Hector Berlioz caricature, Wiener Theaterzeitung 1846 © Getty

Hector Berlioz: a musical trailblazer

With the intense preparations for the 250th anniversary in 2020 of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, we might be forgiven for forgetting that 2019 is the year of another significant musical commemoration. For it is also the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz, another giant of nineteenth-century music. This French composer is every bit the equal of Beethoven in terms of orchestral effects and forms. BOZAR pays tribute to Berlioz with his Messe Solenelle on 6 November.

Berlioz photographed by Pierre Petit © BnF
Berlioz photographed by Pierre Petit © BnF

Music with a story

Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) was an avant-gardist through and through, with little regard for the historically-defined genres of the symphony, the oratorio and the opera. He enjoyed blurring the distinctions between these genres in order to create new combinations. His most played work, the Symphonie Fantastique (1830), is an excellent example of this. In this symphony he does not restrict himself to the established orchestral structure but introduces instruments from opera such as the cor anglais, harp, tuba and E-flat clarinet. He also added the storytelling dimension we are familiar with in opera and oratorio. This makes Symphonie Fantastique an illustrative example of ‘programme music’. This is a type of music that tells an instrumental story inspired by a subject from literature, history or something equally ‘extramusical’.

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique / Blomstedt · Berliner Philharmoniker

In the Symphonie Fantastique Berlioz musically depicts an artist’s obsession with an unobtainable woman. This autobiographical theme was inspired by Berlioz’s love for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who – happily for him – he eventually married. Berlioz continued to mix things up in Harold en Italie (1834), a setting of Byron’s long epic poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1818), which sits somewhere between a viola concerto and a symphony. A few years later, Berlioz transformed Shakespeare’s Roméo et Juliette (1839) into a symphony with choir and soloists, which further manifested the kinship with opera.

Harriet Smithson as Ophelia in Shakespeares Hamlet © GR·DR
Harriet Smithson as Ophelia in Shakespeares Hamlet © GR·DR

Talented author

Berlioz was not just a gifted composer; he was also an excellent writer. Unjustly, because of his revolutionary ideas, Berlioz did not enjoy great popularity in France during his lifetime. As a result, he earned a living as a concert reviewer. In his autobiography, the Mémoires, Berlioz gives a fascinating insight into his life and music in rich, supple French. However, his most important work is his Grand Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes of 1843. In this tract, he describes in great detail the art or instrumentation and orchestration, and this inspired such grandmasters as Mussorgsky, Strauss and Mahler in their own work.

Big sound, big hair: caricature bust by Jean-Pierre Dantan © BnF
Big sound, big hair: caricature bust by Jean-Pierre Dantan © BnF

Messe Solennelle

On 9 November, to commemorate Berlioz’s birthday, BOZAR will resound with his magnificent Messe Solenelle. Berlioz stated a number of times in his Mémoires that he had burned the mass, and therefore the work was for many years considered lost. However, it was rediscovered in Belgium more than 100 years later in 1992, in the St Charles Borromeo Church in Antwerp.  Although the work structurally resembles a conventional mass, it bears the mark of a twenty-year-old composer brimming with revolutionary ideas. For example, he used atypical instruments and at times, the mass sounds distinctly operatic. The quality of the piece is also borne out by the fact that Berlioz recycled passages of it in his Symphonie Fantastique, Requiem and Te Deum. In the hands of Hervé Niquet and his orchestra and the Le Concert Spirituel choir – experts of the French repertoire – this concert promises to be among the highlights of this autumn’s programme.

Berlioz-"Resurrexit"Messe Solennelle

See also