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Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)


Hungarian (Racoczy) March

The Hungarian March was written during a concert tour Berlioz undertook in central Europe during 1846, and specifically for performance in Budapest. A friend in Vienna had advised him that success in Hungary would be certain if he were to compose a work based on one of their national tunes. Berlioz heeded the advice, and chose the Rakoczy March - which he describes in the score as 'a Hungarian war song, very ancient, and by an unknown author.' He wrote the March in the space of one night, before leaving Vienna for Budapest. It was a stunning success in Budapest, and was encored every time Berlioz played it in Hungary. Writing his opera "The Damnation of Faust" a little later, Berlioz could not resist using such a successful tune again. The opera is based on Goethe's version of the Faust legend, and has nothing to do with Hungary at all. But at the beginning of the opera, Berlioz quite brazenly places Faust "on a Hungarian plain", just so that he has an excuse for including this March

Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14
I. Reveries - Passions
II. Un bal
III. Scene aux champs
IV. Marche au supplice
V. Songe d'une nuit de Sabbat

Hector Berlioz is one of the most extreme and larger-than-life characters in Western Music. His personality was over the top - highly intelligent and highly emotional, completely devoted to the art of music, very articulate and very honest. He was also hopelessly naïve in not realising the effect of his outspoken honesty in antagonising other people, particularly people whose support he needed.

His impact was particularly great given the shallow dullness of most other French music of his time. Opera and dance music was the order of the day, and music was only for diversion and entertainment. More serious and lofty aims of music as an art form were ignored.

In this environment Berlioz could get little work as a serious composer, and was not prepared to prostitute his art and become a trivial composer. Unable to supplement his income by teaching - he could not play the piano - he had to resort to journalism. And being both articulate and intelligent, and with a wicked sense of humour, he wrote extremely well. But it is a tragedy that this brilliant composer had to spend a large proportion of his career in writing newspaper criticism of bad operas by forgotten composers who were so much more successful than he was.

Berlioz wrote this symphony in 1830, when he was just 27 years old and passionately in love with an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson. That the symphony expresses Berlioz's feelings about this affair is clear from the programme which he wrote, that begins "A young musician sees for the first time a woman with all the charms of the ideal he has dreamed of, and falls desperately in love with her. She always appears in the artist's mind in association with a musical idea with the same characteristics as his beloved - passionate yet refined and diffident. The woman and her melodic image pursue him unceasingly through the symphony". Sadly the real life relationship went horribly wrong when Berlioz and Harriet married, and Berlioz fell out of love with her just as she fell in love with him.

The first movement begins in dreamy melancholy, followed by the long sinuous melody of the beloved. This tune seems endless - as Berlioz must have felt his love for Harriet to be. The movement gives us a hallucinatory mix of storms of passion, rages of jealousy, tenderness and tears. The movement ends in a religious calm which, after the high emotion that has gone before, seems rather unconvincing.

The second movement, much shorter, sees our hero at a Ball where he sees his beloved in a constant swirl of dancers. The music is a waltz, getting faster towards the end, in which the harps take a prominent role.

'In The Country' is the slow movement of the symphony, in which Berlioz creates some very novel orchestral effects. It opens with two shepherds calling each other on their pipes. This duet and the slight rustle of trees stirred by the breeze instil peace. But doubts surface - suppose she deceives him? "A mixture of hopes and fear, thoughts of happiness disturbed by dark forebodings. At the end, one of the shepherds takes up his pipe again, but the other no longer answers … sounds of distant thunder … solitude … silence"

In 'March to the Scaffold'. the hero is now convinced that his love is not returned, and has poisoned himself with opium. He suffers nightmare visions in which he thinks he has killed his beloved, has been condemned to death, is about to witness his own execution. The procession is a march, by turn fierce and sombre, stately and brilliant. At the end the first few bars of the beloved tune is remembered, brutally interrupted by the fatal blow of the axe.

In the fifth and last movement, the artist sees himself at a meeting of witches who have assembled to celebrate his own funeral. After a ghostly introduction the beloved tune appears, but no longer refined and beautiful - now it is crude and trivial, a common dance tune, played on the shrill E-flat clarinet. It is greeted by a tumultuous racket from the whole orchestra, and then the dance tune is joined by bells and the Dies Irae, a theme from the Catholic mass for the dead. The two tunes combine in wild dancing and lead to the dramatic close.

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