"Amen, Amen, Amenissimen!" Hector Berlioz wrote to his friend, composer Georges Kastner, in September 1839. His emphatic explosion came when he had, as he wrote Kastner, "finished, quite finished, what might be called altogether finished" a work he chose to call a dramatic symphony,"Romeo et Juliette," Berlioz had been able to write the new music in relative peace and quiet, uninterrupted by the usual necessities of earning a living, thanks to an unprecedented gift from one of his most famous contemporaries, Nicolo Paganini.
The previous Dec. 18, Berlioz had conducted a concert at the Paris Conservatory. Two days after that concert, he received the following letter:
"Beethoven being dead, only a Berlioz could reincarnate him. I who have fed on your driving compositions, worthy of a genius such as yours, feel it my duty to ask you to accept in homage the sum of 20,000 francs, which the Baron Rothschild will remit on slight of the accompanying note. Believe me always your affectionate friend Nicolo Paganini."
It is the name and music of Berlioz above all others that will dominate the festival of French music and drama opening this week at the Kennedy Centre. To be sure, there will be evenings of Chopin, Paganini and Liszt, and works by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Cherubini in the next two weeks. But from the great catalogue of Berlioz, genius, musicians from Paris and Washington will present the Damnation of Faust, Romeo and Juliette, Tristia, the Fantastic Symphony, the Requlem, Les nuits [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] early choral songs.
Two months after he finished his "Romeo et Juliette," Berlioz conducted his premiere in the Paris Conservatory, following that immensely successful performance with two more in the same season. Young Richard Wagner, starving in Paris, where he eventually landed in debtor's prison, called the new symphony "the revelation of a new world of music."
The concept of a dramatic symphony was still brand new to the world of music. Few cities yet knew the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven by 1839, and here was a symphony with a complete liberetto, calling for soloists and chorus to tell a story.
Five years later, Berlioz had another new label for his latest creation: "The Damnation of Faust, Dramatic Legend" was his final title, after talking about it for a time as "a kind of opera."
With these two works the composer paid loving tribute to two of the three great literary influences in his creative life, Shakespeare and Goethe. The third, Virgil, was to receive his magnificent due in the 1860s with Les Troyens, though that work was not given its due in Paris for over a century, and then only after complete performances of it had been given in other centers.
The Fantastic Symphony and the Requiem are regular visitors to Washington, the former being played as often as three and four times a year, and the latter becoming almost an annual event. Both the Damnation and the Romeo have been heard here from time to time, though not too often.
The set of six songs, "Let nuits d'ete," is intended to be sung by several solo voices: soprano, mezzo, and tenor, and probably baritone as well it is happy coincidence that three of them will be sung this afternoon by soprano Regina McConnell in her Phillips Collection concert.The songs are settings of poems by Theophile Gautier, who created the libretto for the supreme ballet of his epoch Giselle.
Three separate works made up Berlioz, in September of 1848, in a Paris recently torn up by revolution, grouped together under the title of "Tristia," after Ovid's "Sad Pieces." The first of these, a Religious Meditation, Berlioz had written during his year's stay in Rome, a prize won by an unprecedented unanimous vote.
It is a choral song to a text by Thomas Moore, brooding in feeling, that says "This world is all a fleeting show," and which concludes, " There's nothing bright but Heaven."
From shakespeare again as was so often the case, came the inspiration for the Death of Ophelia, which became the second of the three pieces in "Tristla." The third and last in the set, which took Berlioz longer than usual to finish because it continually reminded him of the death of his father , is the Death March from "Hamlet." Berlioz wrote on the score of this music the lines from Fortinbras' final speech:
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally; and, for his
The soldiers' music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.
. . .
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.
After that speech, Shakespear writes: "A dead march. Exeunt, bearing off the dead bodies: after which a peal of ordnance is shot off." For the music, Berlioz directs that offstage there shall be six drums, "velled, or without timbre, bass drum and a machine limitating the dropping of fire." The most significant sound in the music is the addition of a wordless chorus singing on "ah," in rising and falling cadences which create a mournful effect Berlioz knew no other medium could convey. There is, in this funeral music, something of the measureless majesty of Siegfried's death music toward the close of Wagner's Ring Cycle.
While it easily can be argued that some Berlioz is overplayed, our concert halls and opera houses have not yet reached the stage where this extraordinary innovator is too often heard.