Rêverie et Caprice, Opus 8
Born December 11, 1803, Grenoble, France
Died March 8, 1869, Paris, France
Berlioz had high hopes for his first opera, Benvenuto Cellini, based on the life of that celebrated goldsmith, sculptor, musician, soldier, lover, duellist, rogue, adventurer, and autobiographer. But the opera was a crashing failure at its premiere in Paris in September 1838. Benvenuto Cellini ran for only three performances, Parisian audiences sneered at it as “Malvenuto Cellini,” and Berlioz noted (with typical detachment) that after the overture “the rest was hissed with admirable energy and unanimity.”
Berlioz was stung by that failure, but he made other use of music he had composed for the opera. In 1843, five years after the failed premiere, he pulled out two of its themes and from them fashioned the brilliant Roman Carnival Overture, which has become one of his most popular compositions. And even before that, in 1841, he rescued some music that had not made it into the opera. In Act I Cellini’s 17-year-old mistress Teresa was to sing the cavatina “Ah, que l’amour une fois dans le coeur.” But the soprano at the Paris premiere, Julie Dorus-Gras, did not like it, and Berlioz pulled it from the opera. In the meantime, the composer had become friends with the Belgian violinist Alexandre-Joseph Artot (1815-1845), and for him he transformed that rejected aria into the Rêverie et Caprice for violin and orchestra. Berlioz led the orchestra and Artot was the soloist at the premiere in Paris on February 1, 1842, and while this music has never become well known, it has had notable champions: Ferdinand David, Henryk Wieniawski, and Joseph Joachim played it with great success in the nineteenth century, and more recently it has been recorded by Joseph Szigeti, Yehudi Menuhin, and Itzhak Perlman.
Berlioz wrote no concertos—he was no lover of virtuosity for its own sake—but in the Rêverie et Caprice he fashioned a brief but attractive piece for violin soloist. The music begins with an Adagio full of sighs and attacks (reflecting the music’s origins as an aria about love), then races ahead at the more impetuous Allegro vivace. Berlioz moves back and forth between these two tempos, and eventually the music makes its way to a firm close. The Rêverie et Caprice may not have become a popular favorite, and it may not be full of fiery virtuosity, but it is very pleasing music, and—in Berlioz’s skillful transformation—this soprano aria becomes very effective violin music.
BERLIOZ Rêverie et Caprice, op.8
II. Allegro vivace
La mort de Cléopâtre
Berlioz arrived in Paris in 1821, conflicted about his future. His father, a physician, wanted him to become a doctor, and the young man obediently spent two years in medical school. But his love for music proved too strong, and in 1826 Berlioz entered the Paris Conservatory. Anxious to prove that he had made the right decision, he quickly entered the school’s competition to win the Prix de Rome. This was the most coveted achievement for young French composers, carrying with it a five-year stipend as well as the requirement that the winner spend at least two years of study at the Villa Medici in Rome. One of the principal conditions of the competition was that each contestant compose what Berlioz described as “a serious lyrical scene for one or two voices and orchestra” on a text provided by the Conservatory. It took the fiery young composer four tries to win the Prix de Rome. His first effort, La mort d’Ophelie (1827), won nothing, while Herminie (1828) was awarded second place. But his third attempt, La mort de Cléopâtre (1829) won nothing at all—it was judged too daring by the competition’s conservative judges. Berlioz toned down his manner somewhat for his fourth attempt, Sardanapale, and this finally won for him the Prix de Rome in 1830.
In that same year, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was premiered, igniting his career in the process. He later returned to some of his student scenas and used their music in other works, but La mort de Cléopâtre essentially vanished: Berlioz never heard it performed with orchestra, and it was not published until 1903. The irony, of course, is that this dramatic music is now judged one of the finest works of his youth, and it has had a number of distinguished recordings, including several by Janet Baker.
Berlioz described La mort de Cléopâtre as a “scène lyrique,” but listeners will be struck more by its drama than its lyricism. Scored for soprano (or mezzo-soprano) and a large orchestra, it sets a text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard (1778-1862) in which Cleopatra, abandoned by Octavius, looks back on her life, celebrates her triumphs, laments her failures, and—after clasping the snake to herself—drifts into death. This is the sort of topic that could strike fire in the young Berlioz’s imagination, and he responded with a powerful setting. A dramatic introduction sets the mood and leads to the soprano’s opening recitative, “C’en est donc fait!” There follows an expressive Lento cantabile (“Ah! qu’ils sont loin ces jours”) in which she remembers happier times with Caesar and Antony and recalls her fall into her present dismal state. The Mèditation is dark and grim (Berlioz marks it Largo misterioso): over a pulsing 12/8 meter, Cleopatra wonders if she can still enter heaven (“Grand Pharons, nobles Lagide”). In the final section, marked Allegro assai agitato, she concludes that there is no hope and resigns herself to her fate (“Non! … non, de vos demeures funèbres”). The asp makes its fate strike, and Cleopatra—her voice weakening—drifts into death as the music fades into silence.
Rather than just being a promising work by a student composer, La mort de Cléopâtre is a fully-accomplished work of art, distinctive for its portrayal of the doomed heroine and secure in its handling of the orchestra. It may be the best measure of the conservatism of the competition’s judges that—when faced with music like this—they refused to award any prize at all.
BERLIOZ La mort de Cléopâtre
I. Introduction in B flat major
II. C’en est donc fait!
III. Ah! qu’ils sont loin ces jours
IV. Au comble des revers
V. Grands Pharaons
VI. Non!… non, de vos demeures
VII. Dieux du Nil
Symphonie fantastique, op.14
It is impossible for modern audiences to understand how revolutionary Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was when it burst upon surprised listeners 168 years ago. The music has become so over-familiar that we forget how it represented not only a brilliant new use of the orchestra but also an entirely new conception of the role of the composer. For Berlioz subtitled this symphony “Episode in the Life of an Artist” and based it on details of his own life. And what made the symphony so sensational was that these autobiographical details were so lurid, private, and painful. No longer was music an abstract art, at some distance from the psyche of its maker. When Berlioz created the nightmare journey of the Symphonie fantastique out of his own internal fury, the art of music was all at once propelled into a new era.
In 1827 an English acting troupe visited Paris, where their performances of Shakespeare created a sensation. Nowhere did these performances have more impact than on a 23-year-old music student named Hector Berlioz, who was as much smitten with the company’s leading lady, Harriet Smithson, as he was with Shakespeare. Berlioz himself recalled the effect of watching the actress play the part of Juliet: “It was too much. By the third Act, hardly able to breathe—as though an iron hand gripped me by the heart—I knew I was lost.” Berlioz resolved on the spot to marry Harriet Smithson and soon mounted a concert of his own works as a way of attracting her attention; she never even heard of the concert. Plunged into the despair of his own helpless love, Berlioz came up with the idea that would—after much revision—become the Symphonie fantastique: he would depict in music the nightmare mental adventures of a love-stricken young musician who took opium as a way to escape his pain.
Such an idea carries with it all sorts of dangers for unbridled self-indulgence, but in fact the Symphonie fantastique is a tightly disciplined score. Its unity comes from Berlioz’s use of what he called (borrowing the term from the psychology of his day) an idée fixe, or “fixed idea”; today we would call it an obsession. In the symphony, this obsession takes the form of a long melody, which Berlioz associates with his beloved. This melody appears in all of the symphony’s five movements, varied each time to suit the mood of the movement and the mental state of the suffering hero.
Berlioz, an unusually articulate writer, provided program notes of the symphony that are still worth quoting in detail (Berlioz’s notes are in italics in the following paragaphs):
A young musician of unhealthily sensitive nature and endowed with vivid imagination has poisoned himself with opium in a paroxysm of lovesick despair. The narcotic dose he had taken was too weak to cause death, but it has thrown him into a long sleep accompanied by the most extraordinary visions. In this condition his sensations, his feelings, and his memories find utterance in his sick brain in the form of musical imagery. Even the Beloved One takes the form of a melody in his mind, like a fixed idea which is ever returning and which he hears everywhere.
First Movement: Dreams, Passions. At first he thinks of the uneasy and nervous condition of his mind, of somber longings, of depression and joyous elation without any recognizable cause, which he experienced before the Beloved One had appeared to him. Then he remembers the ardent love with which she suddenly inspired him; he thinks of his almost insane anxiety of mind, of his raging jealousy, of his reawakening love, of his religious consolation.
The movement’s opening, with murmuring woodwinds and muted strings, depicts the artist drifting softly into the drugged dream-state. The animated idée fixe theme, the musical backbone of the entire symphony, is soon heard in the first violins and flute. This undergoes a series of dramatic transformations (this opening movement is in a sort of sonata form) before the movement closes on quiet chords marked Religiosamente. Second Movement: A Ball. In a ballroom, amidst the confusion of a brilliant festival, he finds the Beloved One again.
Berlioz here creates a flowing waltz, beautifully introduced by swirling strings and harps. Near the end, the music comes to a sudden stop, and the idée fixe melody appears in a graceful transformation for solo clarinet before the waltz resumes.
Third Movement—Scene in the Fields. It is a summer evening. He is in the country, musing, when he hears two shepherd lads who play, in alternation, the ranz des vaches (the tune used by the Swiss shepherds to call their flocks). This pastoral duet, the quiet scene, the soft whisperings of the trees stirred by the zephyr wind, some prospects of hope recently made known to him, all these sensations unite to impart a long unknown report to his heart and to lend a smiling color to his imagination. And then She appears once more. His heart stops beating, painful forebodings fill his soul. “Should she prove false to him!” One of the shepherds resumes the melody, but the other answers him no more … Sunset … distant rolling of thunder … loneliness … silence …
The Scene in the Fields is one of Berlioz’s most successful examples of scene-painting, perhaps inspired by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, but nothing like it musically. The dialogue of the shepherds’ pipes to the accompaniment of distant thunder is a particularly imaginative touch; the idée fixe is heard during the course of the dreamy summer afternoon in the woodwinds.
Fourth Movement: March to the Scaffold. He dreams that he has murdered his Beloved, that he has been condemned to death, and is being led to execution. A march that is alternately somber and wild, brilliant and solemn, accompanies the procession. The tumultuous outbursts are followed without modulation by measured steps. At last the idée fixe returns, for a moment a last thought of love is revived, which is cut short by the deathblow.
This is the most famous music in the symphony, with its muffled drums giving way to the brilliant march. At the end, the solo clarinet plays a fragment of the idée fixe, then the guillotine blade comes down as a mighty chord from the orchestra; pizzicato notes mark the severed head’s tumble into the basket.
Fifth Movement: Witches Sabbath. He dreams that he is present at a witches’ revel, surrounded by horrible spirits, amidst sorcerers and monsters in many fearful forms, who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, shrill laughter, distant yells, which other cries seem to answer. The Beloved Melody is heard again, but it has lost its shy and noble character; it has become a vulgar, trivial and grotesque dance tune. She it is who comes to attend the witches’ meeting. Riotous howls and shouts greet her arrival. She joins the infernal orgy. Bells toll for the dead, a burlesque parody of the Dies Irae. The witches’ round dance. The dance and the Dies Irae are heard together.
Here is a nightmare vision in music: the horrible growls and squeaks of the beginning give way to the grotesque dance for witches and spirits. Berlioz here takes his revenge on the Beloved, who had scorned him: her once-lovely tune is made hideous and repellent. The orchestral writing here is phenomenal: bells toll, clarinets squeal, the strings tap their bowsticks on the strings to imitate the sounds of skeletons dancing.
The first performance of the Symphonie fantastique on December 11, 1830 (six days after the composer’s 27th birthday) was a mixed success: the work had its ardent defenders as well as its bitter enemies. The storybook climax of this whole tale was that Harriet Smithson finally recognized the composer’s great passion for her, and they were married three years later. If this all sounds a little too good to be true, it was—the marriage was unhappy, the couple was divorced, and Harriet died after a long struggle with alcohol.
But this in no way detracts from the musical achievement of the Symphonie fantastique: Berlioz looked deep within the nightmare depths of his own agonized soul and found there the material for a revolutionary new conception of music, music that was not an artistic abstraction but spoke directly from his own anguish, and he gave that torment a dazzling pictorial immediacy. Composers as different as Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Richard Strauss were among the many who would be directly influenced by this new conception of what music might be.
BERLIOZ Symphonie Fantastique, op.14
A Scene in the Country
March to the Scaffold
Dream of a Sabbath Night
—Program notes by Eric Bromberger
Rebecca Robinson recently completed the Professional Certificate program at the University of Colorado–Boulder where she was seen in Eklund Opera productions as the title role in Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella), Ottone in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, and Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte, as well as in recital with the world-renowned Takács Quartet. She was awarded 3rd place in the Denver Lyric Opera Guild competition in 2016, and named a finalist in the Bruce Ekstrand Competition, which recognizes and awards development grants to promising graduate students. After two busy and successful years at CU, Rebecca decided to call these mountains home and is now based in Denver, CO.
One of the most versatile and respected musical artists of his generation—renowned as conductor, violinist, violist, and concertmaster—Guillermo Figueroa is the Principal Conductor of The Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra & Chorus. He also serves as the Music Director of the Music in the Mountains Festival in Colorado, Music Director of the Lynn Philharmonia in Florida, and is the founder of the highly acclaimed Figueroa Music and Arts Project in Albuquerque. Additionally, he was the Music Director of both the New Mexico Symphony and the Puerto Rico Symphony. With this last orchestra, he performed to critical acclaim at Carnegie Hall in 2003, the Kennedy Center in 2004, and Spain in 2005.