Berlioz and the Crystal Palace

1845 portrait of Berlioz by August Prinzhofer (public domain)

It’s been something of a Summer of Berlioz this year what with the CUMS performance of the Te Deum in June, the Grande Messe des Morts at St. Paul’s (with the LSO and Sir Colin Davis) and at the Proms (with the BBCNOW and Thierry Fischer) and of course the new ROH production of Les Troyens. So I thought it might be nice to continue the theme with a look in a little more depth at Berlioz’s involvement with the Crystal Palace and performances of his works in the Saturday Concerts.

The Palace itself

Berlioz’s role as a member of the jury judging the musical instruments for the Great Exhibition has already been covered in an earlier post, but what of his impressions of the Palace itself? He wrote five feuilletons for the Journal des débats about his London experiences that year, extracts from which he reproduced as Evening 21 in his Evenings with the orchestra. This contains a delightful description of his early morning visit to the Crystal Palace in 1851:

“The deserted inside of the Exhibition palace at seven in the morning was a spectacle of original grandeur: […] everything seemed to be holding a mysterious conversation together in the strange language that can be heard with ‘the ear of the mind’. […] the need for sleep had become irresistible; I came to sit before Érard’s large piano, that musical marvel of the Exhibition. I leaned on the ornate lid, and I was about to fall asleep when Thalberg touched me on the shoulder, saying: ‘The jury is assembling, colleague! Take heart – today we have thirty two musical snuffboxes, twenty four accordions, and thirteen bombardons [a kind of tuba] to examine.’ “

(By the way, if you’ve not read this wonderful collection, put in on your list of must-reads – you will laugh, cry and be amazed alternately).

A music festival

Saturday Concert 19th November 1881 (Cambridge University Library Crystal Palace programmes collection)

While Berlioz was in London he was asked by the Commissioners of the Great Exhibition to prepare a plan for a Musical Festival at Crystal Palace, where he would  conduct various works including his own Te Deum, written in 1848-9 but not yet performed. Sadly the festival did not materialise (CG no. 1418). A translation of his plans by Lord Aberdare (treasurer of the Berlioz Society) from the original document now in the Bibliothèque National de France has recently been published in his splendid article England and Berlioz in Berlioz: scenes from the life and work. (ed. Bloom), 2008. It shows not only how detailed Berlioz’s thinking was, but also how clearly he knew exactly what would be required in a practical sense to ensure a successful event. What a shame this never came to pass – even if only to have heard the 40 harps he requested for the Fête chez Capulet from Roméo et Juliette.

Berlioz performances at the Palace

Although Berlioz never conducted a concert at the Crystal Palace (plans for an event in 1855 came to nothing), his works were performed regularly at the Saturday Concerts, with Lélio (29 Oct 1881), the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (3 June 1882),  the Grand messe des morts (26 May 1883) and the Te Deum (18 April 1885) all given their British premières.

Charles Ainslie Barry took great pains over his programme note to accompany the first British performance of the Grande messe on 26th May 1883. A long introductory essay drawing heavily on Berlioz’ Mémoires  (“…in the whole range of musical literature there is no more brilliantly entertaining book to be found…”) is followed by a description of the forces involved and some perceptive comments on their deployment being more about ensuring the right instrumental colour rather than sheer force of sound. (Extraordinary to think, at this distance, that there had not yet been a translation of the whole of the Mémoires – Macmillan had just announced that an English version was in preparation).

Similar care is taken with the programme note for Lélio, given its first British performance on 29 October 1881 with a second on 19th November (the notes are the same):  “…this strange and absolutely original work shows Berlioz in all his moods, at his best and at his worst…astonishing specimens of his unrivalled powers as a writer for the Orchestra…the weirdest and strangest work in all music.” The author is F. C. [any ideas anyone?]. A careful description of the music follows, with plenty of examples and a translation of Berlioz’s monologues and texts of the musical numbers provided by “G” [George Grove].

Saturday Concert 26th May 1883 (Cambridge University Library Crystal Palace programmes collection)

By 1886 no fewer than 54 performances of Berlioz’s works (or extracts) had been heard according to the Catalogue of the principal instrumental and choral works performed at the Saturday concerts from October 1855 to May 1886, which is included with the UL’s collection of Crystal Palace concerts. The overtures Carnaval Romain and Benvenuto Cellini are runaway favourites with eight performances each, followed by Les Francs Juges with five and Harold in Italy with four. Whilst he couldn’t compete with England’s beloved Mendelssohn who topped the Crystal Palace popularity polls, at least Berlioz was well-represented.


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One Response to Berlioz and the Crystal Palace

  1. Pingback: A Cambridge Guildhall medley | MusiCB3 Blog

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