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Thunder in Paris, Echoed Worldwide

No two works of Hector Berlioz are in any way alike; nothing from his pen resembles anyone else‘s music. Mention of Berlioz brings on images of diabolical incantations, rattling of dry bones, and opium-induced nightmares; how, then, explain the deep, soft musical discourse of his oratorio L’Enfance du Christ, given so exquisitely by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic forces here the week before Christmas? Even to his French compatriots -- in his time, and in ours as well -- Berlioz has always been the most unclassifiable of composers. His fame was secure in Germany, England, even Russia, long before Parisian audiences learned to sit still during his music. In Paris, in 1952, I attended a series of lectures on the history of French music, by the formidable teacher Nadia Boulanger, mother superior to generations of composers of all nationalities. From her eloquent evangelism I gleaned notable insights into the music of Rameau, Faure, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky (!), Milhaud; not once, however, did the name of Berlioz pass her lips.

Turn the clock back, to Paris in the 1820s. (Berlioz‘s Memoirs, collected and edited by David Cairns, sets the stage eloquently.) At age 24, driven by passions he had not yet learned to control or even to name, Berlioz shares in the mass astonishment of Parisians as -- thunderclap after thunderclap -- the city experiences its first full Shakespearean immersion with a British company ensconced for a season at the Odeon; the publication of its first French translation of Faust; its first hearings of the Beethoven symphonies, led by the ardent if undertalented Francois-Antoine Habeneck. At all events, one familiar sight is the fiery young Berlioz, screaming out imprecations to performers, surmounted by an unruly reddish-brown thatch against which the finest barbering has been of no avail. Berlioz gains the friendship of the even younger Franz Liszt; the two sit up night after night discussing Shakespeare, Goethe and Beethoven. Berlioz swoons under the spell of the visiting Ophelia, the Irish enchantress Harriet Smithson, and works it off by composing the Symphonie Fantastique, which earns him his first notice by the finicky Parisian public.

This year marks the bicentennial of Berlioz’s birth. The rest of the Philharmonic‘s observance doesn’t take place until early 2004, since the orchestra has all that fancy new programming to usher it into its new abode in the last weeks of 2003. Major celebrations are scheduled all over, however; the Met has a new production of Les Troyens in the works; the San Francisco Opera plans a staging of La Damnation de Faust. (Yes, I know it‘s a cantata, not a stage work, but if you want to see a really stunning if off-the-wall DamFaust staging, check out the DVD from the 1999 Salzburg Festival, on the ArtHaus label, with a Mephistopheles from Willard White that’ll curl your toes.)

The most obvious reasons for his music‘s uniqueness have to do with its sound: the four huge bands of brass and percussion that converge for the “Tuba mirum” of the Requiem; the brass, winds and gibberish-shouting chorus as Faust and his tormentors fall into the Infernal flames; the howling of winds and unseen demons as the storm overtakes Dido and Aeneas in Les Troyens and causes them to fall in love. Equally amazing are the small sounds, sometimes at the far end of audibility: the radiant “Alleluia” and the concluding “Amen” sung offstage in L’Enfance du Christ; the astonishing merging of high flutes and low trombones -- with three octaves of emptiness in between that stand for a vision of Eternity -- again in the Requiem; the amazing moment in the Fantastique as woodwind-playing shepherds serenade one another from distant hilltops while four timpani harmonize in menacing, soft thunder.

Paris‘ most beloved music in Berlioz’s time was nothing like any of this. Audiences who had taken slowly to the shock waves of the “Eroica” were even more reluctant to deal with the shaggy-haired new upstart. What they flocked to, instead, were the blocky orchestrations and harmonies of Luigi Cherubini‘s resolutely academic grand operas, and of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s even emptier lyrico-historico spectacles, the spaghetti Westerns of their day. This was the crowd-pleasing fare that filled seats at the Paris Opera, while Berlioz wept as his grander, far more deserving scores went a-begging -- the stunning Les Troyens that has only now come into circulation, the magnificent but still-neglected Benvenuto Cellini from which only the “Roman Carnival” Overture has gained any attention.

The Berlioz harmonies, too, are like nobody else‘s. The guitar was the only instrument he truly mastered; the familiar image of a composer at a piano, working out inspirations in full, four-part harmony, doesn’t apply here. His chords often have one or two notes missing, and this produces an interesting earthiness; listen to the mountaineer‘s song in Harold in Italy. Above all, however, the wonder of Berlioz’s art lies in that supreme command of the ardent, heart-rending, long melody: Romeo‘s soliloquy in the Romeo et Juliette Symphony, the merging of that tune into the Capulets’ party music and then -- wonder of wonders! -- the sublimity of what ensues, as the lovers meet each other among Verona‘s dark shadows. (Find the GiuliniChicago Symphony recording if you can.)

Similar marvels form the essence of the Christmas music three weeks ago that began our Berlioz observance. L’Enfance du Christ is one of Berlioz‘s smaller miracles -- smaller, that is, in terms of the reduced orchestra and the disarming simplicity of much of the music. Berlioz’s text tells of the Holy Family‘s escape from Herod’s massacre and its flight to Egypt. He tells it as a folktale in simple, quasi-peasant language, similar to what John Adams and Peter Sellars have created with the same dramatic context in their El Niño, due here in March. Wonderful, quiet, disturbing music, it seems lit through candlelight and stained glass. A rich, earthy harmonic sense suffuses the entire work: the familiar (and weepily beautiful) Shepherds‘ Chorus, Mary’s Lullaby, even the charming, throwaway chamber music for flutes and harp.

The performance under Salonen was full of love and reverence, although I might have wished for a smaller contingent of Master Chorale members to match the somewhat cut-back orchestra. The solo group couldn‘t have been better: Vinson Cole’s slightly reedy (and therefore very French-sounding) narration, Susanne Mentzer‘s adoring singing as Mary, and -- a newcomer, at least to me -- the excellent French-Swiss baritone Gilles Cachemaille in diametrically opposite roles as the evil Herod and the Ishmaelite father who offers the Holy Family shelter, and whose few lines in the latter role might just be the world’s most comforting music.