Berlioz – A Life (2)

BERLIOZ – PART 2 – THE 1830’s

We last left Berlioz having won the Prix de Rome and written his Symphonie Fantastique in 1830. By this time the Harriet Smithson episode seemed finally to have been laid to rest and Berlioz had met someone else. Marie Moke was an 18 year old student pianist. It was the composer Hiller who was in Germany who requested Berlioz to promote his case. Berlioz arranged to see her and forgot the appointment. Marie was keener than ever to take up with Hector and he was lucky enough to have her fall into his lap, literally, and to pledge his plight. Apart from which, Marie, unlike Harriet, was a real flesh and blood woman and not someone just viewed from a distance. Marie’s mother was on the look out for a suitable fiancé for her daughter and Berlioz didn’t seem too bad a bet seeing he had just won the Prix de Rome. The terms of the prize were that he must go to Italy and not leave for two years; then do a further year in Germany.

The love crossed couple, having sworn eternal devotion, Berlioz reluctantly left France for Rome at the end of 1831. He had stopped over with his parents on the way, now accepted by them. He sailed for Leghorn on a boat claimed to have been used by Byron and made his way by coach from there to the Villa Medici, home of the French Academy in Rome. There he was greeted by the other prize winners. Their only obligation was to remain in Italy and to send back one work each year to the Conservatoire. Apart from that all there was to do was to soak up Italian sun and culture. He didn’t like Italy. He didn’t like its music and life at the Villa Medici bored him – quite the opposite to Gounod who was to exercise total immersion into Palestrina – and he made every effort to leave the city as often as possible, making frequent trips to the surrounding countryside. His happiest recollections recounted in his Memoirs were relaxing with a guitar in the Abruzzi Hills. .During one of these trips he came across a group of Italian brigands based in France whose aim was the creation of a unified Italy. Well one man’s brigand is another man’s patriot. These travels would later influence some of his music, particularly the symphony, Harold in Italy written in 1834 and inspired by Byron’s Childe Harold.

And then tragedy struck, followed by farce. Berlioz received a letter from Marie Moke’s mother telling him that the engagement was off. And to rub it in, that Marie was going to marry instead Camille Pleyel, son of the composer Ignaz Pleyel and more importantly a rich piano manufacturer. Berlioz decided to return to Paris where he would take revenge on Mlle Moke, Pleyel and the mother-in-law he would never now have, by killing all three of them. For this he took a pair of double-barrelled pistols from the Academy, first to kill them and saving a single shot for himself. He also bought phials of laudanum and strychnine just in case the pistol jammed. At Florence he ordered a woman’s dress from a seamstress plus wig and hat with a veil, partly so as to leave Italy unrecognized just in case he might need to return and also in order to fool his intended victims so as to gain admission to their home. However he managed to leave behind the package of clothing when changing coaches at Genoa. He got as far as Nice, or rather Nizza as it was in the Kingdom of Sardinia and still in Italy. He had begun to cool down and sent a telegram to the Villa Medici to ensure that he would not get deregistered and, with being assured of this, he spent a relaxed month at Nice. One reason for his change of heart was that he felt the need to make important changes to the Symphonie Fantastique and also the realization his art came first and what a tragic loss his death would be to posterity. He also was closely observed by the local police suspicious of him writing in his sketchbook on the beach. When questioned as to what he was up to he said he was composing music. The police were not taken in by this as clearly he could not have been composing without a piano. So he was dispatched back to Rome and safely to the Villa Medici again. There he would meet Mendelssohn who was passing through but neither left much impression upon the other.

Thus was the life of Marie Moke saved and she and Camille Pleyel got married but not to live happily ever after. They separated after four years of marriage on account of her multiple infidelities and she went on to be a celebrated concert pianist to whom Chopin dedicated his Opus 9 nocturnes and she eventually finished up as professor of piano at the conservatory in Brussels. Pleyel is best remembered by the Salle Pleyel, the concert hall in Paris named after him.

Whilst at Nice, Berlioz made extensive amendments to the Fantastic symphony and wrote a sequel in musico-dramatic form, “The Return to Life”, later renamed Lélio, now rarely ever mounted. I saw Eric Porter in the main role back in the 1960’s. The artist now emerges from his dream but still haunted by “that tune”, the idée fixe, and then turns to Goethe and Shakespeare for strength to face up to the life to which he has returned. Symphonie Fantastique was written under the spell of Harriet Smithson. Lélio, still based on the Harriet obsession, was more likely to have been written to exorcise Marie Moke and her mum. It is an example of nineteenth century melodrama, idealistic and more than over the top.

Two overtures emerged from his stay in Nice, “Rob Roy” after Walter Scott as was Waverley and “King Lear”. These are concert overtures as opposed to opera or incidental music overtures. They serve to be a warm up to a concert and more is the pity that orchestras tend to dispense with them these days. King Lear is interesting as it is longer than most concert overtures and could be described as an embryonic form of symphonic poem. Its sopening subject represents a gruff old king sounding rather like the cellos and basses heard at the beginning of the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The second subject is a gentle tune presumably representing Cordelia. The two are developed and only then does the main theme appear. Ultimately all three themes are further developed and recapitulated. It may not sound quite like King Lear should sound but then the William Tell overture doesn’t sound like the Swiss hero, more like the lone ranger.

Once back in Rome Berlioz produced nothing of significance. To avoid the heat there he would go to the Sistine Chapel and sit in a confessional reading Byron. These days he’d have to queue for five hours to gain admission. It was there that he hard Palestrina’s music about which he was scathing in his memoirs. Of the succession of chords, he wrote, that one may concede taste and a certain skill to the musician who wrote them. “But genius! They must be joking”. He travelled extensively in Italy and stored up his impressions and experiences. Eventually he obtained permission to return to France early.

Berlioz returned to Paris in November 1832 and his first plans were to mount a concert consisting of the revised Symphonie Fantastique and Le Retour à La Vie (Lélio). When it was eventually performed, there would be amongst the audience Victor Hugo , Alexandre Dumas, Heinrich Heine, Paganini, Liszt and Chopin, Georges Sand, Alfred de Vigny, Théophile Gautier and …..Harriet Smithson. Berlioz needed somewhere to live. His old premises were occupied and he took a place, almost opposite, where it happened that Harriet Smithson had once lodged. It turned out to be the same apartment even. Berlioz learned from the gardienne that Miss Smithson had been back in Paris and had only moved out the day before. What co-incidence After two years absence she had returned as director of the company. However it wasn’t going well and the fickle Paris audiences were no longer keen on Shakespeare or Miss Smithson. Berlioz records that he did not want to get further involved (so he says) but a mutual acquaintance asked him for a box at the concert for Miss Smithson. So it was that she was persuaded to go. When she saw the name of the composer she wondered whether it could be that odd ball from four years before. She knew nothing about the music or what had inspired it although everyone else seemed to know. When she got to the theatre she felt everyone was looking at her and then she recognized Berlioz taking his seat behind the conductor, Habaneck. If the programme note had not made clear the source of inspiration for the music the spoken text of Lélio with its references to his Ophelia and Juliette were enough to convince her, that is if she understood! Shortly afterwards they were introduced. They met at her place. She was down on her uppers, having run into near bankruptcy with the failure of the tour; she’d fallen on getting out of a coach and broken her leg in two places. Despite Berlioz not understanding spoken English and Harriet not knowing any French; despite objections by her mother and his father, they married in a civil ceremony in October 1833 with Liszt as one of the witnesses. (Someone should have an Oscar for this screenplay). The following year their only child, Louis Berlioz, was born.  Unfortunately Berlioz was soon to discover that living under the same roof as the Beloved would turn out to be far less appealing than worship of her from afar. Their marriage proved a disaster as both were prone to violent personality clashes and outbursts of temper.

In 1834, Paganini, himself a virtuoso viola player as well as violinist, had acquired a Stradivarius viola. Having been to the Berlioz concert he asked him to write a viola concerto for him. First of all Berlioz was hardly the person to write concertos for any one, least of all for someone like Paganini. Secondly the viola is an exceptionally difficult instrument to make heard and few had written for it. Mozart, who wrote concertos for almost every conceivable instrument and whose own instrument was itself the viola, managed only a sinfonia concertante (K364) for violin and viola. There are some rare exceptions, a viola concerto by Telemann and a delightful concerto for viola and organ by Michael Haydn. Berlioz was not known for his expertise for any particular instrument let alone writing for the likes of Paganini. What was brewing in his mind was a symphony based on Byron’s Childe Harold with the viola playing the role of the observer to the drama. It was the first fruits of his Italian sojourn, a work where the viola plays a dreamy commentary and without there being any fireworks for the soloist. Paganini, on seeing the first sketches, changed his mind about playing the piece himself. He in fact disappeared off to Nice and then Genoa for the next three years but Berlioz went on with it regardless. The premiere of the piece was held later that year

This is no concerto but a symphony with a prominent solo part, the first of its kind. Lalo wrote his Symphonie Espagnol which is more or less a violin concerto in all but name. Otherwise the nearest comparables are Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante and Britten’s cello symphony. The Berlioz is in four movements with picturesque titles but with little detailed programme compared to the Symphonie Fantastique. It also has an idée fixe, sometimes played on the viola and sometimes heard in the orchestra but unlike the Symphonie Fantastique it does not change in character. The first movement is Harold in the Mountains; the second is a pilgrims’ march to Rome which has a chant like melody, a kind of stanza where each repetition is different to its previous rendition. By odd co-incidence Mendelssohn also chose a pilgrims march for the second movement of his Italian symphony; the third movement is a delightful rustic dance, the Song of the Abruzzi Mountaineer, a bagpipe type moment and a typical Berliozian melody on cor Anglais reflecting on happy moments spent by him in the Abruzzi hills. The fourth movement owes something to the last movement of Beethoven’s ninth in that each of the three previous movements is recalled at the start. In Harold the pilgrim’s march returns near the end. So it is in effect an early example of cyclic form as later advanced by César Franck. In large concert halls the viola can get lost and I wonder if Berlioz might have had in mind a smaller salle. What a pity he didn’t meet Matthew Taylor whose own viola concerto is written with a near chamber group to support the soloist. Harold is a complete individual oeuvre and again amounts to a near first. Few others since have seemed ready to attempt a solo viola work. The best known is the concerto of William Walton in 1928 although there is a peach of a concerto by York Bowen written in 1908, the second performance only of which I heard at St Johns, Smith Square. Max Bruch also turned out some pieces for solo viola and orchestra or viola clarinet and orchestra between 1910 and 1912.

Paganini certainly revered Berlioz and often referred to him as the resurrection of Beethoven. He was not around for the first performance in 1834 as he was still in Italy, a very sick man with throat cancer. He eventually returned to Paris in 1837 where he opened a casino but he lost all his money and had to sell off his collection of instruments to recoup his losses. At the time, the opera Benvenuto Cellini was receiving its disastrous premiere at which Paganini was present.  It was at this time that he heardHarold for the first time and it is said that he went down on his knees before Berlioz and in front of the orchestra. In order further to demonstrate his approbation he sent his ten year old son to Berlioz’s home the next day with a letter addressed to his banker, M de Rothschild, authorising him to pay Berlioz 20,000 francs, a colossal sum, especially from someone with money problems. It allowed Berlioz to pay off his and Harriet’s debts, give up being a critic….for a time, and, most significantly, gave him the time he needed to write his next symphony, Romeo and Juliet. All of this with thanks to Paganini who would be dead within the year.

Although not performed till later Berlioz had written Benvenuto Cellini in 1836 following Harold in Italy. The two together evidence the legacy that the Italian period had left. He had already had in mind a large scale requiem with ideas resurrected from the early Messe Solennelle. Now in 1837 the Minister of the Interior had in mind for his political legacy to have an annual mass written to commemorate the July 1830 revolution which had brought Louis Philippe to the throne. Berlioz was to be the first to be commissioned but there was opposition by the Director at the Ministry of Beaux Arts who carried out delaying tactics as the Minister was shortly to leave office. Fortunately the day before his departure the minister insisted on the commission being sent and Berlioz soon had his Requiem at the ready. At this time France had become engaged in a colonial war to annexe Algeria and following the battle of Constantine, General Damrémont was killed. This then turned itself into an occasion for a ceremonial state funeral at the Hotel des Invalides with the Minister for War now being the responsible minister. At this point, old man Cherubini chimed in that it should be one of his requiems to be played on such an occasion but the new Minister held firm for Berlioz. Next, Berlioz, who by then preferred to conduct his own works, was told that Habaneck always conducted at state ceremonies. Berlioz did not object but was suspicious particularly as Habaneck had declined for the past three years to conduct his works. Thus came the great day when La Grande Messe Des Morts was to be performed in all its glory with the largest orchestra ever assembled, in the presence of King Louis Philippe and his government and the whole world and its dog. And here follows the great story of La Grande Messe des Morts or La Grande Whopper as recounted by Hector Berlioz. Berlioz himself sat in the front not far behind Habaneck and sensing trouble. Habaneck was not exactly a Simon Rattle and was known to put down his baton in order to take a pinch of snuff during a performance. The requiem requires in addition to its already enlarged brass section four brass “choirs” placed above and around the hall to give a quadraphonic effect, coming in the first time as the Tuba Mirum takes over from the Dies Irae. At this point the music slows to half the pace of the preceding Dies Irae. Now these four brass choirs cannot see the conductor and each has a separate conductor of its own who each in turn had to follow Habaneck’s beat. Of all the points in the Requiem, Berlioz states this to be the most critical. Yet it was approaching this very point that Habaneck chose to put down his baton and take out his snuff box. Realising that this would ruin the greatest effect of the Last Day of Judgement, Berlioz jumped up and with arms in the air beat out the change of tempo and all was saved thanks to him and glory be to God but not Habaneck. I have one problem with this. With royalty and government all there and all the visiting dignitaries the occasion was fully reported and acclaimed but not a word mentioned of this singular event! One suspects that the figment of imagination may have become glossed into fact by the time Berlioz had embellished the story and got round to writing his memoirs.

Berlioz considered the Requiem his best work. It needs enormous forces and breathing space for the chorus. (See the Addendum). It is one of those works best heard in the Albert Hall with the chorus stretching up from behind the orchestra to way above the organ loft. The extra brass are placed in loggias and the upper gallery. The full forces are only used in the Tuba Mirum with some of the extra brass joining in the Rex Tremendae and the Lachrymosa. Yet our memory becomes so overwhelmed that we forget that much of the work is quiet and contemplative as in Quid Sum Miser and the a capella Quarens Me (unaccompanied choir). Berlioz experiments in the Hostias by combining a low trombone with a high flute in an attempt to create a rich sonority. In the end it returns to the Te Decet Hymnus from the opening Requiem Aeternam before a final Amen which is out of this world.

The last great work by Berlioz from the 1830’s was his dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet, again absolutely novel. This time the programme is based on the Shakespeare story as adapted by Garrick and written for both choral and orchestral forces. It is divided into separate Parts, like acts in a play, as well as movements within. Mahler used this concept next in his fifth and eighth symphonies in the first decade of the twentieth century. A tradition has grown up of limiting performance to the orchestral sections alone which is sought to be justified on grounds that the rest is sub-standard. What a pity because the complete work is more rewarding. It contains a prologue for soloists, chorus and orchestra, a trailer for the story with snatches of the music to come. The best known parts for orchestra follow, Romeo Alone, Great Festivities at the Capulet Palace, the lengthy Love Scene and the magical Queen Mab Scherzo which outdoes Mendelssohn. There have been some complete performances on period instruments more recently by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under both Simon Rattle and Mark Elder. The work continues as choral with the funeral procession for Juliet, a kind of Benedictine chant; the warring families resuming their feud with the most modern orchestral sounds which would do justice to the twentieth century. One stark stabbing outbreak could have come right out of Nielsen’s fifth symphony. In the end the baritone in the role of Friar Lawrence has to overtop chorus and orchestra. As a symphony it is a strange amalgam but don’t underrate it.

Eight years had passed since his return from Italy during which time Berlioz had grown to become a giant of a composer, writing gigantic works, yes, but also containing sections of astonishing intimacy and melody. His wife had become gross and drink sodden, no longer the beautiful Ophelia or Juliet. I cannot say whether Guinness would have been her particular tipple. He had constant battles against the establishment in the Conservatoire and the Opéra as well as government ministries. He was obstinate and impetuous, admired by some and hated by others. Perhaps he should be described as a conviction composer. Now, where might I have heard something like this before?.




The Requiem was scored by Berlioz for a very large orchestra, four offstage brass bands, and chorus placed throughout the hall:

Woods 4 Flutes

2 Oboes

2 Cors Anglais

4 Clarinets

8 Bassoons

Brass 12 Horns

4 Cornets

4 Tubas


16 Timpani (10 players)

2 Bass Drums

10 pairs of Cymbals

4 Tam tams

4 Brass Choirs

Choir 1 to the North

4 Cornets

4 Trombones

2 Tubas

Choir 2 to the East

4 Trumpets

4 Trombones

Choir 3 to the West

4 Trumpets

4 Trombones

Choir 4 to the South

4 Trumpets

4 Trombones

4 Ophicleides (usually substituted by Tubas)


80 Sopranos and Altos

60 Tenors

70 Basses

             Tenor Solo


25 ViolinI

25 Violin II

20 Violas

20 Cellos

18 Double Basses