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A TRIP TO IRLANDE: Songs of Hector Berlioz

March 13, 2012

One of my favorite things about any VOX 3 concert is that I am certain to hear something new and interesting.  With so many wonderful and talented people contributing, how can we fail?  When the DANK Haus  had an opening in their grand ballroom space on St. Patrick’s Day, our artistic director Brian von Rueden, embraced the challenge of creating a link between and Irish holiday and German heritage.  The resulting program for VOX 3’s Erin Go Berlin! was a delight!  The text to these songs were usually Irish poets whose work had been translated into the native tongues of composers such as Beethoven, Schumann, and Berlioz (to name a few).  A few songs from Hector Berlioz’s Irlande, were quite unknown previously to audience, as well as performers.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869),French composer of the Romantic Era.

First, a little bit about Hector Berlioz.  Born in 1803 and living until 1869, Berlioz is a French composer of the Romantic period.  He is best known for his Symphonie fantastique as well as his Grande Messe des morts (Requiem).  His Symphonie fantastique is often used as the the example of program music– instrumental music that attempts to tell a narrative story.  Other composers, such as Franz Liszt, Modest Mussorgsky, Paul Dukas, and Richard Strauss would go on to compose more program music.  Recently, his La Damnation de Faust has also quite often been heard in orchestra halls around the world; opera companies, like Chicago Lyric Opera, have also presented quite successful staged versions.

Despite the existence of his 33 Mélodies, Berlioz is not best remembered for his songs.  Aside from the song cycle for mezzo soprano and orchestra, Les nuits d’étè, most of his songs are not often performed today.  However, in 1830 he published his opus 2, a collection of songs called Neuf Mélodies.  These are settings of texts by Irish poet Thomas Moore, translated by Berlioz’s friend Thomas Gounet.  In 1829, Berlioz had withdrawn his first opus, Huit Scènes de Faust, a composition for solo voice, chorus, and orchestra, and later attempted to destroy all the printed scores.  When you see that all his early work was in song, one might think that song was incredibly important to Berlioz.  Not the case.  He rarely composed song, and aside from the aforementioned Les nuits d’étè, there is nothing else that comes close to being a song cycle.  However, we know from Berlioz’s writings that he greatly admired Faust.  Also, in 1830 the song was a very popular form of composition.  After all, Franz Schubert, one of the greatest song composers of all time, had just died in 1828, leaving behind him about 600 Lieder.  Just as every composer felt compelled to compose an opera because it was “the thing,” perhaps Berlioz was trying his hand at a popular form.

Whatever his reasons for writing songs, many critical reviews of the songs are not favorable.  First of all, Berlioz had a fiercely unique concept of melody, which many thought was ahead of its time. When compared to the Lieder of Schumann and Schubert, the mélodies of Berlioz lack a complementary relationship between voice and piano. Often the odd length of Berlioz’s vocal phrases has caused singers consternation as well: “Why is this line 3 bars, while the next is 5, followed by 4?” Although most German lieder are composed of even, balanced phrases, Schumann could use uneven phrasing to great effect when necessary.  For example, in Dichterliebe, the four-bar structure begins to give way to uneven three-bar phrasing in the Lied “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen, suggesting the pain the wedding onlooker feels.  However, for Berlioz, irregular phrasing is often simply a hallmark of his construction. With all of this, understandably, a first-time listener might be put off (although some, like me, might be excited!).

For example, in “Hélène,” one of the songs from Irlande performed on this concert, the six identical verses are all interrupted by the imitation of a hunting horn.  This theme also opens and closes the piece.  The tune is 29 bars which are divided as 3 + 5 : 3 + 4 : 4 + 4 : 3 + 3.  This uneven distribution is seen in many of the songs in the collection 33 Mélodies.  From what I have said previously, the reader might think that this irregularity is obvious and therefore easily heard, but this is not the case.  Berlioz so smoothly overlaps the fragments that it is often difficult to hear exactly where the division is.  When I set out to learn these pieces, it was not the irregular phrasing of “Hélène” that startled me.  Rather, it was the originality and dramatic nature of the solo sections in Chanson à boire.  I found myself recalling Berlioz’s vocal line in Marguerite’s aria “D’amour l’ardente flame” in La damnation de Faust.  Although these sections were small, I derived great pleasure from singing this part because the beauty and originality of the melody conferred such gravity upon the musings of a drunkard.  How much talent it takes to accomplish that!

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