07 Sep
Hector Berlioz in 1863.
Hector Berlioz in 1863.

This is the third article in a series devoted to aspects of composers’ works and lives not generally known by average concert goers.  Perhaps these articles will encourage readers to dig further into the life and times of other composers.

As a youngster I began my survey of Western music with Beethoven and his 9 symphonies. Toscanini was at his peak of popularity and his LP recordings for RCA Victor with the NBC Symphony Orchestra were thought by many people to be the definitive interpretations of these works. I stayed with Beethoven for a long time. After sessions of listening to Beethoven’s late quartets, I attended a lecture by Louis Krasner 1who said of the quartet op. 135, ” When man first lands on the moon, they will hear the opening music of this quartet.” Ten years later they landed but I don’t know what they heard or what Krasner thought about the event.

Later I decided to educate myself in a linear manner by going back to Bach, then Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Debussy and Ravel. Note the leap from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky.  No Schubert, no Cherubini, no Rossini, no Mendelssohn and no Berlioz.

I can think of no good reason for my omission of these great composers.  I knew Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” was unfinished, Cherubini’s “Requiem” contained a tam-tam note, Rossini had written the music for  the Lone Ranger and Mendelssohn’s  “Midsummer’s Night Dream” had a great overture. But Berlioz did not figure into my mix until later.

When I learned the “Symphonie Fantastique” was written in 1830, just 7 years after Beethoven’s last string quartet and two years after Schubert’s death, I was stunned. To me their works sounded light years apart. As distant from one another as 19th century Vienna and Apollo 11.

Berliozs manuscript, frist page of Symphonie Fantastique.

Berliozs manuscript, first page of Symphonie Fantastique.

I have never forgotten the the first time I heard those plaintiff opening woodwind triplets nor the intense longing of the following violin melody. But those were only the first few notes of an entire symphony of longing and struggle. Berlioz wrote, “melancholy is necessary for a composer”.

I first heard the work live in Carnegie Hall, New York City with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Münch.  (Vic Firth played the principal timpani part in his inimitable style.) My only disappointment came during the “Witchs Round Dance” which is in a fast two beats to the bar. At one point all strings and winds play  chords in unison rhythm, off set by one eighth note from the prevailing beat and are joined four measures later by the brass and timpani playing the same syncopation, but one eighth note earlier. These eight measures of three against three against two create an exquisite tension which I had anticipated with glee.  But Münch chose to conduct the brass and timpani measures in three four. He played safe and a teeth grinding moment became too smooth by half. However, this disappointment was offset by the artistic cymbal playing of the late Tommy Thompson. 2

Joseph Jean-Baptist Laurent Arban (1825-89) 3.was a cornet teacher, soloist, conductor and composer  who in 1848 developed with Adolph Sax a cornet which met his standards for ease of play and intonation. It could have been around this time that Berlioz, who had certainly heard Arban perform, decided to add a cornet part to the “Waltz” (Un bal) of “Symphonie Fantastique”. Some may consider this a case of gilding the lily. I think the cornet adds some bravura which is not out of place. It transforms the “Waltz” without distorting its lovely motion. The recording I own and the only one I know with the cornet part was made by Jean Martinon and the Orchestre de National l’ORTF on EMI in 1973. The CD transfer is excellent and the performance is expansive, musical and one of the two best recordings in my collection.

It was the improvements in brass instruments by Adolph Sax which gave Berlioz the courage to write his monumental “Grande messe des morts” (op.5, 1837), containing four antiphonal brass choirs and multiple winds. When I was in Paris, too long ago, I visited Les Invalides and entered the chapel of Saint-Louis-des-Invalides (1679), where the premier had taken place. Upon entering the chapel and finding myself alone, sang in my most stentorian voice, one of  the tenor parts in “Dies Irae, Tuba mirum spargens sonum”, etc. A personal oblation to one of my heroes. Near the end of his life Berlioz told some friends,”Of all my works I wish the Requiem to survive”. My favorite recording of this work was made by Hermann Scherchen in the chapel of Saint-Louis and the vinyls were later transfered to CD with disastrous results. The diffused rhythms of the antiphonal choirs and the cavernous roar of bass drum, timpani and tam-tam were completely lost.  Sadly, Scherchen’s recording is out of print though one might find it among sellers of rare recordings.

During my college days a teacher who understood my proclivity for grand gestures suggested I look at the Berlioz “Treatise on Instrumentation”. The Treatise had first been published in 1844. ( It is now available from Amazon with edits by Richard Strauss.)  Another Berlioz moment awaited me near the very back of the book, his article titled “The Orchestra”. In this portmanteau of  revolutionary ideas Berlioz encapsulated his instrumental and musical dreams; how I wish he could have realized them.

A choir of460 voices and:

An orchestra of 465 instrumentalists including 12 pairs of ancient cymbals in different keys *, 30 pianofortes and 30 harps, 8 pairs of kettledrums, 6 drums, 3 bass drums, 4 pairs of cymbals, 6 triangles, 6 sets of small bells *, two large very low bells, 2 gongs, 4 crescents.

Berlioz imagines “combining the 30 pianofortes with the 6 sets of small bells, the 12 pairs of ancient cymbals, the 6 triangles (which might be tuned in different keys like cymbals), and the 4 crescents into a metallic percussion orchestra-gay and brilliant expression in mezzo forte; by combining the 8 pairs of kettle drums with the 6 drums and the 3 bass drums into a small, almost exclusively rhythmic percussion orchestra-menacing expression in all shadings; by combining the 2 gongs, the 2 bells and the 3 large cymbals with certain chords of the trombones-sad and sinister expression in mezzo forte.”

* these are described in the percussion instruments section of the treatise.

The last article in his treatise is devoted to conducting and contains his thoughts on the role of conductor and patterns for beating different time signatures. He talks about technical issues with certain instruments. Berlioz was better known in his lifetime as a conductor not a composer. He conducted in France, Germany, England and Russia as well as other countries. He conducted concerts having as many as 1000 performers. Berlioz and Wagner had met in Germany and in fact had discussed conducting. It is ironic that “Wagner on Conducting” by Richard Wagner was first  published in 1869, the year  Berlioz died.4

The influence of Berlioz was critical for the further development of Romanticism, especially in composers like Richard Wagner, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and many others.

Berlioz destroyed many papers prior to his death, but kept a baton given him by  Mendelssohn  and a guitar by Paganini. On his death bed to friends attending he was reputed to have said, “At last they will play my music”.

Hector Berlioz ( the Z is pronounced),  born La Côte-Saint-André, December 11, 1803 –died Paris, March 8, 1869.


1. Louis Krasner  (1908-1984) played the premiers of both the Alban Berg (1936) and Schoenberg Violin Concerto (1940). He commissioned the Berg (1935) and its premier was given in Barcelona, Spain. The Schoenberg was premiered with Stokowski in Philadelphia. Krasner also commissioned American composers Henry Cowell, Roger Sessions and Roy Harris. His lecture at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York was given before the music students and staff in 1959.  At that time he was a professor at Syracuse University having previously served as concert master of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati (1906-88).

2. Many years later in Tanglewood, I was fortunate enough to  sit at a table with Vic Firth and the other guys in the percussion section of the Boston Symphony. The conversation turned to Tommy Thompson and I asked everyone to confirm whether or not my memory of his simple yet exquisite playing in “Symphonie Fantastique” was correct or had I transmogrified this youthful vision into something mythological. I was gratified and amazed when everyone confirmed my old impression. Vic even demonstrated Tommy’s motion. Thompson was able to play fortissimo cymbal crashes with no more gesture than he used for pianissimo.  Thompson’s playing can best be heard on a recording of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture” conducted by Arthur Fiedler. I am fortunate enough to have the beautiful sound of the original LP release. Thompson was a cymbal playing giant. I wonder how many people now living remember him or ever heard him play.

3. Arban’s “Grand Method for the Cornet ” was first  published in 1864. It is a treasure of musical and technical demands well suited for marimba and xylophone sight reading and recital pieces.

4. “Wagner on Conducting”, Richard Wagner, translated by Edward Dannreuther,  Dover Books.

Written almost 150 years ago, this book contains a paragraph of wisdom equally applicable to today’s percussionists as well as conductors:

“As a proof of my assertion that the majority of performances of instrumental music with us are faulty it is sufficient to point out that our conductors so frequently fail to find the true tempo because they are ignorant of singing.  I have not yet met with a German Capellmeister or Musik-director who, be it with good or bad voice, can really sing a melody.  These people look upon music as a singularly abstract sort of thing, an amalgam of grammar, arithmetic, and digital gymnastics;-to be an adept in which may fit a man for a mastership at a conservatory or a musical gymnasium; but it does not follow from this that he will be able to put life and soul into a musical performance.” (page 19) Italics by Wagner.


Posted by on September 7, 2011 in Articles, Composers


2 responses to “BERLIOZ

  1. Jim Musto

    September 3, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    I too wonder how many people remember Tommy Thompson, the cymbal virtuoso from the Boston Symphony. My teacher from Providence, RI, George Goneconto, told me about him when I was in school there in the 70’s. Some years later, I was given a tam tam beater called a “T-Boom” and a bass drum pedal beater to match. These are supposed to have been made by Thompson.

    Jim Musto

    • robinengelman

      September 4, 2012 at 8:11 am

      Hi Jim – Thank you for reading the article and your memories of Thompson. There are and were great plaers in every era. We sometimes get too wrapped up in the present.
      Kind regards. Robin


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