Roméo et Juliette: Berlioz’ Dramatic Symphony

…Here a new world is opened up to view, one is raised into a higher ideal region, one senses that the sublime life dreamed of by poets is becoming a reality.  This is how Hector Berlioz described the dramatic potential of a bold new kind of symphonic music- a free-spirited Romanticism born out of the earth-shattering monumentality of Beethoven’s Ninth, which left behind classical balance and order to enter dark, new psychological …

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Béatrice et Bénédict: Berlioz’s Neglected Comedy

Béatrice et Bénédict, Hector Berlioz’s two act opéra comique adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, isn’t exactly a staple of the modern opera repertoire. It gets occasional performances, but is commonly overshadowed by more famous Shakespeare-based operas: Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, and Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  But Béatrice et Bénédict was a smash hit when it premiered at the the Theater der Stadt in the German spa town of Baden-Baden on August 9, 1862. Berlioz referred to the …

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Symphonie Fantastique: Berlioz’s Musical Hallucination

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, first heard in 1830, shares some surprising similarities with a teenager’s rock music: It’s shocking, rebellious, and at least partially drug-induced (Berlioz was under the influence of opium). It may have been written to impress a girl (Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom Berlioz saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827, leading to an infatuation and ultimately short-lived marriage). It deals with the pain of unrequited love, yet this …

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Music of Romantic Obsession

From Vincent Van Gogh to Charlotte Brontë, artists, writers, and composers have occasionally entered the strange, darkly irrational world of romantic obsession. With Halloween approaching, let’s take a walk on the creepy side and explore three pieces which grew out of (what some would call) unhealthy romantic obsessions: Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique Written partially under the influence of opium, Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique takes us into strange, hallucinogenic territory. It summons new sounds from the orchestra, which must …

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An Electrifying Oberon in Berlin

In the clip below, conductor Mariss Jansons leads the Berlin Philharmonic in a spectacular and rousing performance of the overture to the opera Oberon by Carl Maria von Weber. Weber’s music contains some of the earliest seeds of Romanticism. His orchestration was new and innovative. It mixed tonal colors in exciting ways and expanded the size and power of the orchestra. (Notice the trombones, which were a relatively new addition at the …

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Liszt’s "Forgotten Romance" with the Viola

It’s an example of one piece of music “giving birth” to another. In 1880 Franz Liszt’s publisher requested a reprint of a piece Liszt had written in 1848: the Romance in E for piano. The two minute Romance begins and ends in a slightly turbulent E minor. In between, it restlessly moves, first into the relative major key of G and then flirts with a distant and ultimately unattainable A-flat major. At this …

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Hilary Hahn’s New Album: Mozart and Vieuxtemps

Hilary Hahn released an excellent new recording on March 31. The album pairs Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 with the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31 by Belgian virtuoso violinist Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881). In the recording’s official trailer, Hahn mentions that she first learned both pieces around the age of 10 as she was entering the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There’s also some interesting violin lineage at work: Hahn’s teacher …

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