11 Dec 2023

Berlioz: Addicted to music, not drugs

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 11 December 2023
Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz Photo: public doman

When lovers of classical music are called upon to defend their art from criticism that it's elitist – or worse, uncool – they often turn to Hector Berlioz for support.

Surely, here is proof that a classical music colossus can have as much of a sex and drugs lifestyle as any rock star?

After all, he writes a symphony with a narrative that depicts a man in an opium-fuelled dream, obsessing about a woman he's never met, who turns into a witch and dances on his grave (or something like that).

Berlioz didn't hesitate to utilise the full canon of orchestral resources. Photo:

And then there are the massive forces he employs to express those musical ideas. In his Requiem, when the 'Tuba Mirum' depicts the trumpet summoning the dead to their final judgement, a few brass instruments just won't cut it.

No, Berlioz employs four entire brass bands.

Good luck competing with that if you're in the choir.

So on the occasion of his 220th birthday (Berlioz was born on 11 December 1803), RNZ Concert host Bryan Crump sought out one of the world's leading Berlioz scholars, Hugh Macdonald, to confirm the role opium played in Berlioz's career.

Alas, it wasn't long before the facts were getting in the way of a good story.

Berlioz expert Hugh Macdonald

Berlioz expert Hugh Macdonald Photo: Supplied

"I think it's most unlikely. There's no evidence of it," Macdonald says from his home in Norwich, England, in answer to Crump's question about Berlioz's use of opium to fire his musical imagination.

"This is a silly story that gets around, because Symphonie fantastique has a programme in which the artist, under the effects of opium, imagines that he has killed his beloved."

Macdonald says the only serious drug use Berlioz indulged in was in his old age (several decades after he composed Symphonie fantastique) to manage the serious pain he was suffering from due to an intestinal illness.

"But that was standard medical practice at the time."

Sorry, Mr Bernstein, your claim that Berlioz's symphony is the musical biography of a composer 'taking a trip' and ending up 'screaming at your own funeral' is wrong.

Although it doesn't detract from a great version of the 'March to the Scaffold' movement.

Macdonald sees Berlioz's use of the fantastic, along with fantastic forces, as a natural result of his romantic philosophy and the popularity of massed musical ensembles in the wake of the French Revolution.

Berlioz had grown up hearing the sounds of massive wind bands, so why not put four of them in a Requiem Mass?

And if we want to explain the fantastic ideas (crazy dreams and witches dances), we don't need to look to drugs to explain them. Berlioz was a voracious reader, and his diet included all the wild poets of the early 19th century. He didn't need to take drugs when Lord Byron had sampled some for him.

Harriet Smithson

Harriet Smithson Photo: Public Domain

Some of those romantic notions weren't that successful. Take Berlioz's obsession with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson (the inspiration for his Symphonie fantastique), for example. He wrote that before he'd even met her, and while he did marry Smithson eventually, it was an unhappy marriage.

Macdonald also thinks focusing too much of Berlioz's epic works means we overlook his more subtle offerings, such as his song cycle Les nuits d'été (Summer Nights).

Berlioz's drug-taking image has also overshadowed the reputation of his later works, such as the opera Les Troyens, with many dismissing them as the tired offerings of a drug-fried brain.

For his part, Macdonald is proud of his work restoring and editing Berlioz's score, which has helped to revive interest in the opera in the 21st century.

Lucas Meachem and Christine Goerke in Les TroyensLucas Meachem and Christine Goerke in Les Troyens

Lucas Meachem and Christine Goerke in Les Troyens Photo: Todd Rosenberg

And if there's a piece of Berlioz Macdonald thinks we should all try, what would it be?

"If you want to show off his orchestral writing, I think the 'Royal Hunt and Storm' from The Trojans is a superb example of his masterly handling of a large orchestra."

Or one of the numbers from Les nuits d'été.  "These are songs I would recommend to anybody."

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