7 Mar 2019

Best of Berlioz: Five fantastique faves

From Upbeat, 1:25 pm on 7 March 2019

Dr Inge van Rij, Associate Professor (Musicology) at the New Zealand School of Music, shares some of her favourite pieces by Berlioz to mark 150 years since the composer’s death.

Fifth movement, Dream of a Night of the Sabbath, from Symphonie fantastique

Berlioz had a huge, wild imagination. The fifth movement of this symphony, says Inge Van Rij, is particularly unusual. “It's the bizarre sonorities he extracts”.

The symphony is the first Berlioz piece most people hear, and Inge remembers it as a violinist in the Wellington Youth Orchestra. “I still remember the thrill of having to turn my bow around and bounce it on the strings.”

She says it’s not just his incredible orchestral imagination but also the bizarre imagination of the programme's story: an artist, unlucky in love, overdoses on opium and experiences dark and disturbing visions of the object of his obsessive love.

“We have to be careful about treating the programme as literal. He didn't literally kill the object of his obsession and see her dancing on his grave... It's more I suppose autobiographical in the emotions he depicts.”

Berlioz was, indeed, obsessively in love: with a Shakespearian actress, Harriet Smithson. And though their relationship started with him essentially ‘stalking’ her, the two later married.

Tuba mirum, from Requiem

“This extract really encapsulates a lot of the things that dominated Berlioz's reputation in his lifetime,” says Inge. “The massed forces, the huge orchestra, the huge choir. He had, I think, over 400 performers at the premiere and he requested in the future he might have as many as 800 in the chorus alone.”

It’s a bombastic work reflecting the environment of post-revolutionary France, but it also shows his innovation with this kind of civic work – here, commemorating the soldiers who'd fallen in the 1830 Revolution in France.

“You hear here four independent brass bands which he wanted positioned all around, so the congregation is surrounded by the sound of the Last Judgement.”

Berlioz was rather amused by his being typecast as a composer for gigantic forces. Once, when asked if he was the composer who always wrote for 500 singers and players, he answered, “Oh, no! Sometimes I only ask for 450!”

D'amour, l'ardente flamme, from La damnation de Faust

“It’s so beautiful. The Damnation of Faust is one of my favourite works by Berlioz, one of my favourite works full stop.”

Inge says it's a good illustration of several characteristics common to Berlioz's music: his attraction to a great literary work (here, Goethe’s Faust), the appeal of a hero longing for something unattainable (unfulfilled love) and a work framed by the orchestra.

“Berlioz writes such achingly beautiful music for this character.”

Nuit d'ivresse, from The Trojans Op 29

The Trojans is based on Virgil’s Aeneid, which young Hector read as a boy in the original Latin. This duet also reflects Berlioz’s abiding love of Shakespeare, as he sets dialogue originally spoken by characters in The Merchant of Venice.

In her research, Inge found a New Zealand connection to Berlioz. In his book Nights with the Orchestra, he tells of a fellow composer, Vincent Wallace, who visited New Zealand, fathered an illegitimate child with the daughter of a Māori chief and subsequently abandoned her (much in the way that Aeneas leaves Dido in The Trojans).

Inge discovered that Wallace, an actual historical figure, did indeed visit these shores. She suspects, though, that as he was here for only a very short time the story of his affair was probably down to Berlioz’s colourful and rather mischievous imagination.

Berlioz often fantasised about leaving Paris to come to a far-off place such as New Zealand. But it seems he wasn’t always very complimentary about us. On occasion, Inge says, when hearing sub-standard opera performances in France he could be heard to declare that the singers “must have studied at the Conservatory of New Zealand”!

Summing up Berlioz’s continuing relevance to music lovers today, Inge says that works such as the Symphonie Fantastique remain popular because we’re able to identify with him – not as a ‘stalker’, but as someone who has an impossible love and has to pursue it to its end.

She also says that Berlioz’s music is often connected with a text or a programme, giving it the potential to be reinterpreted in a more modern context. “It remains fresh.”

Inge’s last musical choice was the song La captive. It’s possible that the text by Victor Hugo sums up some of Berlioz’s own feelings of longing:

If I were not a captive,
I would like this country,
And this plaintive sea,
And these fields of corn,
And these countless stars

La captive