Sunday, December 9, 2007


That title is the entry I placed in my Outlook Calendar for last night's San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Symphony Hall. The "official" name of the program was Music of Hector Berlioz: Episode in the Life of an Artist. This plays on the fact that, at least in my Heugel study score, the full title of Berlioz' Opus 14 is given as Episode de la Vie d'un Artiste: Symphonie Fantastique. However, there is also an Opus 14b, whose title is Lélio, or The Return to Life, a stage piece in the form of a monodrama for a single actor and a rich collection of musical resources, including one tenor accompanied by a piano and another tenor, a baritone, and a full chorus, all of whom perform with a full orchestra (although from a point of view of pure demographics, not quite as full as the one required for Opus 14). Lélio was performed in this dramatic setting in June of 1997 under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas with F. Murray Abraham as the actor. By my reading of the Chronicle review of this week's offering, Joshua Kosman is still grousing about that last performance, which he called "an unforgettable embarrassment." Thus, Kosman was able to write about his delight that this time around, Lélio was represented only by the music, which did not constitute an integrated whole the way the movements of Opus 14 do. Writing about the six unconnected works that constitute Opus 14b, Kosman asserted that "the pieces shine with the harmonic vitality and textural imagination of Berlioz's finest work."

I have no quibble with Kosman's opinion of the music; and Thomas certainly knew how to command all of his resources to summon all of that "harmonic vitality and textural imagination." I also do not want to argue over the fact that Opus 14b is actually a sequel to Opus 14, but the Lélio music was performed before the Symphonie Fantastique. By all rights, a proper performance would have begun with the Symphonie, followed by an intermission, after which the full monodrama would be performed. Having heard a full Lélio on the radio, I know that the idée fixe melody, which haunts every movement of the Symphonie, keeps haunting the narration in the sequel but only appeared once in the musical episodes performed at Davies. Nevertheless, last night's concert was a pretty full order; and my idea of "a proper performance" would probably stretch the patience of much of the audience (probably including myself).

Nevertheless, the "full package" provides insights into Berlioz as a problem-solving composer that were absent in the more "digestible package" that Thomas offered. This project presents us with Berlioz seeking out a new relationship between music and dramatic narrative that goes beyond the expectations of audiences used to the opera productions of his time. It is a perspective on Romanticism that has more to do with Isaiah Berlin's view of the movement as an alternative to Enlightenment thinking than with the traditional music history view of a move beyond the constraints of Classicism. In terms of the theory I have been trying to develop in many of my posts, the shift has less to do with the grammar of the composer's language and more to do with its underlying logic. That logic had to do with a departure from a musical approach to narrative that was, with few exceptions, highly artificial; but finding that "new relationship" would require a lot of experimentation. The thing about experiments is that they do not always succeed; but, when properly performed, they can still be very informative. In this context we might do well to examine Berlioz in the light of one of his contemporaries who was also experimenting heavily, Robert Schumann, even though there does not seem to be any evidence that the two interacted directly.

At the time of Berlioz' Opus 14, Schumann was focusing most of his attention on solo piano music, also heavily influenced by narrative themes. As a result he was able to explore new approaches to the grammar of not just the structures of harmony and counterpoint but also the very nature of the melodic line. Unfortunately, he was never particularly good at translating his imaginative conceptions at the keyboard to a full orchestra. I still like the turn of phrase that Percy Scholes invoked when he was responsible for the tenth edition of The Oxford Companion to Music:

The orchestral works are usually held to suffer a little from a thickness and lack of variety in the instrumental colourings.

Berlioz, on the other hand, could hardly be accused of "lack of variety in the instrumental colourings!" Indeed, what I was taught as a student was that Berlioz thought directly in terms of instrumental color and usually wrote directly on orchestral score pages, rather than first developing his ideas on the scale of a piano keyboard. The result however is that his grammar is a far cry from Schumann's. The sound is paramount; and, if the melodic lines and harmonies sometimes wander and the counterpoint sometimes cops out in mid-stream, then these were details subordinate to his primary objectives as a composer. Unfortunately, our own culture seems to prefer to educate us to listen according to Schumann's standards, leaving us to acknowledge Berlioz but label him as some kind of anomaly.

Now there is a problem with listening to Berlioz for his sound, and that problem resides in the way in which the sound itself has changed. Much as I appreciate the value of the "authentic instrument" movement in Baroque and Classical music, I suspect that the acid test for this philosophy can be found in Symphonie Fantastique. I suspect that hearing this work with the two ophicleides in the original scoring would be enough to yield a sound that is a far cry from which we expect from today's orchestras. After all, the lurid narrative of the entire Opus 14 package would have been more than a little shocking to Berlioz' audiences; so it is reasonable to assume that this shock effect would be reinforced by those sounds that he could command with so much of his skill in orchestra writing. Much of that shock probably came from the higher level of unpredictability of many of the wind and brass instruments, the ophicleide being the most blatant (blaring?) example, which is why we do not hear very much of it today. Instruments are now more "predictable;" and our whole approach to performance technique is structured around that predictability.

This is not to criticize the sound that Thomas evoked from the San Francisco Symphony. Rather, it is to observe that the performance was like a finely cut-and-polished diamond, while Berlioz himself had been working "in the rough." Every now and then we get a taste of what that "rough" was like. My personal favorite in this field has always been Modest Mussorgsky; and I really enjoy any opportunity to hear his own orchestral writing before Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov came along to "fix up the weak spots." In Berlioz' case we usually get what he wrote; but I suspect that, for the most part, we do not get what he heard. I suspect most audiences would respond to that observation with, "Thank God for that;" and I recognize that mine is a minority opinion. Still, my idea of a real treat would be a live performance of at least the Symphonie Fantastique, if not the whole dramatic package, which made a serious effort to capture and deliver the sort of sound for which Berlioz was aiming in his original scoring.

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