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History Of Music:
George Frederic Handel
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ludwig Van Beethoven
The Romantic Composers
Development Of The Piano
Famous Operas And Their Composers
Wagner And His Music Dramas
Tristan And Isolde
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The most original composer of the romantic school is Hector Berlioz. Although his compositions are seldom heard today, he has exerted a powerful influence upon musical criticism.
"The interest in the works of Berlioz is not measured wholly by their permanent artistic value, but largely by the aesthetic problems they offer. They apply the programme principle with startling audacity; they illustrate some of its nobler achievements, and also its possible abuses. As a man Berlioz is an example of what the artistic temperament may become when unbalanced by sound reflective judgment. The traits that make him such a fascinating and puzzling figure were not exceptional among the artists of his time. He is the representative in music of the romantic movement in French literature and art which broke out in 1830 under the lead of Victor Hugo, and produced a series of art works whose brilliancy, boldness and frequent extravagance have had no parallel in any other country in recent times. The world was searched for novel and stimulating subjects; every means was taken to excite the nerves and thrill the imagination. With the subsiding of the ferment, works were produced which at this day may be called even classic in their moderation and obedience to the eternal laws of beauty. But the keynote of the movement was the search for the novel, picturesque, remote."
Hector Berlioz was born in southern France, in the year 1803. In his early youth he evinced a great love for poetry and music but his father, himself a physician, intended his son to enter the medical profession and would allow him no musical advantages. At the age of eighteen he was sent to Paris to begin the study of medicine but he immediately turned his whole attention to music, thereby causing his parents to cut off his allowance in high displeasure. The lad thus brought upon himself a period of great privation, during which he all but starved; however, his suffering never caused him to turn from his purpose. His father finally relented and gave him permission to enter the Paris Conservatorie, on condition that if he did not prove successful in the musical profession he should return to his medical study.
Although he showed remarkable ability in mastering musical science, Berlioz was not a performer of any instrument, unless, indeed, his playing of the guitar and the flageolet is taken into consideration. He possessed a genius for orchestration never equalled in any other composer, and while in the Conservatorie won the "grand prize of Rome," which entitled him to two years' study in Italy. The rest of his life was spent in Paris.
From the first he wrote in the largest forms, and the magnitude and extravagance of his earlier compositions quite astounded the musical public. Berlioz was a man of radical and egotistical tendencies, visionary, passionately devoted to his art, and his music reflects these characteristics. Although his love of the unusual sometimes carried him beyond the limits of good taste (as, for instance, in his Requiem Mass, where he employed twelve horns, sixteen trumpets, sixteen trombones, eight pairs of kettle drums, two bass drums, five bass horns, three pairs of cymbals and a gong), his music is, generally speaking, artistic and often simple in effect. He submitted the scares of the masters to critical analysis and wrote text books on the subject of orchestration. He had great insight into the possibilities of the combinations of instruments and made the orchestra a new force. His tonal effects are most brilliant in their coloring; with Berlioz the tone-color was a part of the original design and did not exist apart from the melody.
One of his compositions is of great historic interest in that it marks the beginning of the programme idea in music: the symphony entitled "An Episode in the Life of an Artist." Its programme was written in the midst of one of Berlioz' love affairs and pictures his own feelings at that time. The first movement is lyrical in character. The artist has long dreamed of his ideal and at last his vision is realized; she is always depicted by the same melody, which varies with the setting. The second movement changes from the realm of reflection to actual life. The hero sees his love at a ball, and leaves the brilliancy of the ball-room and goes out beneath the moon to dream of her. The third is a pastoral movement, picturing the artist among the hills waiting for his beloved to come to him, while the sound of the shepherds' pipes gradually calms his mind. In the next section he becomes convinced that his love is unfaithful and, in despair, takes opium. This does not kill him, how ever, but causes him to dream wildly. The last movement is a perfect orgy of tones. The sleeper seems to be attending his own funeral while goblins dance to weird sounds, in which the love motiff is distorted into a vulgar dance tune. Although we may condemn his choice of subject, in this symphony Berlioz displays great power and the work marks a new epoch in French music.
Another form cultivated in the nineteenth century was the "dramatic symphony" or "ode symphony," as it is sometimes called. It consists of parts for orchestra, chorus and single voice; doubtless it was suggested by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony but it was developed along different lines. In the French ode symphony each movement has a definite poetic subject. Berlioz created this form in his "Romeo and Juliet" symphony, which illustrates scenes from Shakespeare's drama. He pictures the balcony scene in a lovely adagio and the pranks: of Queen Mab in a scherzo that is truly exquisite, but the effect of the whole is weakened in the last movement. In the scene at the tomb he forces the programme idea to such an extent that he ruins the musical effect. True programme music does not attempt to describe external action minutely; the idea at once convicts itself to failure. This can be effected in opera but not by means of instrumental music alone.
"Harold in Italy," suggested by Byron's poem and his own Italian experience, is unique in conception and is a truly notable work. It is generally conceded by musical critics. that the greatest of Berlioz' compositions is "The Damnation of Faust," founded on Goethe's poem of that name.
"It consists of a selection of scenes, vocal and instrumental, including Faust on the plains of Hungary (introducing a Hungarian march), Faust in his study, the Easter song, the meet ing of Faust and Mephistopheles, scene in Auerbach's cellar, dances of gnomes and sylphs, scenes between Faust and Gretchen, Faust's invocation to nature, the course to the abyss, pandemonium, chorus of the damned and of demons, heaven, chorus of celestial spirits, redemption of Gretchen. Berlioz does not linger upon the spiritual impart of Goethe's work, but rather upon the emotional, especially the spectacular elements.
The task is perfectly congenial, and he produces in this work some of his most tender, passionate and original music." ' Berlioz, who was so bold and daring in his instrumental music, was conservative and even timid in his works for the stage. None of his operas are heard today, even in France. His music is perhaps most satisfying at the first hearing. In certain passages he rises to greatness but his work is so uneven as to be almost patchy; he relies too much upon the nervous effect of rhythm and mere sound. His influence is largely in the experimental value of his work and he is today in favor with but a small circle.
His domain was the orchestra and he opened to it a new horizon. He had a rare genius for seeking out new tonal effects and re-created the art of orchestration. No composer since Beethoven has pointed the way to so many new means of musical expression as did Hector Berlioz.