Berlioz’ “King Lear” Overture: At the Intersection of Truth and Delusion

When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools. -William Shakespeare, “King Lear” King Lear, Shakespeare’s 1606 tragedy in five acts, takes us to the intersection of truth and delusion. The aging King Lear decides to divide his realm amongst his three daughters. He determines that the shares will be allocated in proportion to the eloquence of each daughter’s declaration of love. The insincere and …

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Berlioz’ “Roman Carnival” Overture: A Blazing Explosion of Color

Hector Berlioz’ 1844 Treatise on Orchestration provided all future composers with an instruction manual for the modern orchestra. The book, which remains influential, discusses the range and tone colors of the instruments. In his foreword to the updated 1904 edition, Richard Strauss wrote that Berlioz’ orchestration was “full of ingenious visions, whose realization by Richard Wagner is obvious to every connoisseur.” Nowhere does the modern orchestra spring to life with greater brilliance than in Roman …

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Berlioz’ “Roméo et Juliette”: Scène d’amour

In 1827, Hector Berlioz witnessed a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at Paris’ Odéon Theatre. The cast included Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who became Berlioz’ first wife and creative muse, as well as the inspiration behind Symphonie fantastique. Shakespeare’s tragedy had a visceral effect on the composer, who did not understand English but was affected by the pure sound of the poetry and the power of the acting. In his Memoirs he wrote, …

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Berlioz’ “Benvenuto Cellini” Overture: The Romantic Artist as Hero

The opening bars of Hector Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini Overture spring to life with all of the high-flying passion, exuberance, and boundless heroism of the idealized Romantic artist. Filled with wild euphoria and mercurial twists and turns, this initial theme encapsulates the spirit of the protagonist of the opera which follows. Berlioz’ ill-fated 1838 opera, Benvenuto Cellini, was based on a highly fictionalized depiction of the Florentine sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). Although it appealed to notions of the …

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Remembering Jessye Norman: Eight Extraordinary Recordings

Jessye Norman, the legendary American opera singer and recitalist, passed away on Monday. She was 74. Norman was born in the segregated south in Augusta, Georgia. She was surrounded by music at an early age, listening to radio broadcasts of operas and singing in church as a child. At the age of 16, she was offered a full scholarship to Howard University where she studied voice with Carolyn Grant. She went on …

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Illinois’ Krannert Center for the Performing Arts Turns 50

As a child, I spent a year and many succeeding summers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where my father was a student of trombone professor Dr. Robert Gray. Some of my most vivid memories include attending concerts at the University’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where as a 9-year-old, I heard the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as the University’s fine student ensembles. This weekend, the …

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Berlioz for Spring

Hector Berlioz’ song cycle, Les nuits d’été, Op. 7  (“Summer Nights”), based on the poetry of Théophile Gautier, dramatizes the progression of love from youthful innocence, to death, to ultimate rebirth. Villanelle, the first of the six songs, evokes the arrival of spring and the joyful exuberance of young love. The text celebrates the abundance of nature, from flowers and berries to the wildlife of the forest. Berlioz’ song, composed on March 23, 1840, teems …

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