Performance Wednesday, March 7, 2012 | 8 PM

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Two vivid French masterworks, written a century apart: the first, Ravel’s Piano Concerto, opens with a snap and a jazzy sparkle; the second, Berlioz’s macabre Symphonie fantastique—a frightening take on lost love and the hallucinatory power of art. Hear them both with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach, featuring pianist Cédric Tiberghien.
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The Program

Overture to Benvenuto Cellini

In the years 1836–1838, Berlioz poured heart and soul into composing his first produced opera, Benvenuto Cellini. He had brought the subject back with him from Italy, where he had gone as a winner of the Prix de Rome, and he persuaded Léon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier to write a libretto for him. At first the work was intended as an opéra-comique, which meant that it would have spoken dialogue and a somewhat light tone; but the first libretto was refused, and the authors recast it in more elevated form so that Berlioz could submit it to the Paris Opéra.

Rehearsals proved a sore trial to the composer. Conductor François Antoine Habeneck was openly unsympathetic, and many singers and members of the orchestra made fun of the work, or at least held their opinions in reserve in order not to contradict the conductor. Though some members of the orchestra became openly enthusiastic about the music by the time of the premiere, this only led Henri Duponchel, director of the Opéra, to refer to them as “our ridiculous orchestra” for praising Berlioz. Some of the other orchestral players, though, chose to play other music entirely during the performance in hopes of ingratiating themselves with the management. The singers did not take the rehearsals seriously either, and when Berlioz attempted to complain to Duponchel, he found that the director did not deign to attend rehearsals.

Benvenuto Cellini was not a success with the public. Berlioz wrote, “The overture was extravagantly applauded; the rest was hissed with exemplary precision and energy.” The opera has never been a standard repertory favorite, though revivals in recent years have shown that it is full of wonderfully varied and colorful music. Berlioz himself reworked parts of the score into his RomanCarnival Overture five years after the opera’s original failure, and that is what most of us know of Benvenuto Cellini. But the opera’s own overture, too, is a splendid work, and rightly pleased the Parisian audience in 1838. The variety of music in the score might well have embarrassed Berlioz in his choice of materials for an overture. As it is, the main Allegro theme is newly invented. We hear a bit of it by way of rousing introduction before moving to an extended Larghetto that presents the theme associated with the Cardinal (pizzicato cellos and basses) followed by the theme of Harlequin’s arietta. This is restated before the main section, Allegro deciso con impeto, which is not only decisive and impetuous (as the tempo marking indicates) but also full of clever cross-rhythms, wonderful details of orchestration, and surprise entrances.

—Steven Ledbetter

© Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.

Piano Concerto in G Major

At about the same time that Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who had lost his right arm during World War I, asked Ravel if he would write a concerto for him, Ravel’s longtime interpreter Marguerite Long asked for a concerto for herself. Thus, although he had written no piano music for a dozen years, he found himself in 1930 writing two concertos more or less simultaneously. The Concerto for the Left Hand turned out to be one of his most serious compositions, but the G-Major Concerto, dedicated to and first performed by Madame Long, falls into the delightful category of high-quality diversion. Ravel’s favorite term of praise was divertissement de luxe, and he succeeded in producing just such a piece with this concerto.

On the occasion of the first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances in April 1932 (the US premiere), the program book stated that “this concerto was intended for the Jubilee of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; but though, it is said, Ravel had worked continuously at it for more than two years, he was not satisfied.” In fact, as reported in the BSO’s 1938 program book when the orchestra next performed the concerto, again with Jesús María Sanromá and Serge Koussevitzky, Ravel had been asked to write a piece for the BSO’s 50th anniversary and did speak of a piano concerto, but “the score was not forthcoming from the meticulous and painstaking composer.”

The motoric high jinks of the first movement are set off by the cracking of a whip, though they occasionally yield to lyric contemplation. The second movement is a total contrast, hushed and calm, with a tune widely regarded as one of the best melodies Ravel ever wrote. The effort cost him dearly, and it may have been here that he first realized that his powers of composition were failing; they broke down completely in 1932, when the shock of an automobile collision brought on a nervous breakdown, and he found himself thereafter incapable of sustained work. For this concerto, he found it necessary to write the Adagio assai one or two measures at a time. The final Presto brings back the rushing motor rhythms of the opening, and both movements now and then bear witness that Ravel had traveled in America and become acquainted with jazz and recent popular music. He also met George Gershwin and told him that he thought highly of his Rhapsody in Blue; perhaps it is a reminiscence of that score that can be heard in some of the “blue” passages here and there.

—Steven Ledbetter

© Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.

Symphonie fantastique, Episode from the life of an artist, Op. 14

On December 9, 1832—two years after its first performance, and as vividly recounted in his own Memoirs—Hector Berlioz won the heart of his beloved Harriet Smithson, whom he had never met, with a concert that included the Symphonie fantastique, for which she had unknowingly served as inspiration when the composer fell hopelessly in love with her some years before. The two met the next day and were married on the following October 4. (The unfortunate but true conclusion to this seemingly happy tale is that the two were formally separated in 1844.)

Berlioz saw the Irish actress for the first time on September 11, 1827, when she played Ophelia in Hamlet with a troupe of English actors visiting Paris. By the time of her departure from Paris in 1829, Berlioz had made himself known to her through letters, but they did not meet. By February 6, 1830, he had hoped to begin his “Episode from the life of an artist,” a symphony reflecting the ardor of his “infernal passion,” but his creative capabilities remained paralyzed until that April, when gossip (later discredited) linking Harriet with her manager provided the impetus for him to conceive a program that ended with the transformation of her previously unsullied image into a participant in the infernal witches’ sabbath whose depiction makes up the last movement of the Symphonie fantastique.

Though Berlioz ultimately came to feel that the titles of the five individual movements—Reveries, passions; A ball; Scene in the country; March to the scaffold; Dream of a witches’ sabbath—spoke well enough for themselves, he originally specified that his own detailed program be distributed to the audience at the first performance. For present purposes, it is worth quoting from that program’s opening paragraph, with its reference to the symphony’s principal musical theme:

A young musician of morbidly sensitive temperament and fiery imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of lovesick despair. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a deep slumber accompanied by the strangest visions, during which his sensations, his emotions, his memories are transformed in his sick mind into musical thoughts and images. The loved one herself has become a melody to him, an idée fixe as it were, that he encounters and hears everywhere.

The idée fixe, as much a psychological fixation as a musical one, is introduced in the violins and flute at the start of the first movement’s Allegro section. Its appearance “everywhere” in the course of the symphony includes a ball in the midst of a brilliant party; during a quiet summer evening in the country (where it appears against a background texture of agitated strings, leading to a dramatic outburst before the restoration of calm); in the artist’s last thoughts before he is executed, in a dream, for the murder of his beloved (at the end of the March to the scaffold); and during his posthumous participation in a wild witches’ sabbath, following his execution, at which the melody representing his beloved appears, grotesquely transformed, to join a “devilish orgy” whose diabolically frenzied climax combines the Dies irae from the Mass for the Dead with the witches’ round dance.

Today, more than 180 years after its first performance, it is easy to forget that when the Symphonie fantastique was new, Beethoven’s symphonies had just recently reached France, Beethoven himself having died only in 1827. With its much more specific programmatic intent, Berlioz’s work is already a far cry even from Beethoven’s own “Pastoral” Symphony of 1808. David Cairns has written that “Berlioz in the ‘Fantastic’ symphony was speaking a new language: not only a new language of orchestral sound ... but also a new language of feeling.”

Countless aspects of this score reflect Berlioz’s individual musical style, among them his rhythmically flexible, characteristically long-spun melodies, of which the idée fixe is a prime example; the quick juxtaposition of contrasting harmonies, as in the rapid-fire chords at the end of the March; the telling and often novel use of particular instruments, whether the harps at the Ball, the unaccompanied English horn in dialogue with the offstage oboe at the start of the Scene in the country, or the quick tapping of bows on strings to suggest the dancing skeletons of the witches’ sabbath; and his precise concern with dynamic markings. And all of this becomes even more striking when one considers that the Symphonie fantastique is the composer’s earliest big orchestral work, composed when he was not yet 30, and that the great, mature works—Roméo et Juliette, The Damnation of Faust, the operas Les Troyens and Béatrice et Bénédict among them—would follow only years and decades later.

—Marc Mandel

© Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.