You could go through a catalogue of all the different symphonies that picked up the opening of Beethoven 9,(Barenboim/Berlin) for quick albeit slow reminder let's listen to it. But I think we should probably stick for the moment with the one which makes the most obvious use of it. Bruckner's 8th.
Now let's just hear the opening of Bruckner's unbelievable eighth symphony, certainly one of the greatest ever written - which even copies the rhythm of the main theme of Beethoven 9, rhythm for rhythm: (Skrowaczewski/Saarbrucken)
Like Beethoven's 9th, it's debateable whether Bruckner 8 does not truly establish its key for the first ten minutes. Let's hear the iconic passage in Beethoven 9 where the undefined opening returns seemingly out of nowhere, as though it's been searching for the correct key the whole time, and then with such definition and vengeance (Szell/Philharmonia) halfway through the movement, as though once you hear it, you might regret you were ever looking for it.
Now let's hear a very similar process with Bruckner 8, in which it returns with perhaps even greater vengeance, and this time, Bruckner takes it to the next step, once he brushes up against the correct key, and hits it with a savagery that even dwarves Beethoven's, but then he keeps searching for the key as though to say that that level of agonizing vengeance is still not enough. (Wand/NDR)
Now let's let's listen to the end of the first movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony (Wand/NDR), with the famous, apocalyptic repeating tremolos in the strings - the technical word for this is Alberti Bass. Now let's compare that to the end of the first movement of Bruckner 7. That apocalyptic repetitition in Beethoven, perhaps a hurricane, gets transferred to the treble, and becomes Alpine Wind and Salvation in Bruckner 7. (Furtwangler/Berlin)
Now let's go to Berlioz. The figure in Beethoven's 9th goes chromatically downwards, the figure in the Symphonie Fantastique (Bernstein/New York) goes upwards.
So let's go to the last movement. I'm sure you remember the main theme of Beethoven's 9th? (Klemperer/Philharmonia/Hotter) Concentrate on the second half of the melody "Deine Zauber binden lieber."
So now let's hear the almost similarly famous theme from Brahms's 1st Symphony. (Klemperer/Philharmonia) Again, try to concentrate on the second half of the theme. That simple turn the second part of the phrase is exactly Deine Zauber binden lieber. When someone pointed out the similarity to Brahms, Brahms famously answered "Any jackass hears that." Though I'm not even sure any expert would if there wasn't that story. It's much easier to concentrate on how the melody unfolds in a very similar part of the symphony.
Now let's go to Bruckner 5, and with it, I'd like to go to a very different genre, the piano sonata, and Beethoven's crowning achievement in that: the Hammerklavier, which he wrote six years earlier, is a kind of rough draft of the ninth and in some ways, for all its weirdness, is more structurally coherent than in the 9th. The 9th is both perhaps the climax of all music ever written, and is also too large in its message and profundity to be contained by any structure. Think of the Shakespearean tragedies like Hamlet or Othello or King Lear - except for Macbeth, Shakespeare's ambition is clearly much larger than his sense of form, and the coherence kind of falls apart. That's even more true of any number of the greatest novels. Some people think that's a flaw, but I think it's a great strength. It means that the aim is so high that it can't be contained by perfection, it transcends perfection and goes straight to infinity. Beethoven 5 is perfect, but the Third, the Sixth, and the Ninth are anything but perfect, and for me, all three of them are greater works.
So back to the Hammerklavier Sonata, which is closer to perfect but by no means a perfect piece of music and thank god for that. Let's go straight to the last movement and compare it to the last movement of Beethoven's 9th. First, let's hear that unforgettable beginning of Beethoven's 9th's final movement, (Wand/NDR) in which Beethoven completely shatters the bonds of any kind of musical coherence and practically makes the cellos and basses talk to the rest of the orchestra. The winds quote the first three movements and each time, the cello seems to reject what the movement offers.
This moment is, to me at least, the definitive point of no return for music, when music takes on a completely different expressive purpose. It no longer has to be organized, it can simply express.
Beethoven had already been preparing us for this in a number of pieces, but never more than the Hammerklavier, in which he is already searching for an ending. In every movement so far, he alludes to the sort of formless void he begins the movement with, but he brings in all kinds of new materials. (Serkin). Instead of quoting movements, he seems to quote simple musical building blocks, almost like finger exercises. First a series of simple fourths to bring us to what's called a cadence, which in this case means nothing more than harmonic resolution. Then Beethoven brings in a series of scales. And then some fugal counterpoint which sounds as though it's straight out of Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier. And then back to the form, and one of, to me, the great moments in music, when he holds a trill, and then bursts the dam of what any formal container can hold with a pianistic explosion of chords that cannot possibly be measured with a proper tempo - a literal shattering of the limits of possibility. Beethoven finally brings them all together with the most complex fugal subject the human brain had yet imagined, which he then spends ten minutes or much more (depending on the performance) resolving in a fugue.
Now let's go back to Bruckner's 5th Symphony. Purely in terms of construction, this is easily Bruckner's greatest symphony. Is it his greatest symphony overall? Tough to say, I think Bruckner is the single greatest composer of slow movements, and best of all is the slow movement of his seventh which we'll talk plenty about in future weeks. It also doesn't have the agonizing conflict of Bruckner's final two that so prefigures Mahler, we'll talk about the final two symphonies as well. But in the 5th is certainly the most perfect from a structural point of view, in fact it might be the only symphony by Bruckner which completely works structurally, and the first symphony since Beethoven's 9th to find a completion to the open-ended and clearly incomplete form of Beethoven's 9th. Until Bruckner 5, just about all symphonies were either semi-dramatic in the manner of Beethoven 9, more on that in the second half, or they were fashioned in a more objective way after the manner of way Beethoven's first eight. Mendelssohn's Scottish is semi-dramatic and tries deliberately to not make sense in the manner of Beethoven 9, but his Italian could almost be written by Mozart. Schumann's Rhenish doesn't try to make much structural sense, but his Fourth is practically Beethoven 5 rewritten, and we'll come back to Schumann 4 in a minute. But by what I at least think is a close study over the Hammerklavier and Schumann 4, I think Bruckner found a way to create an objective, purely musical symphony, on a scale that not even Beethoven could reach.
Let's talk about all the various things that go into making the miracle that is Bruckner 5. Start with its very slow, still beginning and what happens after it up to the second subject. (Barenboim/Berlin St.)
Bruckner is usually thought of as a great musical architect. People always describe his symphonies as musical cathedrals, which is truer than people realize. If Bruckner is a musical architect, then he's not a very competent one. In every symphony but this, he bites off a lot more than he can chew. Cathedrals are supposed to reach the heavens and challenge the realms of what's possible on earth, and that's exactly what Bruckner symphonies do. Both the glory of them and the weakness is that when you plan something on such a massive scale, nothing ever goes as planned. They become like labyrinths in which every section takes on a mind of its own and by the time it's completed, it looks nothing like the schematic. This is what it means to create great art, you don't create the work, the work creates itself, and thereby creates you.
Daniel Barenboim one of the great musicians of this or any era, has a different take on Bruckner, he calls Bruckner a musical archeologist. I think that's just as true about Bruckner, even if neither are the whole story. Listen again to that second subject.
This is Bruckner, the supposedly most ethereal composer, utterly unconnected to the earth, channelling a guitar, a simple folk singer intoning a melody that is older than history. Now let's hear the beginning of the second movement. It's the guitar again. The most common misconception about Bruckner is that he's completely spiritual visionary and disconnected from any worldly concern. Bruckner is just the opposite, he's a spiritual visionary because was a medieval peasant thrust into a world much too modern for him. He was a person of too much flesh and blood, and most of the most celebrated performances of his music are about 20% too slow and completely neuter Bruckner of his dance rhythms and the singability of his melodies.
So let's now go back slightly to Schumann 4. Here's the introduction to Schumann 4 (Karajan/Berlin). In the second movement Schumann starts with a very similar oboe theme to Bruckner 5. Schumann then brings back the opening music. But he then turns that lugubrious half-melody from the introduction into a luminous full melody. In the trio, the middle section, of the third movement, the Scherzo, he then brings it back and sets up the final transition to the triumphant last movement.
So, let's hear the guitarish beginning of the Bruckner 5 second movement again. And now, let's hear the beginning of the third movement. It's the exact guitar melody, but in a nightmarish guise, and juxtaposed against a country landler. A lot of people say that Bruckner has no sense of humor. But think about that juxtaposition. Where might Bruckner have gotten the first theme of his scherzo? (Klemperer/Philharmonia). And where might he have gotten the second theme? (Boskovsky/Vienna)
So now to the finale, one of the most extraordinary pieces of music ever conceived. The beginning is almost the same as the opening. There's one crucial difference. Let's hear the opening again. And now let's hear the opening of the finale. That gentle clarinet two-note octave figure. Then creating a slightly larger motif with the clarinet. Oh you have no idea permutations it will go through... But then, right afterwards, the first subject returns. That clarinet motif again. Then back to the guitar and the Schumann oboe. Then, insistently, the clarinet motif a third time.
I don't know if any of you ever took grandchildren to see WALL-E. But there's a moment which I would imagine would give children nightmares in which WALL-E, a very small almost human machine, encounters an ultra-developed futuristic version of himself that is about 100x the size. Well, remember that clarinet motif, when you hear what comes next. Then, in the middle of all that ultra-serious, semi-Wagnerian heaviness comes a polka, and then an almost sappy, sentimental ballad. Listen to the oscilating eighth-notes, even when a counter-melody plays because that's crucial.
So let's now hear the very innocent end of that polka/ballad, and hear exactly how Bruckner turns that eighth note figure upside down.
Now remember that weird from nowhere brass chorale at the beginning? We're finally beginning to see how this is taking shape.
We obviously don't have time to go through all the motions of how Bruckner then takes us through a gigantic fugue, no doubt inspired by the fugue in the Hammerklavier Sonata, and then we'll skip the second appearance of that same polka. Let's just go straight to the end where that little clarinet toot theme is taken up by that entire brass chorale, which gets ever fuller as the final theme develops and incorporates more and more material from all throughout the symphony. It is a miracle of construction, and so difficult that it's the only time Bruckner ever truly nailed it.
Bruckner sprinkles fragments all throughout the symphony of his final chorale, and at the end, the already ecstatic chorale has twice the impact because they are all present together. Both the young Mahler and the young Sibelius heard Bruckner 5. Sibelius was particularly bowled over by it, and when these two composers did, the Symphony was officially ready to take on the entire universe again.
The distance between Beethoven's 9th and Bruckner's 5th is fifty years during which time, nobody really understood how to make a symphony on Beethoven 9's scale and make it more cohesive. Until anyone did, the symphony was in a complete bind. It could express grand thoughts, but it could not, as Beethoven did, express the whole world. For those fifty years, the symphony could never again be quite the same grand metaphysical statement it was for Beethoven. To trespass on the limits of infinity, it needed the help of other arts, more narrative and poetic arts, to make the universe vibrate. In that time, the Symphony went into a kind of hibernation. Not a complete hibernation; great symphonies were certainly written during these fifty years, but they were not quite as grand as Beethoven's 9th, or they were narrative symphonies like Berlioz's and Liszt's. The musical world's attention was mostly either on the piano music of Liszt, Chopin, and Schumann, or on the operas of Verdi and Wagner and Gounod, and if it was at all on symphonic music, it was on Liszt's Symphonic Poems. Bruckner's 5th was not even performed for nearly twenty years after its composition, but a year after Bruckner 5's composition came the ultimate next step in narrative music - the full premiere Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung. Music had grown so enormous that perhaps it could now tell a dramatic story better than drama itself. It was so exhaustive that in its wake, great composers were at a loss for what to do, and they began to return to the Symphony. But in the second half, we'll talk about those dramatic symphonies which skirted the line between absolute music on the one hand, and music with a program on the other. We'll talk particularly about the musician who brought Wagner most of the way to where his musico-dramatic imagination could take flight, because in order to get there, he needed to complete the road that the greatest practitioner of pure drama ever in music set for him, Hector Berlioz.
There are certain composers whom the world seems to only understand recently, and they get enormous numbers of performances when they used to get very few. Mahler started being played all the time by orchestras capital cities in the 1960s, and by the 80s he was being played all the time by the orchestras of regional cities too. Stravinsky is really only considered difficult music today by people over the age of 70, everybody else seems to get the idiom of nearly everything except his final period and he's one of the ten or fifteen most played composers. Sibelius isn't thought of as the 20th century Beethoven anymore, and he isn't played quite as often as he was in the 40s or 50's, but when he's played by orchestras, it's not the same three or four pieces over and over again; it's nearly the entirety of his absolutely gigantic output. Almost all of which is magnificent.
But we're thirteen years away from the 200th anniversary of the Symphonie Fantastique, and I am convinced that Berlioz is still ahead of our time. The best evidence of this is the utter disproportionality of the performances which the Symphonie Fantastique gets compared to every other note Berlioz ever wrote.
Don't get me wrong, the Symphonie Fantastique is every bit as amazing and revolutionary as people say it is. Audiences have never gotten tired of it, and I've never gotten tired of it either. But it's obscured so many other pieces by Berlioz, pieces that might still be greater, because as weird as it seems, it's still his most normal large-scale work. Unjustly, we're going to have to curtail how much we talk about Berlioz's other music.
Berlioz calls his rendering of Romeo and Juliet a Symphonie Dramatique, but it has so little to do with symphonies as they're generally practiced. It's of a form its own, a kind of hybrid of oratorio and opera. A kind of Symphonic Theater that only yet exists in the imagination of Berlioz. The only other works in this form are The Damnation of Faust, L'Enfance du Christ, the Requiem, the Symphonie funebre et triumphale, the Te Deum, Harold in Italy, and possibly even his operas. Really, the Symphonie Fantastique is in this form too. It's just that Berlioz's imagination is still just barely contained by the Symphony. Any further and any application of the word 'Symphonie' to his music would just be a label which he strapped to his music so that he had something to call it.
It's almost impossible to appreciate Berlioz's music properly without visual stimulus, because you have to see the 19th century grandeur et gloire in front of you. You need to see the gigantic battery of instruments, some of which you wouldn't recognize. You need the live immediacy of feeling Berlioz's climaxes vibrate against your bones.
I wonder if we're soon entering an age in which Berlioz will finally be properly understood, because we're now living in an electronic age when any combination of sounds can be summoned forth by any musician, even if he is not a great musician by normal standards.
Something to realize about Berlioz is that of all the composers we've so far talked about, and most of the composers to come, Berlioz is the only one who is not a particularly distinguished instrumental musician. He learned flute and guitar, that's it. He wasn't particularly good at either.
What Berlioz was was a great writer. His memoirs are genuinely funny, and Berlioz, unlike many composers, had a fantastic sense of humor about himself - a humor that's everywhere in his music. He was refused, again and again, entrance to the Paris Conservatoire, and can you really blame poor Luigi Cherubini, one of the villains of his memoirs but thanks to Berlioz a terribly underrated composer ever since, for turning away a potential composer who couldn't play an instrument! But Berlioz kept at it, he wrote incredibly perceptive music criticism that was read far and wide, and his compositions managed to impress another Italian composer, Gaspare Spontini, who became a kind of friend and mentor, and pulled strings and Berlioz finally was accepted, and after four attempts in which he lost to no-names, he finally won the prize every composition student coveted, the Prix de Rome, the prize for the best cantata. And this was, mind you, after he wrote the Symphonie Fantastique and was nearly 30. The reward was, as implied, a study abroad in Rome with stipend. Why a composer would leave Paris at that point for Rome, nobody knows. Paris was the intellectual capital of the world, and Berlioz was now its most notorious composer, while Rome was a backwater that hadn't been important in either politics or culture for more than a century. It's particularly odd that Berlioz left because after he left, his fiancée left him for another man. This was also the occasion of the best part of Berlioz's autobiography, when he planned on coming back to Paris to disguise himself as a maid so he could break into his fiancée's house, kill her, kill her mother, kill the new groom, and then kill himself, only to lose his maid costume in Genoa and go back to Rome.
This is a completely different kind of man than the great classicists. In some ways closer to Mendelssohn and Schumann - incredibly well-educated and worldly, from the middle class, but unlike Schumann and Mendelssohn, Berlioz was not bound by the Middle Class. He had no real sense of middle class responsibility. He was basically an upper-middle-class bohemian like so many college rebels, rebelling against a father who wanted him to be a doctor like him, and living his entire life for his passions of the moment. Perhaps he's a sixties flower child a hundred thirty years before the rest of them.
I forget whether it was Mendelssohn or Schumann who said that Berlioz was a genius who lacked talent. That's obviously a bit unfair but you easily see what's meant by that. Schumann hit it more on the mark when he wrote that Berlioz sounds as though his music seeks to return itself to a primal state where downbeats did not yet oppress it. He then compares it to Greek drama and the Bible. That's much closer to the mark.
There are certain composers, some who did it even better than Berlioz, who get to a state of pure expression. There are no cliches in their work, just a completely personal language. To me the most purely expressive composer is Mussorgsky. It's hard to explain in a few sentences, but every single note feels like it means something incredibly significant in relation to every other note. Janacek is barely less so and so is Schumann.
But Berlioz is not after expression nearly so humane as any of those three, he's after something that is completely larger than life. He is the giant of musical romanticism living on the divide from the last giants of musical classicism. On the other side of the divide is Beethoven and Schubert, and in their last works, the classical forms are just about breaking down, and in a number of cases do just that. z On the other side of that dam is Berlioz and Schumann, who seem to compose more from their imagination than any sense of form. Schumann, once he gets into his thirties, becomes ashamed of his lack of form and tries to stuff the genie back into the bottle, but he can't; and by the time he's goes into the asylum, he's living on the musical edge again. But Berlioz lives there unashamed, and he lives there for the entirety of his career until his death in 1869, by which point Wagner has tried to reign in Berlioz's purer imagination by giving operas a formal cohesion which Wagner calls leitmotifs. But that's for another class...
Beethoven and Schubert are probably greater composers than Berlioz, so is Schumann, so certainly is Mozart. Their music is more life-size, more focused on the needs in the souls of real people. But Berlioz is, to put it simply, the most imaginative composer who ever lived, and he's also one of the most fun. It's impossible to hear the Symphonie Fantastique, or Harold in Italy, or Romeo, or Faust, without leaving in an amazing mood. When you come down to the emotional substance of Berlioz, it's a bit like Rossini on crack.
But even if he's not the most substantial or adult in his emotions, we have just barely begun to understand the enormity of Berlioz's imagination. It's one thing to create the gigantic works of Wagner and Mahler and Strauss when there was an example to pave the way. But with Berlioz, there was no example at all. So far as we know, he did it all from scratch.
But Berlioz, people are still only gradually catching up to how great this music is. Capital cities probably always heard Romeo and Juliet fairly often, even if we in the provinces never do. But major metropoles now get the Requiem regularly and maybe even Faust. A major opera house might put on Les Troyens once a decade now, and if audiences live in the right place, they might occasionally get to hear Benvenuto Cellini or Beatrice et Benedict. But the rest of us in the provinces still only hear the Symphonie Fantastque with any regularity at all. Berlioz is still both too expensive and too weird for a lot of music lovers. The majority of music lovers drop everything when a Wagner opera comes to town, they never tire of Mahler symphonies or Strauss symphonic poems, they still show up in droves for anything by Tchaikovsky, Liszt piano music makes them swoon, and none of that is possible without Berlioz's example. Even a lot of Schumann's piano music isn't possible without his encounter with the Symphonie Fantastique in 1835. Berlioz IS 19th century music, and moreover, Berlioz IS the orchestra. His influence is so all-pervasive, his ideas about music so far reaching, that it's still impossible to see Berlioz's music for what it really is.
The modern orchestra in all its endless combinations and arrays of sound was created by Berlioz, who envisioned something far far grander. What you have below is the array of Berlioz's ideal orchestra, which, if I'm not mistaken comes out to 467 players.
120 Violins divided in two, three, or four parts;40 Violas divided optionally into first and seconds, at least ten of which would at times play the viola d’amore;45 Cellos, divided into first and seconds;18 Double-Basses with 3 strings tuned in fifths (G, D, A);4 Octo-Basses;15 Double-Basses with 4 strings tuned in fourths (E, A, D, G);6 Flutes;4 Flutes in E flat, incorrectly known as Flutes in F;2 Piccolos;2 Piccolos in D flat, incorrectly known as piccolos in E flat;6 Oboes;6 Cors Anglais;5 Saxophones;4 Tenoroons;12 Bassoons;4 Clarinets in E flat;8 Clarinets (in C, B flat or A);3 Bass Clarinets (in B flat);16 Horns (6 of them with valves);8 Trumpets;6 Cornets;4 Alto Trombones;6 Tenor Trombones;2 Bass Trombones;1 Ophicleid in C;2 Ophicleids in B flat;2 Tubas.30 Harps;30 Pianos;1 very deep Organ, with at least sixteen foot stops;8 Pairs of Timpani (10 players);6 Drums;3 Bass Drums;4 Pairs of Cymbals;6 Triangles;6 Sets of Bells;12 Pairs of Antique Cymbals (tuned to different pitches);2 Large and very deep Bells;2 Gongs;4 ‘Jingling Johnnies’;
Some of these instruments don't even exist anymore. More on that later. The point of showing you this list is that Berlioz thought so outside the box of what was considered acceptable musicmaking at the time that in order to describe Berlioz, you need to think in completely different terms from any of the German composers we've talked about thus far.
Berlioz was French, an not even the Germans loved Beethoven as much as they did - Germans were still reeling from Beethoven's late period which felt to many of them like Beethoven had turned into a deaf madman. But Berlioz heard the Eroica for the first time in 1828 when he was twenty-five, and like seeing Shakespeare for the first time, his world turned upside down. He realized that music could be so much more than he thought it was.
While Berlioz loved Don Giovanni, his other musical frames of reference were not Mozart or even Bach. It was Christoph Willibard Gluck and Carl Maria von Weber. Both German composers, yes, but not great symphonists, both fundamentally composers for the theater.
Gluck certainly influenced Mozart, Weber was a close younger relative of Mozart's wife, but neither of them were Mozartian. Let's listen to a bit of their more demonic music to understand this parallel world of opera which so inflamed certain romantics.
Let's start in backwards order with Weber, (C. Kleiber/Dresden) in a scene of a German forest in the presence of the devil.
Now, with the demonic jig of those hunting horns in fresh in your head, I want you to hear the demonic jig you've all heard that Berlioz makes out of the most proper music in the world, a C-Major fugue. (Munch/Boston)
Now let's listen to a bit of Gluck. In which Alceste contemplates the Greek underworld. (Callas/Pretre)
Now listen to the exact next passage in Berlioz. (different Munch/Boston)
Gluck and Weber provide a kind of direct line from pre-Haydn composers back into the mainstream of music. From Gluck and Weber, you get Handel much closer to Berlioz's musical DNA than you do in Haydn or Beethoven until their late periods when they were looking to create great choral music. Handel did not really effect them until their old age. So now we have the basic musical recipe for Berlioz's sense of musical drama.
The next step is to take in Berlioz the reader and writer. The most basic difference between the great classical symphonists and the great early romantic symphonists is that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were not educated as intellectuals. All three of them read and were aware of developments around them, Beethoven tried especially hard to correct this flaw in himself later in life, but Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Schumann were all extremely educated and derived much of their inspiration from ideas outside of music. There is literally one work by Berlioz, from very early in his career, that is not inspired by a literary source. Berlioz's greatest literary passions are obvious from the works he set. Shakespeare most of all, but Virgil, Byron, Goethe, Sir Walter Scott, texts from the Catholic liturgy.
To understand Berlioz, we have to think of him as a sort of antithesis to Bruckner. Bruckner, a kind of neurotic reactionary who sees everything from how the Church tells him, too inhibited to think independently, sees this new world order and wants to bring it to heal. Berlioz sees it and wants to ride the chaos as far as he can. The formless chaos Beethoven's 9th's last movement becomes an entire piece which is bound by the most minimal consideration of form. Considerations that get ever looser as Berlioz moves through his career, and by the time of the Damnation of Faust, he is no longer calling these orchestral theater pieces Symphonies, they're simply too big and strange to be contained by any pretense to symphonic form. Even in the Symphonie Fantastique, it's five movements. And Schumann, when he reviewed the Symphonie Fantastique, was perceptive enough to realize that Berlioz probably did five movements because that's traditionally the order of a play.
The Symphonie Fantastique is fundamentally based on Confessions from an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey. But Berlioz had too much imagination to follow any plot slavishly. Whereas programs were certainly implied in many moments of Beethoven, they're never expressed outright. We can only use our imaginations to figure out what Beethoven meant, if he meant anything at all. But Berlioz is much, much more voluble in telling us what he wants us to think of. Here's what he had to say about the first movement of the Symphonie Fantastique.
The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist's mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognizes a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.
This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.
There is so much to say about the introduction, and yet even to concentrate just on the Symphonie Fantastique in this hour, we have to skip it over. It is, by some measure of leagues, the most sophisticated slow introduction yet conceived in symphonic form, and will be until Mahler's 1st.
So when the main theme is first introduced, we immediately hear things that could be manic sighs of ecstacy and outbursts of fury and jealousy. Complete with accelerated heartbeat in the other strings. (Jansons/Concertgebouw)
And maybe this moment is a panic attack, complete with cries of Pu-tain! (Munch/Paris)
So, about those 'upward excursions of aimless joy...' What exactly is Berlioz doing when he's imagining his ideal beloved? (Dudamel/Bolivar/Radio France) ...............
You'll never hear that passage the same way again..., but that's pure speculation on my end. I have no idea... Remember, all these composers had a 19th century view of love and sex, which approaches it with a kind of reverence we don't have, and would not approach it with our kind of immature smirks. Perhaps Berlioz did mean it comically, he was certainly no stranger to humor either in his music or in his prose, but it can't be entirely insincere, and even today, this kind of self-revelation - if that's what this is... seems rather embarrassing and too vulnerable. But without these embarrassingly grand passions, without the love intermingled with lust and both intermingled with dread and fear, there's no great art. There's no Romeo and Juliet, there's no Faust and Marguerite, there's no Dido and Aeneas, there's no Beatrice and Benedict.
Let's just read this Emily Dickinson's Poem and tell me if this could be about anything else:
If you were coming in the Fall, I'd brush the Summer by With half a smile, and half a spurn, As Housewives do, a Fly.
If I could see you in a year, I'd wind the months in balls—And put them each in separate Drawers, For fear the numbers fuse—
If only Centuries, delayed, I'd count them on my Hand, Subtracting, till my fingers dropped Into Van Dieman's Land.
If certain, when this life was out—That your's and mine, should be— I'd toss it yonder, like a Rind, And take Eternity—
But now, uncertain of the length Of this, that is between, It goads me, like the Goblin Bee— That will not state—its sting.So before we do anything else, let's appreciate another piece of poetry. A longer piece than anything in Emily Dickinson, though not so long. It feels longer because most of it is truly abysmal. But there are a couple salvageable lines from it, and when you read these you immediately see the appeal of Byron.
The ball begins—the honours of the houseFirst duly done by daughter or by spouseSome potentate—or royal or serene—With Kent’s gay grace, or sapient Gloster’s mien,Leads forth the ready dame, whose rising flushMight once have been mistaken for a blush.From where the garb just leaves the bosom free,That spot where hearts were once supposed to be;Round all the confines of the yielded waist,The strangest hand may wander undisplaced;The lady’s in return may grasp as muchAs princely paunches offer to her touch.Pleased round the chalky floor how well they trip,One hand reposing on the royal hip;The other to the shoulder no less royalAscending with affection truly loyal!Thus front to front the partners move or stand,The foot may rest, but none withdraw the hand;And all in turn may follow in their rank,The Earl of—Asterisk—and Lady—Blank:Sir—Such-a-one—with those of fashion’s host,For whose blest surnames—vide “Morning Post.(Or if for that impartial print too late,Search Doctor’s Commons six months from my date)—Thus all and each, in movement swift or slow,The genial contact gently undergo;Till some might marvel, with the modest Turk,If “nothing follows all this palming work?”True, honest Mirza!—you may trust my rhyme—Something does follow at a fitter time;The breast thus publicly resign’d to man,In private may resist him—if it can.You can still feel the heat, but imagine yourself in a corset and never having anyone touch anything yet but your hand, and you understand how Lord Byron became the poet that defined his age.
Now, let's hear the beginning of the second movement, written in 1830 when the waltz was still subversive and erotic didn't immediately make you think of the stuffy imperial court of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. You can't mistake the instant hallucinatory flutter to the touch of the waltz at the beginning, or how there's something almost electric about the way the harp tingles. It's very easy, in our day, to hear this as a kind of cinematic flush from a haze into the ballroom, but remember, there were no movies at the time. I think it's erotic anticipation, but perhaps it's hearing the band from the next room right before you make the entrance. Either way, that shimmering haze is so far ahead of what any German composer had ever thought of. (Muti/Philadelphia)
Once again, the flourish builds up, and there is an unmistakable erotic whirl of excitement. This is a ball, the once place in 19th Century society with its semi-medieval notions of courtly love from afar, and this is the one place where he potentially has the opportunity touch his beloved. So what then does a clear view of her right in front of him do to his mind?
It really is a shame that most performances of the Symphonie Fantastique clearly put all their rehearsal time into the last two movements. So often you have the experience of being bored and suddenly the performance snaps into focus in the last third - the BSO did that last year under Lodivic Morlot.
But for better or worse, this is, truly, the last obvious appearance of sex in the Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz was an atheist, but he grew up Catholic and still clearly has his hangups.
I never could make heads or tails of the third movement until I read a book interview with Thomas Ades, a famous contemporary composer, and he suggested that this movement takes place when Berlioz has already taken the opium that provides the famous dreams of the last two movements. It's a fascinating thought, and anyone who has ever been on various kinds of drugs (and of course, this teacher never has....) will find these impressions sort of familiar.
You sort of sit there for a while, you wonder 'what the hell's taking so long?' You notice every little thing that happens around you and you try to judge whether or not it's actually doing anything. And you have no idea what effect it's having on you until the effect is overwhelming. Listen to the beginning of this movement. Berlioz needs a palate cleanser between the hot and heavy stuff at the beginning and the nightmares of the end. If the audience didn't sit there for a while, it would come away with sensory overload, which is what audiences still do to many Berlioz works. Their loss, as far as I'm concerned, but it is what it is.
Listen to that beginning, it's almost as though it's supposed to suck the air out of the room. (Bernstein/New York)
It's two shepherds playing a duet on the pipes, but it's so unbelievably dry and thin compared to what comes before. Your pulse is supposed to slow down to get you ready for the onslaught of what's to come.
But there's an interesting line in Berlioz's description of the third movement. '...painful thoughts disturb him, what if she betrayed him?' This has to imply that there was something to betray. Perhaps a long time has elapsed from when last they saw each other. Perhaps they did dance, perhaps he asked to see her, courted her, asked for her hand. Perhaps, like Prince Andrei and Natasha in War and Peace, they're already engaged. But Berlioz, like Prince Andrei, has a very domineering father. Berlioz's father insisted on a career in medicine, and Berlioz ran out of the room in horror at his first operation - which perhaps explains some of the hallucinations in the last movement. Perhaps Berlioz got an admonition from his domineering father to give this woman a year to mature and if, after the year, they're still faithful to one another and the feelings haven't cooled, they can get married.
Again, this is purely fantasy on my part. And at that point, Berlioz had still not actually met Harriet Smithson, who would eventually become his wife. She'd come with an English theater company to Paris, and he'd seen her play Ophelia, Juliet, and Desdemona. Perhaps he also saw her in some English Augustan plays like She Stoops to Conquer and Sheridan's The Rivals. He was instantly infatuated, perhaps conflating his love of her with his love of Shakespeare. He would send her passionate letters in French, which she did not speak, about how much her performances moved Berlioz, who did not speak English.
But then there's the moment of freakout. Everybody who's taken some drugs knows this moment too. It makes the panic attack in the first movement tame. You hear the Berlioz's storm, perhaps his drug-addled mind is conflating nature with his own emotions, or maybe Berlioz is simply panicking because he knows that his fiancée of the moment will soon leave him for another man. (Munch/Paris) You hear the terror, you hear the way that he hyperventilates, you hear the way he gradually catches his breath again. And then you hear him gradually go to sleep, against a background of thunder in the distance. (Dudamel/Bolivar/Radio France)
But now, the freakout becomes a series of nightmares, and in order to understand them, we have to understand that this is 1830, the year of another French revolution. Austria was in great shape, but France was in chaos. There were two claimants to the throne. After the Congress of Vienna, Louis XVIII from the Bourbon line, younger brother of Louis XVI, ruled for nine years. The Bourbons were the tradtional monarchs of France since 1553. Louis XVIII was a constitutional monarch who governed with a parliament like England's. He was generally a very popular moderate who delegated and governed from the center. Louis XVIII was childless and succeeded by yet another younger brother, Charles X, who was an ultra-royalist and conservative who paid reparations to everyone whose property had been confiscated in the French Revolution. This led to lots of opposition which for a hard-right winger necessitates censorship, which of courses caused more dissent, which resulted in suppressing the dissenters. Parliament passed a motion of no confidence, so King Charles dissolved parliament and refused to call new elections, he suspended freedom of press, dissolved the Chamber of Deputies - which was like the French House of Commons, and stripped the middle class of voting rights.
Nobody wanted war, and everybody was terrified that there would be yet another civil war, yet another dictatorship, still more guillotine, no matter who wins. And there was no more potent symbol of terror to a Frenchman of that era than the guillotine and public executions. (Norrington/OAE)
Does this sound a little different? From here on, I'm going to occasionally start using examples with period instruments for these two movements. Usually, original instruments bring very little original to the table, but in Berlioz, so much of his music depends on the sound itself that a different make of instrument completely changes the music.
Remember some of those songs we heard when we were talking about Beethoven's 5th?
Well, I have no idea if this is Berlioz's own invention or an actual revolutionary song, but the flavor of it is unmistakable.
Even in the best performances, this movement rarely really understood. In the last movement, conductors should go as crazy as they like, but this movement has to be unyieldingly severe until the end. The metronome marking is very slow, much slower than it's almost ever played, because the executant has to move his way through a crowd. It has a repeat sign, it is, probably, the most symphonically constructed movement in the work. It should be twice as long as it usually is, and you lose an enormous number of colors if you don't play it as written, to say nothing of the crudity you lose with original instruments. I'm rarely someone who says that original instruments contributes much to our understanding, but here, it really does.
So what could this passage signify here? On the one hand you have the sort of laughing woodwinds, perhaps that's the laughter of the crowd. On the other, you hear how the strings ascend another note in every measure? Perhaps that's each step up the scaffold. And then you hear those gigantic symbol crashes. Perhaps that is the guillotine sounding for the victims before you.
And now a strange galloping rhythm. What can this possibly be? I suppose I hear this and hear horses pulling a carriage of the next batch of execution victims. Here I think it's ok to speed up, and Lenny does an admirable job of figuring out exactly what to do with this. (Bernstein/New York)
One last thought of the beloved, a guillotine crash, the head falls and bounces twice, then it's presented to the public and the public cheers 'Hourraaaaaaa! Hourraaaaa!'
And now the part everybody remembers. The beginning is as though you're waking up to your nightmare and the full horror of where you are gradually occurs to you in steps. (Jansons/Concertgebouw)
And now that it's established you're in hell, Berlioz, who's surely read Dante, has to find out his own personal torture, which is to find out that his beloved is in fact a witch, a grotesque demon from the beyond sent to the world above precisely so that he would murder her, thereby damning himself.
So now is where it gets really weird. Let's just start with a quick refresher on Gregorian Chant, and the creepy music sung in the Requiem Mass about the day of wrath and the last judgement.
And now is where we have to switch back to period instruments. Berlioz writes this passage for instruments that do not exist anymore. One of the two is the ophicleide, which resembles a cross between a bassoon and a bass saxophone, but you play it with the mouthpiece of a brass instrument. The other is the serpent, which is literally a brass instrument that winds all over the place like a snake.
Today it's usually just tubas and bassoons which do it. But then, you have the problem of the bells. Is it just the chimes you usually get, or is it properly ominous church bells with all their ominous overtones. Herbert von Karajan particularly threw his lot in with church bells. (Karajan/Berlin)
No performance gets it exactly right.
And now we come back to Weber, Gluck, and ironically, Bach. Berlioz describes what happens next as a diabolical orgy. There's an unfortunate tendency among composers to set orgies to music by writing fugues. I'm not hearing much that's sexy here, even for demons. But nothing in the 19th century says church music like a fugue, and there is no better screw you to the church than setting a fugue in hell.
And now comes a passage that is so diabolical beyond anything in Don Giovanni or anything that comes later. The same fugal theme, but completely chromatic, and in fugal counterpoint! It's almost a 12-tone fugue! (Jansons/Concertgebouw).
Two last things to point out. Donkeys, skeletons, and hellish birds - Poe's raven perhaps. You know them the moment you hear them, I don't need to say any more than that.
Next week, we catapult to the other side of the most crucial year in music history since Berlioz. 1876, the premiere of the Ring Cycle, and all the various ways different composers responded to the most ambitious music ever written. For everybody who wasn't Wagner and Verdi, no one could put their most ambitious and metaphysical thoughts into opera anymore, they had to put their ambitions elsewhere, and the elsewhere was that by then musty old brand, the Symphony. A half-century after Beethoven 9, nobody composer of genius but Berlioz (and arguably Liszt, but I disagree...) knew how to create any symphony that compared in ambition, or profundity, or drama to Beethoven's Ninth.
Enter Brahms. Enter Tchaikovsky.