Mea Culpa: Berlioz and His Four Symphonies

Berlioz has four symphonies. 

1. Symphonie Fantastique (1830)

2. Harold in Italy (with obbligato viola) (1834)

3. “Dramatic Symphony” Romeo et Juliette (with chorus) (1839)

4. Symphonie Funebre et Triumphale (giant wind band) (1840) 

The Romeo et Juliette has moments of searching profundity that makes Tchaikovsky’s, Gounod’s, and Prokofiev’s settings of the story seem trivial. (Maybe not Leonard Bernstein’s, however: West Side Story is justifiably iconic. The greatest “musical”. Bernstein discusses the Berlioz opus with great sensitivity, by the way, in his Norton lectures, The Unanswered Question).

So why in the world would I be preparing a session in my upcoming symphony class on Berlioz’s three symphonies?

I’ll let David Cairns, the grand pooh-bah of Berlioz scholars (along with Hugh McDonald) explain: 

“In Berlioz’s third symphony, Romeo and Juliet (1839), the drama has become more explicit and more openly reflected in the form, but the form remains symphonic, for all its bold extension of the genre.  It can be argued that the recent failure of his opera Benvenuto Cellini (which ended the hopes of an entree to the Paris Opera by which he had set so much store) forced him against his will to cast the next dramatic work in concert form, from which confusion a hybrid resulted, fascinating and beautiful in its parts, incoherent and unsatisfactory as a whole. This is a possible argument; but it is rather the argument of one who looks at the work from without, from a somewhat nice (my italics-JG) notion of symphonic proprieties and, seeing the unusual attempt to absorb techniques properly belonging to opera or oratorio into the symphony, expects it to fail.  Berlioz did, much later, contemplate writing an opera-a totally new work-on the play, and it was age and ill health that stopped him, not the existence of a “dramatic symphony” on the same subject.”  This is taken from “The Symphony: 1. Haydn to Dvorak” publ. by Penguin, 1966.

Mea maxima culpa. The last thing I want to do is to be nice, believe me. (for those who know me this will not stretch their credulity).  This great work will be included in the lesson plan, of course…when I hear of music teachers excluding it, I can only snort with derision…those benighted  reactionaries with their prim-and-proper symphonic proprieties!