Now Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) – he was the man! Under-estimated, plotted against, disliked and ridiculed but he just kept going and ended up leaving us some of the very greatest music written in the Nineteenth Century. If only we all had his staying power. He knew what he had to do and got on with it.
As some of you may know I have been on a long musical journey through the history of classical music where I have tried to listen with “contemporary” ears to the great works in the repertoire in chronological order.
I have now got up to 1865 so recently I have had to say goodbye to two of my favourite composers – well I can keep listening to them of course but I still feel that I should mark their passing.
Berlioz, the “high Romantic” who idolised Shakespeare, Beethoven, Goethe and Gluck (1714-1787, the man who wrote the great opera Orfeo ed Euridice), a man of exquisite taste and fiery temperament who wrote the greatest orchestral music between Beethoven and Brahms but who just couldn’t persuade Paris, the cultural capital of the World in his day, to establish a decent hall for such orchestral music, particularly his.
So he had to earn his crust as a music journalist and then pretty well invent the idea of the orchestral conductor, a game that he played all over Europe in places where his works were seen as they were, revolutionary, magnificently scored masterpieces.
His trouble was that he loved Paris so he stayed there even if he would have got more commissions if he had shaken Parisian soil from his boots and moved to Germany or Russia where a whole school of composers, including Mussorgsky, were growing to maturity under his influence.
We would have inherited more music too if Paris had been a bit nicer to him. I am celebrating what he did achieve though and I am never going to live without his three highly original symphonies: The Symphonie Fantastique, the most exciting and original symphony that had been written since Beethoven, Harold in Italy with its heart-breaking solo viola part and Romeo and Juliet with possibly the most beautiful symphonic slow movement in the whole 19th. Century. I will live with his gigantic Requiem Mass too with its thrilling battery of kettledrums and its vision of Hell. I have also always been obsessed with his epic classical opera The Trojans which only he could have written. He knew no one would put it on but he wrote it anyway thus creating a work all the more impressive because he was not restricted by the opera house rules of his day.
Berlioz had one eye on posterity and, luckily, we have not let him down. We at least, well those of us lucky enough to have heard his music, know that he was truly one of the greats.
The other fading star in 1865 was another of my passions, the Italian opera composer, Rossini (1792-1868).
I have bored you before with my enthusiasm for this man – the Mozart of the Nineteenth Century whose comic operas burst with life, wit and melody and whose serious operas do much the same. If you have any feeling at all for the human voice then you will recognise that Rossini knew not just what it could do but what it ought to do – thrill, seduce, make us laugh and
or move us to tears. All of that is there in the best of his works and there is also much to enjoy in the operas that he rushed out to keep ahead in his phenomenal and rapid rise to his fame.
Whilst Berlioz couldn’t get his works performed, Rossini couldn’t keep up with his audience’s demands for more. He was truly the great musical star of his day – inventive, brilliant and charismatic but he decided that enough was enough when, in 1829 at the age of 37 he retired. He too spent much of his later life in Paris where he held dinner parties, invented gourmet recipes, cracked jokes and descended into depression, obesity and inactivity.
Just as there are works by Berlioz that I couldn’t live without, so too with Rossini. The Barber of Seville, of course, with its marriage of wit and melody and its near-perfect musico-comic timing but also the edgy Italian Girl in Algiers and the bitter-sweet Thieving Magpie which pushes comic opera to an extreme with its fiercely disturbing execution scene. Of the “serious” works, the sublime Semiramide, marks the high-water mark of operatic vocal virtuosity. If you have never heard Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne singing together in the most phenomenally difficult music from this opera then you haven’t lived.
So I say goodbye to these men in 1865 not because they died then (they had three or four years left) but because they had written their last great works. Recently I have been listening to Rossini’s last masterpiece La Petite Messe solennelle, a weirdly disturbing setting of the mass for big operatic voices, two pianos and harmonium which for all its wild operatic excesses and its solid belief in the power of classical structures, actually speaks of a frightening and unpredictable universe which may well have haunted the old man in his often hysterical depressions.
I think we make a mistake if we don’t hear Rossini’s agony even in his most extrovert comic operas. It is certainly there in that photograph of him as an old man about to descend into a painful and humiliating final illness.
I have also been playing some cds of Berlioz’ final opera, his version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice et Benedict. Here too, as in Rossini’s determined classicism, Berlioz writes a Shakespearian comedy in the spirit of his other hero, the 18th. Century classicist composer Gluck.
Both men, it seems, were aware of the power of the old forms in the hands of a radical modern imagination. As I embark on further musical adventures during this era, looking forward half-heartedly at times to the giganticism of Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss, I acknowledge the debt these “new” composers owed to Rossini and Berlioz who shared an anxiety at the way classical music was beginning to drown in its own excesses – wonderful though they can be.
In thinking of this, we obviously turn to the great new voice of this decade, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) who embraces the classical form with his own particular and radical imagination and ran with the baton until the end of the century when his great admirer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) took his turn in forging a classical structure for the 20th Century.
It has been a particular pleasure during this musical project to see how these patterns emerge but it has also been exciting that I have retained my love for these two composers both of which seduced me in my mid-teens.
So let’s hear it for Rossini and Berlioz but if you don’t know this music it is time that you did.
First the wonderful American mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade in an old recording of Beatrice’s aria in Berlioz’ opera where Berlioz illustrates the widest range of emotions within this formal classical aria. Beatrice, the witty cynic realizes that she, of all people has fallen in love:
and then to finish, the spooky Kyrie from Rossini’s Petite Messe solennelle, giggle at your peril: