Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Berlioz's Big Band Bluster

When it comes to orchestral music, if you want a big splashy effect, then Berlioz is your man! He’s the one who wrote the Fantastic Symphony, one of the all-time most popular symphonic blockbusters, right up there with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Strauss’s Don Juan. The Fantastic Symphony is the one with the Witches Sabbath as the last movement, coming after the March to the Scaffold, where the poor hero gets his head chopped off and you hear it rattle down into the basket. The movement before that has a special thunderstorm section, with about 8 timpani playing actual chords on the drums, to conjure the distant rumbles.

Berlioz also wrote a Requiem Mass, called the Grande Messe des Morts, in which he really goes to town in depicting the last trump. He has FOUR separate brass bands stationed as far apart as possible, away from the main orchestra, so that the trump of doom comes at you from all directions. Now, as you can imagine, it is very hard to coordinate these bands in performance, since sound travels quite slowly, and if each band waits until it hears the other bands, and then tries to synchronize with that, then it will sound way late to the other bands, who will then wait for it, and the whole thing will swiftly grind to a halt. So Berlioz, in the early 19th century, utilized an electronic metronome, letting him press a button on his music stand which would cause a little light to flash for all four bands at exactly the same time. (pace Einstein’s special theory of relativity.) By this means he could keep all the bands synchronized by having them watch the light, rather than listen to the sound.

Incidentally, you might be surprised how often it is necessary for musicians to deliberately not listen while they are playing. Listening to each other is the most important skill musicians have; in general they are listening much more closely than the audience as the performance is going on – that’s how the coherence is achieved. But sometimes, you mustn’t listen. In concerti, for instance, if the players listen to the soloist, it always gets behind. I once heard Lorin Maazel instruct The Cleveland Orchestra; “Watch. Don’t listen.” Well, playing in Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts is one of those occasions. It’s really scary, quite apart from the gaping jaws of hell.

From what I have been saying you might think that Berlioz was a whizz-bang loud sound kind of guy and not much else. But that is not true at all. The truth is that he was tremendously inventive when it came to the sonorous quality of music, as opposed to the interplay of notes. With a piece of music by, for instance, Bach, it doesn’t make a huge difference whether the piece is played loud or soft, by a lot of people or just a few, or even what instrument is used to play it. In Bach’s case the artistry is in the notes, melodies, harmonies, pulse. And that is largely true of music up to the time of Beethoven too. The orchestra wasn’t very large, and so the sort of sound it would produce was fairly consistent throughout a piece.

But Berlioz, even while Beethoven was still alive, was bringing a whole new theatrical element into music. I mean extreme gestures in sound. So it is true that he used lots of brass for the end of time, and a giant bell for the Witches Sabbath, but he also wrote music of the most exquisite quietness.

Thomas Beecham, the witty wag of English Conductors, used to make the crack “The English don’t appreciate music. They just like the noise it makes.” Well, Berlioz was inventive not just with the music, but with the noise it makes too. So, to set alongside the wild abandon of the Fantastic Symphony, there is the Love Scene from his Romeo and Juliet. This is a most serene melody, almost all quiet, pondering, ruminating. You can get it on iTunes. Well worth listening to. There are no brass bands in that piece! But the inventiveness is just as great. Once the melody gets going, it is played with a quite remarkable orchestration touch. It is played by the English Horn ( a sort of large oboe, that is in fact French, called the English Horn as a mistranslation of cor anglé, meaning “bent horn”, mistaken for cor anglais. Come to think of it, the French Horn isn’t French either. It’s German. But I’m getting a bit off topic here.)

As I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself: it is played by the English Horn in octaves with the Flute. That particular combination has a strange quality to it. If the instruments balance properly, you cannot separate them in your ear, and together they sound like a wholly new instrument. The only other place I know where that combination is used for a long melody is at the end of Vaughan Williams’s 5th Symphony, with similarly magical effect.

So the point is, Berlioz was one of the first composers who was extremely sensitive to the quality of sound, as well as the “what” of sound, and used that refined ear in all his music. We are not playing any of the pieces I have mentioned, but we are playing his Overture to Benvenuto Cellini. This post has gone on long enough, though. So I’ll write about that overture a little later.

Andrew Massey.