BERLIOZ: Cantatas

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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Prix de Rome Cantatas

Hector Berlioz was born in the French province of Is?¿re, theson of a doctor, in a family of some local substance. As a child he was taughtprincipally by his father, and was swayed by various enthusiasms, including anoverwhelming urge towards music that led him to compose, not for the piano, aninstrument he did not play, but for a sextet that included his music-teacher'sson, a horn-player, and the flute, which he played himself. He later took theopportunity of learning to play the guitar. At the insistence of his father, heembarked on medical studies, taking his first qualification at Grenoble, beforemoving to Paris. Three years later he abandoned medicine in favour of music,his enthusiasm increased still further by the opportunities offered in Paris bythe Opera and by the library of the Conservatoire, of which he was later toserve as librarian. In earlier years he had not been idle as a composer, but inParis he prudently took lessons from Le Sueur, whose Conservatoire class heentered in 1826. In the following years he attempted the Prix de Rome, theaward established for musicians by Napoleon, which brought with it a stay oftwo years in Rome at the Villa Medici, a significant honour for any ambitiousyoung composer. At his fourth attempt, in 1830, Berlioz was successful.


In 1829 Berlioz had seen Shakespeare's Hamlet for the firsttime, with Charles Kemble as the Prince and the Irish actress Harriet Smithsonas Ophelia. The experience was overwhelming and in the season he had theopportunity to see much more, sharing in the popular adulation of HarrietSmithson, with whom he fell violently in love, at first to be rejected, leadingto his autobiographical Symphonie Fantastique. It was only after his returnfrom Rome, where he had spent two years, and when her popularity began to wane,that she agreed to be his wife, a match that brought neither of them muchhappiness.


In the following years Berlioz remained an outsider to theFrench musical establishment. He earned a living as a critic, while as acomposer and conductor he won more distinction abroad. Both then and in lateryears he was seen as the very type of an individual genius, the romanticartist, driven to excess by enthusiasms and paranoid in reaction to criticismor opposition, as his Memoires show. After the death of his wife in 1854 he wasable to marry the singer Marie Recio, with whom he had enjoyed a relationshipalready of some twelve years. Her sudden death in 1862 and that of his sonLouis, a naval officer, in 1867, saddened his final years. He died in 1869.


There was a conservative formality about the Prix de Rome.The first stage of the competition tested the technical competence of thecandidates, particularly in counterpoint. Those successful in the first stagewould then proceed to the second, the composition of a sc?¿ne lyrique, whichmight suggest future ability in the composition of opera. The set text of thework was dictated to the candidates, who were then given 25 days, during whichthey were confined to their quarters in the Institut de France. An initialjudgement on the works submitted was made by the members of the Music Sectionof the Academie des Beaux-arts a few days later, when the compositions wereperformed with piano accompaniment. The Music Section made its report and itwas the whole Academy, with the representatives of the various other arts,painters, architects, engravers and sculptors, which made the final decision,with the exercises performed again at their meeting. The winner would receivehis award at a public session at which the winning composition would be played,with an orchestra, at a concert that might include envois from earlier winners,now resident in Rome.


Berlioz made his first attempt at the Prix de Rome in 1826,but failed to pass the first stage, the concours d'essai, lacking the necessaryskill in counterpoint. The following year he entered again. The first stage ofthe contest in 1827, held on 26th July, allowed all four candidates to proceedto the next. They included Guiraud, the eventual winner, a pupil of Berlioz'steacher Le Sueur, and two pupils of Henri-Montan Berton, who had provided thetext to be set. The technical requirements of the required composition werestrict. There was to be a recitatif oblige, leading to a cantabile followed bya recitatif simple and a distinctive air de mouvement. In the event Berlioztook some liberties with the text of La mort d'Orphee and with his treatment ofit, and these changes were certainly beyond what the examiners would have foundacceptable. When the work was played through, the pianist found himselfdefeated by Berlioz's orchestral writing and Berton, a member of the judgingMusic Section of the Institut, declared it unplayable, even by an orchestra.Berlioz set out to prove him wrong and arranged for a performance in May thefollowing year. Unfortunately the illness of the soloist, Alexis Dupont, thesinger who had undertaken the part during the examination, prevented aperformance and Berlioz was obliged to substitute another of his compositions.The manuscript was copied and possibly revised. The Prix de Rome went that yearto Guiraud, who, after an earlier second prize, had been expected to win.


The text takes the death of the legendary musician Orpheus,torn to death by followers of Bacchus, women who resented his rejection ofthem, after his failure to bring his beloved Eurydice back from the Underworld.Berlioz in a sub-title describes his work as Monologue et Bacchanale ratherthan simply sc?¿ne lyrique. After an introduction characteristicallyorchestrated and ending in increased excitement, the tenor enters with anaccompanied recitative, addressing the priestesses of Bacchus, leading to theLarghetto, ?ö seul bien qui me reste!, part of which, with other elements of thework, was used again in Le retour ?á la vie. The aria, with its appropriate useof the harp to suggest the lyre of Orpheus, is followed by a further dramaticrecitative, punctuated by brass chords and their distant, delayed echo. Berliozhad already discarded much of the set text and now took the liberty of adding adouble female chorus, representing the Bacchantes in the Bacchanale, theircries for revenge accompanying the pleas of Orpheus. The whole work ends withan orchestral Tableau musical, showing the departure of the Bacchantes, afterthey have killed Orpheus, the wind blowing through the strings of the brokenlyre and the sound of a flute, in fact a solo clarinet, played by a mountainshepherd, trying to capture again the music of Orpheus. After this there is calm,silence and solitude.


The contest of 1828 took the same strict form, with fourcandidates fulfilling the conditions of the first examination and proceeding tothe setting of a text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard de Boismartin. The firstadjudication by the Music Section recommended no award to Berlioz, but the fullsession of the Academy gave him second prize, seemingly nearly securing him thefirst in the bargaining that went on at these occasions, as the old porter atthe Institut, Pingard, reported to the composer. Now learning some prudence,Berlioz adhered more closely to the conditions of the competition and to theset text, the work of a widely respected dramatist and librettist. In thepreliminary Music Section discus
Disc: 1
La Mort d'Orphee
1 Herminie
2 La Mort de Cleopatre
3 La Mort de Sardanapale
4 La Mort d'Orphee
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