A Trip to France
CD 7 of 24
Our trip to France brings us to the moment when the Romantic Era is dawning, an era extending from about 1825 until the early years of the twentieth century. Gone are the days of the great patrons and composers writing for an existing audience. It was now the individual composing for themselves with “art for art’s sake” being their rallying cry.
Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869) is the epitome of this ethos. He wrote, “I have found only one way of completely satisfying the immense appetite for emotion and that’s music … it’s the only thing that carries me over the abyss of miseries of every kind” – and one of those miseries; unrequited love.
In 1827 while attending Hamlet, Berlioz became smitten by Miss Harriett Smithson, who was performing as Ophelia. Referring to Smithson as his Ophelia, he pined for her return. Three years later Berlioz finally met her, ultimately marrying, but as in all love affairs where one partner idolizes the other, disappointment is bound to occur – and it eventually did.
But during those three years of pining Berlioz wrote his masterpiece, Symphonie fantastique. Subtitled Episode de la vie d’un artiste (Episode in an Artist`s Life),this piece can be heard as autobiography. In it Berlioz introduces the idee fixe, a musical theme depicting the artist`s beloved. Beethoven, whom Berlioz revered, set the example of a recurring theme - think of the Fifth Symphony and the da-da da-dah motive – but Berlioz takes this to new heights. The idee fixe is first heard at 5:30– 6:12 of Track 1.
Renowned for his use of the orchestra, Berlioz wrote his Treatise on Orchestration, published in 1843. Therein he describes the properties of each instrument, when they should be used and the effect they will have on a listener’s emotions. Of the cor anglais (English horn) he states, “it has no equal among the instruments for reviving images and sentiments of the past if the composer intends to touch the hidden chords of tender memories”. At 13:48 Track 3, Berlioz combines the cor anglais with timpani, creating an aura of melancholy mixed with timpanic terror.
Percussion is also handled admirably in the Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold – Track 4) where, after realizing his love for the woman (the idee fixe) will not be returned, our hero decides to end it all through an opium overdose. (Berlioz borrowed the idea of poisoning by poppy from Thomas De Qunicey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, published in 1821). Instead of killing him however, the opium brings on a horrendous nightmare that ends with his execution. A distorted idee fixe reappears briefly at 4:18, only to be cut short by the dropping of the guillotine at 4:24, the ensuing drum roll representing the head of our hero tumbling down the steps!
The last two selections on this disc are included as contemporary comparisons. Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) wrote his overture to Anacréon in 1803, the year of Berlioz’ birth while Daniel Auber (1782-1871), wrote his in 1828, the year following the Symphonie fantastique’s debut. One can hear just how fantastique the symphony is!
(Please find our recommended audio excerpts for this CD on the bottom of the "Overview" page.)
- Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
- 1. 1. Rêveries. Passions (Largo - Allegro agitato ed appassionato assai)14:15
- 2. 2. Un bal (Valse: Allegro non troppo)6:08
- 3. 3. Scène aux champs (Adagio)15:58
- 4. 4. Marche au supplice (Allegretto non troppo)4:48
- 5. 5. Songe d'une nuit du Sabbat (Larghetto - Allegro - Ronde du Sabbat: Poco meno mosso)11:03
- Luigi Cherubini (1760 - 1842)
- 6. "Anacreon" Overture9:44
- Daniel François Esprit Auber (1782 - 1871)La Muette de Portici
- 7. Overture8:18Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux, Igor Markevitch