fantastique (Cluytens), which I did enjoy, and did arouse my curiosity to find out more. A little later on I was in a library and tried to find out a book on Berlioz. I didn’t want a big one, but all I could find was the massive two volume work "Berlioz and the Romantic Century" by Jacques Barzun. I started reading it a little bit, slowly at first. Once I got to about page 50, I realised that I couldn’t put the book down! I read it as often as I could, and absolutely adored this great life I was reading about! I seemed to be able to relate to how Berlioz felt and acted!
It was at this time I borrowed a copy of the Requiem (Davis), and from then on I was hooked! The Dies Irae especially just blew me away, not just with the loud bits, but the softer sections as well!
I liked Berlioz so much that I think I became a little biased towards him, and if anyone said a bad word about him, or said he wasn’t the greatest, I got really defensive! I think I didn’t quite have a decent perspective, but now that has come, but my love of Berlioz certainly has not diminished one iota! I have helped many others become converted to Berlioz, and if gives me great satisfaction when someone comes up to me and says "Wow! This guy is good!" Of course he is – he’s Hector Berlioz!
Central Coast (Australia)
Introduction to Berlioz – by John Winterbottom
My first interest in Berlioz was at age of about 13. From a very young age I had always had an interest in classical music. My mother always liked to recount the story of when I was about 3 years old, hearing a choir singing "Silent Night, Holy Night" at Christmas, I would burst into tears!
My Grandmother had a very early electric gramophone for 78s, and had a large collection of records, mostly the famous songs from Operas, Orchestral Overtures and the like, which I played incessantly when visiting. This also fired my interest in records and "gramophones."
I then bought a small HMV portable wind-up gramophone from a jumble sale in the mid 1950s (wish I still had it!) In addition, bought my first record – Myra Hess playing a piano transcription of Bach’s "Jesu, Joy of man’s desiring." Then followed Mendelssohn – Fingal’s Cave (Halle, Barbirolli), Holst Planets – Jupiter (BBC SO Boult) and several others.
I then came into a bit of money, and bought my first electric gramophone that would play 45s and LPs! I joined the local record library, and borrowed most of the popular classics, starting with the Beethoven Symphony’s, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and most of the popular concertos, dipping into all sorts of things I didn’t know. I then found Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, with I think Monteux, or Markevitch, and could not really understand it. I could grasp the Waltz, as that is an easily recognised form, but even at the end, the frantic emotions perplexed me, and seemed to disturb the form supposedly, of a symphony! Equally, the March to the Scaffold frightened me, and I only played it very quietly so as not to disturb anyone! The other movements made little sense at all. The record went back to the library, but I was intrigued.
At the same time, I was borrowing books from the library on music, about conducting, history and the like. I then found the book "Evenings in the Orchestra" by Berlioz, (translated by Jacques Barzun!) and was fascinated, and loved every page! It was a tantalising glimpse into the musical life of Paris at the time, the scandals and shambles within orchestras, showing the players just as human as us after all! Fiction of course, but based on experience. A great pity this translation is now unavailable, I have a paper back version in another translation, which is nowhere near as evocative.
Having been fired up by the fascinating man who wrote this book, I borrowed Symphonie Fantastique again. This time it began to make sense, the emotions, love, joy, fear and horror all portrayed in a Symphony! I still found it difficult, that to have emotions played out so visibly within a musical framework I found disturbing. I then borrowed the LP of the Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale which amazed me! From then on, I was hooked, but I could not afford to buy LPs at that time. I had to wait until I started work, then started buying everything of Berlioz on Philips with Colin Davis, as the series progressed!
I then heard the Requiem in Birmingham Town Hall (conducted by Hugo Rignold) in the 1960s and was totally bowled over – I think I spent most of the evening hovering 3" above my seat with the sweat pouring off me! It took me about 2 weeks to recover. I then heard it again years later at the same venue but conducted by L Fremeux, with the same effect, but having got to know the piece better, hovered higher!
The rest, as they say, is history. I adore the Memoirs, and have read the book many times, it is a fascinating document and provides an insight into the musical world of the time (even if it is a bit biased!). I have to say that a lot of other music also effects me very emotionally, like all the great and later Romantics, including Mahler, R Strauss etc, but Berlioz music never fails to move me – especially Romeo and Juliet (I have an ancient version on LP with P Monteux and well as the latest Davis)
There is something about those very long melodic lines (that some folk cannot see or follow I sometimes think) that haunt and fascinate.... but I could go on and on....
I now have 8 versions of the Symphonie Fantastique, but always come back to Colin Davis’s first version with the LSO on Philips, which I still feel is one of the best. However, his second version with the Concertgebouw, the Scène aux Champs is incomparable – so still and atmospheric when needed, but menacing in the background as the thunder approaches.
If you don’t believe that the hairs on the back of neck can stand on end...........just play me some music of Berlioz and watch closely!
Sutton Coldfield (Birmingham, UK)
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 19 January 1999.
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