A Glance At Berlioz Through My Window

Matt Wuolle 1992


My exposure to the music of Hector Berlioz was limited until introduced to his works by the Princeton composition professor, Gyula Csapo. I had previously heard only the Symphonie Fantastique many years ago. Therefore the context of this essay is a focus on various Berlioz works that are the most striking to me. The following works will be referenced: Harold In Italy, Symphonie Fantastique, Requiem, Te Deum, Les Troyens, and Romeo and Juliette.

Who He Influenced - My Associations

Berlioz influenced the following composers directly or indirectly: Richard Strauss, Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Claude Debussey, Maurice Ravel, Edgar Varese, Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Bela Bartok, Messiaen, and many more. Hundreds of examples could be cited: the following come to mind immediately.

Stravinsky's The Firebird uses many types of orchestral gestures which could be related to Berlioz. Aaron Copland stated, "Indeed, the history of nineteenth-century Russian music is unthinkable without Berlioz. Stravinsky says that he was brought up on his music, that it was played in the St. Petersburg of his student years as much as it has ever been played anywhere" (Copland).

Compare the out of tune "dance band" music from Bartok's String Quartet #5 (Fifth Movement) with the effect that Berlioz achieves in the Fourth Movement of Harold In Italy (9 measures after Rehearsal box 55). This string quartet section is as out of character with the preceding material as Bartok's.

Compare Varese's use of architectural space of the Philips Pavilion in Poeme Electronique (1958) with Berlioz's vision of an "ad hoc" composition. The Varese plan included

three hundred fifty loudspeakers, some of which were concealed behind the walls and above the ceiling. The taped sounds were distributed by telephone relays among various combinations of loudspeakers. These 'sound paths' were determined by a fifteen-channel control tape, each of which contained twelve separate signals. Therefore, 180 control signals were available to regulate the sound routes, lighting effects and a variety of light sources which consisted of film projectors and projection lanterns, spotlights, ultra violet lamps, bulbs, and fluorescent lamps of various colors. (Ernst 42)

It would be interesting to see if the colors generated at this event were in any way similar to Berlioz's view of orchestral color. Note that Varese was working in the electronic medium. In any case, Berlioz wants an "aggregate of 827 performers and chorus-singers" (467 instrumentalists and 860 singers) to perform "in a vast space adapted for the purpose by an architect". The composer should determine, before writing,

the plan and arrangement of his immense orchestra, and then to keep them always present to his mind while writing. It is obvious that it would be of the highest importance...to take account of the distance or the nearness of the different groups which compose it. This condition is one of the most essential to deriving the utmost advantage from it...Beside the radiant colours which this myriad of different tone- qualities would give out at every moment, unheard of 'harmonic effects' would be deduced from them. (Berlioz, A Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration 242-243)
Berlioz's concept is surprisingly similar to Varese's realization and collaboration with Le Corbusier and Xenakis.

Compare Hindemith's hidden offstage performers in his Kammermusik #1 with any number of Berlioz works - in which certain performers are instructed to remain hidden from view. Also, Hindemith's Pittsburgh Symphony (First Movement) starts out strikingly like Berlioz's Harold In Italy (Fourth Movement). Another Hindemith comparison to Berlioz would be in the use of viola in a prominent role (any number of Hindemith examples could be cited, mainly, Trauermusik, Der Schwanendreher, and Kammermusik #5). Berlioz may have also been allied with Hindemith in his (conservative) viewpoint on tonality. Consider his view of excessive chromaticism in Wagner:

No doubt the exclusive object of music is not to make itself agreeable to the ear; but, still less, should its object be to be disagreeable to it; to torture and assault it. Being simply human, I desire that my sensations should be taken into account." (Crabbe 75)
Hindemith's view of the "atonalists":
...they rather avail themselves of the same trick as those sickeningly wonderful merry-go-rounds on fair grounds and in amusement parks, in which the pleasure-seeking visitor is tossed around simultaneously in circles, and up and down, and sideways, in such fashion that even the innocent onlooker feels his inside turned into a pretzel-shaped distortion. The idea is...to disturb the customer's feeling of gravitational attraction by combining at any given moment so many different forms of attraction that his sense of location cannot adjust itself fast enough. (Hindemith 56)

Consider Schoenberg and Webern's use of pointilism. The following Berlioz examples might suggest him to be an early pointillism innovator. Requiem ("Lacrymosa", orchestral accompaniment to chorus), Symphonie Fantastique (Movement IV, 5 measures before Rehearsal Box 56 ), and Romeo and Juliette ("Mab Scherzo", measures 60-68, and 41 measures after the 2nd ending. I also suggest that Berlioz's usage of muted brass instruments must have had an influence on the Second Viennese School.

It occurred to me while seeing Les Troyens, that a textural idea that I had been taught to associate with Mahler, actually was very present in this Berlioz opera (one of numerous examples occurs in the Prelude to Act IV). This texture was termed "three dimensional" by my professor - in reference to a stratification of texture coexisting with disparate rhythmic layers. Another example was found in the Romeo and Juliette "Mab Scherzo", wherein woodwinds play a melodic line (mostly eighth notes); 2 harps punctuate a triplet eighth viola line; violins I are divided into 2 groups - one playing continuous trills, and the other sustaining harmonics along with the 2nd violins (some harmonics lasting as long as 10 measures straight). These harmonics form an extremely slow moving 'canvas', upon which the melodic curves are painted.

Certain Berlioz passages sometimes remind me of cartoon music. Two examples (out of literally hundreds) can be found in Harold In Italy, Movement IV, 5 measures after Rehearsal Box 43 (the rising triplet string figure); and 11 measures before Rehearsal Box 48 (up to 48), the music is 'running', only to abruptly be changed to 'skipping' at 48. His music is so beautifully animated that it is no surprise that cartoon music composers imitated him.

Mendelssohn's "Scherzo" from A Midsummer Nights Dream seems to have a character not unlike Berlioz's "Mab Scherzo" from Romeo and Juliette. Mendelssohn's was written in 1826, Berlioz's in 1849. There is probably an influence and also note that Berlioz' is more brilliantly orchestrated.

Symphonie Fantastique

"My first look at the symphony filled me with the strangest of emotions. As a child I would often put music upside down on the stand, in order to enjoy the oddly interlaced patterns of notes...Right side up this symphony resembled such inverted music." Robert Schumann 1835 (Cone 222). This is one of hundreds of descriptions of this (at one time) controversial masterpiece. That being the case, I will only briefly touch on some of my own observations. The 'col legno' string section in Movement V (measures 444-460) seems quite revolutionary -- the strings chirping away like a light percussion section (another association comes to mind here as well -- Penderecki's Threnody). Something that struck me about the Symphonie Fantastique was Berlioz's strong sense of humor. I can't help but notice those abundant descending 'laughing' string parts - it seems that he loves 'playing' with the orchestra for effect (of course he does as documented in his A Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration). He builds tension with relentless strings of 'sempre crescendo', and then finally 'laughs it off' for a unique form of resolution. The "Dies Irae" theme in his context also suggests irony or humor. The brass orchestration has a rather comical effect, combined with the tolling of the bells of 'doom'.

Harold In Italy

The Opening of Movement One could be observed in a modern context as a quasi twelve-tone theme. Although most of these pitches can be qualified tonally (half step above or below, generally leading tones functioning in the way that augmented sixth chords work -- but linearized). Here Berlioz uses 11 pitch classes (7 8 10 9 0 1 2 6 5 4 3) in the first two measures alone, saving the twelfth (pc 11) for measure 5 in the violins (a result of canon at the fifth scale degree). In the Second Movement, from 8 measures after Rehearsal Box 27 ('Canto religioso'), the music reminds me slightly of American 'Country' music (or 'Bluegrass'). This is due to the simple triadic progression and the 'two-beat' feel of the bass line. Much 'Bluegrass' music also features string instruments (usually violins) playing figures similar to this viola solo. The 2nd Movement also features a classic example of a rhythmic 'process' ending - about 58 bars before the end of this movement. I think it is ingenious the way Berlioz 'stretches' time in this way. It seems that Liszt may have borrowed (or was at least influenced by) Berlioz's usage of augmented harmonic structures in Movement II. In the Third Movement, starting at measure 4, the theme played in the piccolo and oboe is quite reminiscent of Medieval dance music - apparent in the 6/8 dotted rhythm feel. Berlioz's words about the composer seem to describe much of the content of both Movements II and III:

He has never had the absurd pretension of reproducing abstract ideas or moral qualities, but only passions and impressions; nor has he ever entertained the even stranger notion of depicting mountains: he has only wished to reproduce the melodic style and forms of singing common amoung certain mountain populations, while at the same time imparting the emotion felt by the soul in certain circumstances at the sight of those imposing heights. (Crabbe 79)

In Movement IV, Berlioz briefly reflects on the themes from previous Movements, paying homage to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: it is no secret that he stood in awe of this master. A standout in the this Movement is the cross-rhythm from 11 measures after Rehearsal Box 57 to 4 measures before Rehearsal Box 58 - a very effective use of a simple 3 against 2 figure. It is striking how some of the simplest polyrhythms are so effective because of their context in Classic and Romantic period music. These same rhythms do not stand out as significantly in much Twentieth Century due to the saturation of complex rhythms. The ending of the Fourth Movement has a "fresh" sound. Generally, it is a minor phlagal cadence: C minor (iv) to G major (I), with only one articulation of a plain old D triad (V) before the final G major. Often Berlioz is critized for his 'weak' harmonic foundations, "...one does often come up against harmonies that are flat and ordinary, or faulty, at least forbidden by the old rules (though some of these sound splendid); or unclear and vague; or ugly in sound, tortured, twisted." R. Schumann 1835 (Cone 234-235). I would prefer to call them unique. Also noteworthy is Berlioz's use of 'carrots' (marcarto/martellato marks) in this piece (like Movement IV, Rehearsal Box 40 and closing of same movement).


"...in a Requiem, and in order to deliver musically the grand images of this "hymn of the dead", I have employed four small orchestras of brass instruments (trumpets, trombones, cornets, and ophicleides), placed apart from each other, at the four corners of the main orchestra, formed of an imposing body of stringed instruments, of all the other wind instruments doubled and tripled, and of ten drummers playing on eight pairs of kettle drums...It is quite certain that the particular effects obtained by this novel form of orchestra were absolutely unattainable by any other." (Berlioz, A Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration 242) In the "Hostias" section, a soft dynamic timbre (produced by trombones scored very low and flutes scored very high) sounds like a sound that designers of Yamaha synthesizers imitated (called "Cascade"). I remember being intrigued with this synthesizer patch, but I am of course more impressed with Berlioz's development of it.

Les Troyens

A Contemporary of Berlioz, Ernst Legouv (dramatist and poet), stated: "Everything in Berlioz was original. An extraordinary mixture of enthusiasm and mockery; a mind that you could never predict; conversation that had you constantly on the alert by its very changeability: long brooding silences, with lowered eyes and a glance that seemed to plumb unimaginable depths - then a sudden dazzling recovery of spirits, a stream of brilliant, amusing or touching remarks, bursts of Homeric laughter, and a delight like a child's." (Berlioz, Memoirs 521) This is a fitting description for much of Les Troyens. For example, in Act II measures 78-92, a long brooding texture is suddenly thrashed by a fortissimo orchestral tutti for two bars, only to be immediately sucked away by a playful child-like texture. An inventive timbral example in Act IV "Marche pour l' Entr?e de la Reine" consists of three harps using harmonics combined with winds in a contrapuntal texture, which is overlaid with an obbligato violin part. Another unique stylistic effect is achieved in the "Pas d' Esclaves Nubiennes". Here a colorful tribal dance is depicted quite well, using tambourine, antique cymbals, and pizzicato string tremolos as rhythm section, while woodwinds play a simple (although syncopated) 'folklike' melody. The Prelude to Act IV (measure 237 on) also contains a treatment of chorus with orchestra that Ravel must have been influenced by in his Daphnis Et Chloe. A listen to the introduction of Daphnis should verify this.

Recordings, Space, and Architecture

Effective usage of space was obviously important to Berlioz: he requires three offstage bands in Les Troyens, and four extra brass bands in the Requiem. Additionally, explicit instructions for special and offstage performers are given in Romeo and Juliette, Te Deum, and Harold In Italy. Clearly, spatial organization is a compositional determinant for Berlioz. Despite his numerous innovations, this conception goes much further back, as described by Hindemith:

...we could learn from the past - from Perotin, for instance, who about 1200 wrote his Organa for the then overwhelmingly new spacial conception of the Gothic cathedrals. These pieces, by no means primitive, provided in their technical planning even for the echo within those columned and vaulted halls, so that retarded echoing harmonies, intermingling with the straight progress of the normal harmonies could not disturb the over-all impression. (Hindemith 108)

In reference to forces required in the Requiem, Hugh Macdonald points out that..."The point of these gigantic forces is not that the effect should be merely loud, but that enormous spaces need enormous sounds to fill them. The sound of huge forces in a huge architectural space has very little in common with noisiness and it is an effect that naturally enough defies capture by any kind of recording technique" (8). When hearing these works as recordings only, only my imagination can fill in what it must really be like live as Berlioz envisioned. Music for large choral groups is especially problematic in sound recordings -- it seems our technology still cannot capture all the complex harmonics of the multitudes of singers in these works.

Closing Words from Berlioz

"...unisons acquire real value only when multiplied beyond a certain number. Thus, four violins of first- rate skill playing together the same part will produce but a very poor -- nay, perhaps, even detestable effect; while fifteen violins of ordinary talent shall be excellent. This is why small orchestras -- whatever the merit of the performers who compose them -- have so little effect, and consequently so little value." (A Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration 244)

"Of producing artists, the composer is almost the only one, in fact, who depends upon a multitude of intermediate agents between the public and himself; intermediate agents, either intelligent or stupid, devoted or hostile, active or inert, capable -- from first to last -- of contributing to the brilliancy of his work, or of disconfiguring it, misrepresenting it, and even destroying it completely." (Berlioz, A Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration 245)

"The predominant features of my music are passionate expression, inward intensity, rhythmic impetus, and a quality of unexpectedness. When I say passionate expression, I mean an expression bent on reproducing the inner meaning of its subject, even when that subject is the opposite of passion, and gentle, tender feelings are being expressed, or a profound calm...Those of my works...in which I use normal resources, it is precisely their expressiveness, their inner fire and rhythmic originality that have done them the greatest harm, on account of the qualities they demand from the performer. To perform them well, everybody concerned, the conductor must feel as I feel. They require a combination of irresistible verve and the utmost precision, a controlled vehemence, a dreamlike sensitivity, an almost morbid melancholy, without which the essential character of my phrases is falsified or even obliterated." (Berlioz, Memoirs 478-480)

"...I could discover only the most squalid little boats, smelling vilely and piled high with cargoes of wood, oil casks or bones for the manufacture of bone-black, with nowhere on board for a civilized human being to berth and no question of food or shelter. I would have to bring my own provisions and at night curl up like a dog in whatever corner they were prepared to give me. My sole companions would be four sailors with faces like bulldogs and an air of somewhat doubtful honesty. I decided against it..." (Berlioz, Memoirs 143)

Works Cited

Berlioz, Hector. (edited by Joseph Bennett) A Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration, London: The H. W. Gray Co., 1882.

Berlioz, Hector. (edited by David Cairns) Memoirs, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Cone, Edward (editor). Berlioz Fantastic Symphony, (Norton Critical Scores), New York: W W Norton & Company, 1971.

Copland, Aaron. "Berlioz Today", Copland On Music, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1960.

Crabbe, John. Hector Berlioz, New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1980.

Ernst, David. The Evolution of Electronic Music, New York: Schirmer Books, 1977.

Hindemith, Paul. A Composer's World, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952.

Macdonald, Hugh. Berlioz Orchestral Music, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969.

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