Friday, October 28, 2011

Hector Berlioz: Complete Chronological Catalogue

"With all his efforts to go stark mad he never once succeeds." - The well-tempered Mendelssohn on Hector Berlioz. Sounds mad, doesn't it? Here's more. Verdi: "(Berlioz) lacked the calm and what I may call the balance that produce complete works of art. He always went to extremes, even when he was doing admirable things." And Boulez: "There are awkward harmonies in Berlioz that make one scream."

The most extraordinary thing about those comments is, none of the commenters, and few music critics today deny Berlioz's greatness. Though Stravinsky said "Berlioz's reputation as an orchestrator has always seemed highly suspect to me", what Berlioz did for orchestration is probably as revolutionary as Stravinsky did for rhythm. Read extracts from Treatise on Instrumentation and Orchestration here, or get a free eBook on Google Books.

I guess part of the reason that Berlioz didn't enjoy a steady reputation in the music history is, not many historians before the age of gramophone had a chance to hear the real thing. Almost alone among major composers, Berlioz had virtually no keyboard skills, and produced no piano or chamber music that was increasingly demanded by the rising bourgeois (it was from Liszt's piano transcription of Symphonie Fantastique that most people got to know the work, even Schumann reviewed the work based on it). The only instrument that he played well was, well, the orchestra. Some of his important works call for huge orchestra forces, even by today's standard. As a result, his magnum opus Les Troyens was never staged in its entirety during his lifetime. In fact, the first production that "approximated the composer's original intentions" appeared as late as 1957. His Messe solennelle, completed when he was 20, is on par with the best works that a 20-year-old Mozart had done. And this work was not published or performed between 1827 and 1993. I doubt many music history books ever mentioned it.

I compiled a playlist after this chronological list (itself was after the Catalogue of the Works of Hector Berlioz by D. Kern Holoman). Gardiner's Messe solennelle is not available on Spotify USA, so I have to use another recording which sounds much less impressive. European users can find the Gardiner recording through the revised version of the Resurrexit, placed after La mort d'Orphée. Both Weimar and Paris version of Benvenuto Cellini are included. For the Requiem, I used the legendary live recording from Beecham's final Royal Albert Hall concert. Also check out the new recording from Paul Mccreesh for a sonically spectacular performance.

Here's the Spotify playlist: Hector Berlioz: Complete Chronological Catalogue (422 tracks, total time: 1day). Press Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view.

And, PBS is now offering full-length streaming of Keeping Score, watch Michael Tilson Thomas telling the story of Symphonie Fantastique here. His autobiography Memoirs of Hector Berlioz is also a great read (French version is free on Kindle), but beware, don't take his own words for granted. Berlioz wrote that he composed March to the Scaffold in one night (p.104). Well, he surely did, because he just copied it out from his unfinished work, Les francs-juges.


  1. You may wish to add the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Op. 15. There are a couple of versions of it in Spotify

  2. I already put Charles Dutoit's recording of Op. 15 in the playlist. Perhaps it's not available in Spain so you didn't see it, please uncheck "Hide unplayable tracks" in Spotify's Preferences to browse the full list.

  3. Ah OK, thank you. I did find a version by Colin Davis and the LSO, and another one by Charles Dutoit and the Montréal SO, both of them available in my country. Thanks again for the hard work!

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