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ClassicsOnline Home » BERLIOZ: Overtures
Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)
As conductor and critic, as writer and polemicist, and supremely as composer, Berlioz transformed the palette of nineteenth century music. That such bold imagination was derided in his own time can surprise no one; it is still not understood in our own. Even so, we are now able to grasp something of his gift for colour and melody, uninhibited by the shoddy performances his music received a century ago. The overtures on this recording serve as a short course in Berlioz aesthetic, in his growing maturity, and in his dazzling recreation of the orchestra itself.
Berlioz initially followed his father into medicine, beginning study at L'École de Médicine in Paris in November 1821. While there, he took private lessons in composition from Le Sueur. Berlioz had long been fascinated by music, learning guitar and flute, doing arrangements for a local band, writing some 20 small works, and publishing his first song in 1819. Within three years of arriving in the capital, Berlioz quit medicine altogether. By 1825, he had organized a church performance of his Messe solennelle, and then composed a sort of political cantata, scene heroique (La Révolution grecque), honoring the Hellenic rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. In 1825 he also discovered the novels of Sir Walter Scott, soon a major source for his programme pieces.
At 22 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, continuing with Le Sueur and adding Reicha in counterpoint and fugue. Within a year he finished his first opera, Les Francs-juges. It was not a success. In 1828 he received the second-place Prix de Rome for his Herminie, a cantata with text by Vieillard In the same year he completed his Waverley overture, drawn from the Scott novel.
He also conceived w hat was to become La Damnation de Faust, inspired by Goethe. On his third application, he won the Premiere Prix de Rome with La Mon de Sardanaple in 1830. However, it could not compare to the masterwork he w rote between January and April of that year: Episode de la vie dun aniste: Symphonie fantastique en cinq parties. Although a quotation from Les Francs- juges appears in the March to the Scaffold (Berlioz had a life-long penchant for self-quotation, so emulating Handel), and although Waverley suggested a rapidly-advancing technical skill, nothing could quite prepare his audience for the Symphonie fantastique.
Inspired by a confounding love for English actress Harriet Smithson, made macabre by a popular fascination with opium, provided by the composer with a helpful plot, made whole by the compositional device of the idée fixe (a recurring motif), and made central to the repertoire by astounding orchestration, the Symphonie fantastique represented an astonishing leap forward in Berlioz art. It was the most daring and innovative symphonic work since Beethoven's Ninth.
It was followed two years later by its sequel, Lélio, ou Le Retour a la vie. A supposed repudiation of the black visions of the Symphonie, it nonetheless failed to recapture its startling power. However, it did help capture Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz married on 3rd October, 1833. The marriage lasted 24 unstable years.
While in Italy for the Prix de Rome, he wrote his concert overtures King Lear and Rob Roy. Picking up from Waverley, we see him once again employing an exterior narrative (based on Shakespeare and Walter Scott, respectively) as a designing, unifying, and propelling mechanism. These concert overtures, independent of any larger enterprise, were followed by another programme derived work, Harold in Italy, this from Byron's Childe Harold. In four picturesque scenes, it offers much of the structure -but rather less of the solo prominence -of the viola concerto Paganini thought he had commissioned.
From 1834 to 1837, Berlioz struggled with his opera Benvenuto Cellini. It premiered in 1838 and became the subject of much revision. He also completed his massive Requiem, a work requiring eight bassoons, 12 horns, 16 trumpets, 16 trombones, six tubas, ten timpani, a tenor and chorus, and doublings in every other instrument group. Berlioz had reached the most distant extremes of the gigantism for which he was so criticized, and was to live in this arena as composer, and increasingly as conductor, for many years.
He also became increasingly active as advocate, as cudgel for new music and new means. Berlioz was to write a major treatise on orchestration, another on conducting, numerous smaller works of criticism and analysis, and a charming book of Memoires. He received many awards, including the Legion d'Honneur in 1839. In the same year, again inspired by Shakespeare, he composed Romeo et Juliette, one of his most impassioned and pursuasive works.
In 1844, sheer spectacle: he led a performance of Beethoven Symphony No.5 with 36 string basses, of the overture to Freischütz with 24 French horns and of Rossini's Prayer of Moses with 25 harps. While expending his musical capital on such episodes, he also w rote another concert overture, the Roman Carnival. Enduringly successful, it was relatively restrained in forces, though not in wonder. So too was the next overture to follow, Le Corsaire.
In the years to come, Berlioz numbered among his works La Damnation de Faust, La Mort d'Ophélie, Te Deum, Vox Populi, the oratorio L'Enfance du Ghrist of 1854, the formerly unproducible opera Les Troyens, and the more manageable Béatrice et Bénedict, again inspired by Shakespeare. He also travelled and conducted widely.
A final series of artistic failures seems to have diminished him, and a series of strokes to have crippled him. Berlioz last days were filled with praise and pain. On learning that a funeral oration was to be given him by the composer Antoine Elwart, it is claimed he said, "If you must make a speech, I'd rather not die."
At his best, Berlioz illuminated virtually every element of the Romantic Century: its national pulse and revolutionary ardour; the power of literature and its transference to music and programme; industry, invention, new instruments and sounds of every sort; vivid colour and bold harmonic design tinged with melancholy; and, above all, a sense of the obligations of Genius.
Grande Ouverture de Waverley
Written: 1826-1828. First Performed: Paris, 26th May, 1828
Composed immediately fo1lowing his first opera, Les Francs-juges, Waverley seeks to represent the mood and character of Sir Walter Scott's novel. Though immature, it reveals hints of Berlioz's looming gift for strong rhythm and unexpected colour.
Intrata di Rob-Roy Macgregor
Written: 1831. First Performed: Paris, 14th April, 1833
Also based on a Scott's novel, Rob Roy was a stinging failure. In his memoirs, Berlioz reca1ls: "I wrote... an overture, Rob Roy, which was long and diffuse and... was so badly received by the public that I burnt it the night of the concert." It is advanced in a vivacious Italianate style but, as Holoman has pointed out, quotes the Burns tune "Scots, wha hae wi' Wa1lace bled" in its opening measures, presumably to meet geographical obligations. Berlioz later took two tunes from Rob Roy and placed them in the first movement of Harold in Italy.
Grande Ouverture du roi Lear
Written: 1831. First Performed: Paris, 22nd December, 1833
Animated by Shakespeare, Berlioz represents Lear and Cordelia in pace, drama, and unsung dialogue. Here, Berlioz's concern for character reveals growing command of musical idiom, but his ability to compose in his head got him expe1led from Italy. While writing Lear, he was interrogated by the chief of police in Nice and accused of political intrigue with Young Italy. "We are well aware that it is impossible to write music walking silently about the sea shore with nothing but an album and a pencil, and no piano," said the officer. "You cannot stay here any longer."
Grande Ouverture de Benvenuto Cellini
Written: 1838. First Performed: Paris, 10th September, 1838
This overture opens Berlioz's two-act opera about the life of the 16th-century, Florentine sculptor, as recounted in Cellini's autobiography. The censors turned the Pope into a cardinal, and the conductor Habeneck helped turned the premiere into a shambling failure. It was expanded to three acts in 1850s Weimar. The buoyant overture survives.
Le Carnaval romain, ouverture caracteristique
Written: 1843-1844. First Performed: Paris, 3rd February, 1844
Surely the most famous of all Berlioz overtures, Roman Carnival is yet another example of brilliant re-making. He uses the Mardi Gras saltarello (a skipping dance rhythm) and a quotation from the Act I trio, "O Teresa", of Benvenuto Cellini to create a brilliant stand-alone. It was premiered by Berlioz himself, who was given one rehearsal and no woodwinds. They were away on National Guard duty and had to read the work at sight. After the enormous success of Roman Carnival, it appeared at Covent Garden and Weimar as a second overture to Cellini.
Written: 1851-1852. First Performed: Braunschweig, 8th April, 1854
Le Corsaire was the name of a music journal to which Berlioz contributed much inflammatory advice in 1823 and 1824. The eponymous concert overture began life as La Tourde Nice, written in Italy in 1844 and first performed in Paris on January 19, 1845. It failed. It was revised from 1846 to 1851 and renamed Le Corsaire Rouge. It was revised again, beginning in 1851, and this is the version performed on this recording.
Beatrice and Benedict
Ouverture de Beatrice et Benedict
Written: 1860-1862. First Performed: Baden-Baden, 9th August, 1862
The last large work Berlioz was to complete, this two-act opera appears in sketches as early as 1833. Subtitled "Imitéde Shakespeare", it leans on 'Much Ado About Nothing.' The spoken text is the composer's, as is the donkey - character Somarone. It was premiered by Berlioz himself and enjoyed much success for its sparkling Italian manner, its scherzo-like energy, and its most winsome portrayal of people we would like to know.
Program Notes by Dr Charles Barber
1994 Edited by Marina A. Ledin
San Diego Symphony Orchestra
The San Diego Symphony Orchestra, now in its 67th season, is the oldest performing arts organization of America's sixth largest city, offering a year- round schedule of serious and popular concerts, as well as innovative outreach and audience development programmes. With a complement of 81 players the orchestra has its winter season in Copley Symphony Hall, an opulent building that was once a cinema but is now owned by the San Diego Symphony Association. Winter season concerts also include silent films with orchestral accompaniment, a series of concerts for young people and multi-cultural concerts, representing the cultural diversity of the city. Summer brings an outdoor Pops season. Under its music director Yoav Talmi the San Diego Symphony Orchestra is recording for Naxos the complete orchestral works of Hector Berlioz and is the first American orchestra to record for the company.
Yoav Talmi made his first appearance with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra in December 1987 and in 1990 began his tenure as Music Director, while continuing an active career with a series of international engagements. He has conducted major orchestras throughout Europe and North America, including the Berlin Philharmonic, all the leading London orchestras and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. A graduate of the Tel-Aviv Rubin Academy of Music and the Juilliard School in New York, Yoav Talmi had his earlier experience as artistic director and conductor of the Gelders Orchestra in Arnhem from 1974 to 1980 and from 1979 to 1980 as principal guest conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. From 1984 to 1988 he was music director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra and from 1985 to 1989 of the New Israeli Opera. His awards include the Koussevitzky Conducting Prize in Tanglewood in 1969 and first prize in the London Ruper Conductor's Competition in London in 1973. He has made numerous recordings, including solo albums with his wife, the distinguished flautist Er'ella Talmi.
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