Berlioz 150

1845 portrait of Berlioz by August Prinzhofer (public domain)

Now that the Hans Keller centenary is over, my lovely colleagues here at the UL were very concerned that I might be at a loose end. “I know,” they said “SW is a Berlioz fan isn’t she? We’ll ask her to write something to mark Berlioz 150 and to put together a little exhibition as well.” Who am I, a devoted fan of Hector’s, to refuse? So, here goes…

We’ll dispense with any biography, there are many deeply knowledgable people out there who have already done that (Jacques Barzun [M517.c.95.42-3] and David Cairns [M517.c.95.39-40] to name only two). But why Berlioz, you ask? What is it about him that appeals especially? To which I would answer – three things: his wonderful, colourful, imaginative and utterly unique music; his completely OTT personality (life was one long melodrama) and his delightful writing – think Memoiresfeuilletons for the Journal des Débats, etc.

Now, one of my other hats is to take care of the collections of concert programmes we have here and for a reader recently I was looking through those for the Crystal Palace Saturday Concerts and was able to remind myself of Berlioz’s involvement with the Great Exhibition and the performances of his works in August Manns’ Saturday concerts at the Palace. Happily, more years ago than I shall admit, I had written about this in a little post and thought it might be time for a second performance. So here it is. Enjoy…

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 [M517.d.95.23]. 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 the 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  but a translation of his plans by Lord Aberdare (treasurer of the Berlioz Society) from the original document now in the Bibliothèque National de France was published in 2008 his splendid article England and Berlioz in Berlioz: scenes from the life and work (ed. Bloom),[M517.c.200.133]. 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 [M200.a.64.18].

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 [M200.a.64.7] (29 Oct 1881), the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale [M200.a.64.19] (3 June 1882),  the Grand messe des morts M200.a.64.109] (26 May 1883) and the Te Deum [M200.a.64.10] (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 [M517.d.85.12-] 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  [M200.a.64.20] are runaway favourites with eight performances each, followed by Les Francs Juges with five and Harold in Italy [M200.a.64.17] 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.

Hats off everyone – a true genius!


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1 Response to Berlioz 150


    After Keller Berlioz – aye, there’s a thought displeasing I ‘m convinced to both parties were they around …

    I thought SW was going to assemble a collection of HK programme essays for the Trust to publish …? It would be ‘jolly good’ if she did …



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