Wednesday, April 8, 2015

How I Fell In Love With Berlioz

The other day I had my classical radio station on and there it was again - Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture. I can never understand why of all the fabulous music Berlioz wrote, they choose this particular piece to play over and over on the radio. Little wonder that ordinary Americans avoid Berlioz and stick to the music by the "three Bs" (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) and Mozart. Listeners have no idea what they are missing. Neither did I until I first discovered Berlioz and zeroed in on him.

I still remember the thrill I felt when I first heard the 2nd movement of the Symphonie fantastique. Titled Un bal, the Berlioz staple felt familiar and unusual at the same time. It produced an image of a drunkard beginning to waltz, then spinning out of control, then getting back in line, then losing his place again. It was love at first "sight", and the infatuation has continued to grow.

Berlioz - the ultimate romantic, passionate, never understood, never belonging, often suffering, always fighting, and finally dying an ill and disillusioned man - is my true romantic hero.

Starting from the Symphonie fantastique, which tells a romantic story of a man in love, rejected by the object of his desire, I moved on to his other works and started collecting his recordings and reading anything I could lay my hands on about Berlioz.  Luckily, thanks to Sir Colin Davis and others that followed, there is probably no work of his that has not been recorded, including an early mass after its lost manuscript resurfaced in recent years.

But while he enjoys great respect among music experts, Berlioz is little known among casual classical music listeners and his works are rarely performed in concert halls and theaters. During the many years I have lived in Washington, there has been only one live performance of his work that I am aware of - Grande messe des morts, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. It is a cherished memory.

The point of this blog, however, is to point out to non-connaisseurs that Berlioz has written melodic pieces accessible to everyone, even to people who never listen to classical music. Take for example this cheerful minuet from La damnation de Faust:

Even people who know little about Berlioz may have heard about his obsessive love for an Irish actress whom he saw playing Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Harriet Smithson eventually became his wife. She clearly inspired him to write the haunting piece La Mort d'Ophélie.

Hard to believe it was written by the same man who composed the Roman Carnival! His song cycle Les nuits d'été, set to six poems by Théophile Gautier, is another step that brought me closer to Berlioz.

By the time I graduated to his masterpiece Les Troyens, I was fully hooked. Hector's calls "Italie! Italie" were haunting my nights as well as Aeneas's before he left his beloved queen to fulfill his destiny. Yet, in this mature work I found delightful interludes such as Valon Sonore, sung by a young sailor, who is yearning to get back to the sea while his leader is held back by his love for Dido.

The waves of this undulating melody make me hear the call of the sea just as the sailor does. And it seems that almost anyone can sing his song, or at least hum along.

Les Troyens also contains one of the most poignant love duets of any opera, Nuit d'ivresse.

I am not suggesting these are the best examples of the Berlioz opus. I am suggesting that they are the most accessible and may be the best introduction to Berlioz for people preferring gentle melodies to powerful outbursts linked to the composer's image of a wild and flamboyant Romantic.

These pieces attracted me to Berlioz initially, and prompted me to learn more about him as a person and about his work. Reading his biography was another important step. He is an incredibly good writer, masterful at depicting small but significant moments in his life, and conveying the depth of his feelings. The chapter about the re-burial of Harriet Smithson is awe-inspiring. Reality is often more fascinating than fiction, and Berlioz's Memoires are more suspenseful than a lot of mystery novels.

During his lifetime, Berlioz was more appreciated in Britain, Germany and Russia than in Paris where he made a living as music critic. It took France almost two centuries to recognize his genius.

In 2003, the music world marked the 200th anniversary of Berlioz's birth. One of the events leading to the occasion was a meeting of Berlioz scholars from around the world at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in April 2000. Among them was David Cairns the author of the acclaimed Berlioz biography. During his visit, I interviewed Cairns on the phone from Washington.

One of the first things he told me is that he disagrees with the general notion that the Symphonie fantastique was based on Berlioz's obsession with Harriet Smithson. In Cairns's opinion the work was inspired by more than one woman. "When Berlioz was 12, he fell in love with Estelle Dubeuf who was 18. He wrote his first opera (Estelle et Némorin) for her," said Cairns. "It was Estelle who inspired Berlioz to become a musician despite his parents' wishes," he said.

"He (Berlioz) said that much of his music - his early music - was dictated to him by her, although she didn't know it. He said that the love theme in his Romeo and Juliet symphony - he said to her: 'You dictated that to me.' So I think perhaps her influence is the greatest," said Cairns. Indeed, Berlioz reunited with Estelle later in life and they formed a mature friendship.

Still, Cairns agreed that Smithson's influence on Berlioz was important because she taught him about art through Shakespeare. "In the sense that Harriet embodied Shakespeare, taught him Shakespeare, because she was undoubtedly a great actress, she had a tremendous influence," said Cairns.

Harriet Smithson as Ophelia

In addition to La mort d'Ophélie, his other works inspired by Shakespeare are Romeo and Juliet, King Lear Overture, opera Beatrice and Benedict (based on Much Ado About Nothing) and The Tempest.  His literary tastes also are reflected in his orchestral work Harold in Italy (based on Byron's work), musical drama The Damnation of Faust (based on Geothe) and his opera Les Troyens, based on Virgil's Aeneid. Cairns said Les Troyens is Berlioz's best work.

"It used to be thought that because he wrote it towards the end of his composing life, and also because he went back to (his favorite composer) Gluck - to the ancient world that he'd lost it, " said Cairns. "That's what the French used to think because they saw Berlioz as a sort of disheveled, violent Romantic. So someone who wrote a classical work like that, must mean they'd run out of steam, but I think on the contrary - it's his most highly charged work. So I'd put that first."

Cairns, a music critic and professor, told me it took him about 30 years to research and write the two-volume biography of Berlioz. In the first part, titled Berlioz: the Making of an Artist 1803–1832 he gives an intimate picture of Berlioz's family and his early life in the foothills of the French Alps between Lyon and Grenoble.  The book received several prestigious awards from music and literary organizations.

The second volume Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness 1832-1869 covers the composer's most active years and includes a lot of new information based on his previously unavailable correspondence. Cairns told me he was able to complete much of it during his visits to the United States in the 1990s, while he was a visiting professor at the University of California-Davis and a researcher at the Getty Center, California.

The second volume received the 1999 Whitbread biography award.

The more I learned about Berlioz the more I liked him.  The love at first sight, or first hearing, gradually developed into a life-long love affair.

There is no reason Berlioz could not be one of "the three Bs," to use the WETA-classical expression, or that he could not be as popular as Mozart if more of his works were played on the radio. But I find I am glad that is not the case.  As in his lifetime, Berlioz continues to stand apart after his death - a  solitary hero, who has to be understood to be loved. 

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