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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Essential Works: Five great pieces by Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz: Composer, conductor, critic.
Probing the complex sonic world of Berlioz.

As a composer, Hector Berlioz was a maverick in 19th century Paris. Although his career had its share of successes, his unorthodox compositional style and acerbic critical writing earned him plenty of enmity in the cutthroat world of French music.

Berlioz' music was championed by Franz Liszt and rediscovered after his death. Today, his orchestral works, songs and operas have survived, even as many of the popular composers of his day have faded into obscurity.

Here's a guide to the best of Berlioz.

Berlioz wrote this work based on his obsession with Harriet Smithson, an English actress whom he saw in a performance of Hamlet. The symphony, subtitled 'Episodes in the life of an Artist," chronicles a twisted version of his obsession with Ms. Smithson over five movements of increasing darkness. It climaxes with the phantasmagorical 'Dream of a Witches' Sabbath' where his love interest is cast as the blood-spattered Whore of Babylon. Whew!

Requiem (Grande Messe de Morts)
Orchestral and choral overload are the order of the day in this gigantic death mass. Berlioz deploys enormous orchestreal forces. The most notable moment is the Tuba Mirum, where the heavenly trumpets are played by four separate brass choirs, each occupying a corner of the hall. Guaranteed to wake the dead.

Romeo et Juliette
This is an elaborate hybrid, a symphony that re-tells the story of Shakespeare's play with the soloists against a rich orchestral background. Berlioz also set 'Much Ado About nothing as the opera Beatrice et Benedict.

Le Damnation de Faust
This 'symphonic drama' sets the Faust legend against an amazing landscape of chorus and orchestra. From the stirring Hungarian March to the love-music between Faust and Marguerite, this is one if Berlioz' most Romantic scores. The actual Damnation Scene, a ride into Hell when Faust is delivered into the hands of a demonic chorus singing in gibberish, is a theatrical tour de force.

Les Troyens
Berlioz had great ambitions with this five-act opera which retells the story of the fall of Troy and the subsequent wanderings of Aeneas and his people en route to the eventual founding of Rome. The opera was too ambitious for Parisian impresarios, who split the opera in two and then refused to perform the first half. Today, the whole five act work is regarded as a masterpiece of orchestration and story-telling.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.