Hector Berlioz for Beginners

Hector_Berlioz_CropIn today’s composer spotlight we take a look at the brilliant French composer Hector Berlioz. I first encountered this magnificent composer in my dreaded youth orchestra days in high school. Ahhhh the youth orchestra . . . a place where my older sister and I were required to spend some quality time as commanded by our parents (my younger sister somehow managed to avoid this requirement. The youngest ones always do!)
Needless to say, I did not LOVE playing in the youth orchestra. I was much more interested in “performing” in local musical theater, which involved belting at the top of my lungs and sashaying across the stage, but instead I had my cello and the youth orchestra.


My conductor decided we were to perform movements IV and V of Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique for our spring concert. Symphony Fantastique is one of Hector Berlioz’s best known compositions notable for its beauty and the fact that it is an example of program music. Program music attempts to apply a narrative to the music. The narrative is often written in program notes. Berlioz himself wrote program notes to accompany his Symphonie Fantastique so that the audience could follow the story as they listened to the music. The story of Symphonie Fantastique involves an artist who overdoses on opium, hallucinates, murders his beloved, is executed, and ends up in hell. I know, pretty saucy stuff for a 13-year-old cellist.


The fourth movement entitled “Marche au supplice” (or “March to the Scaffold”) depicts the title character “the artist” marching to his death on the scaffold. The movement opens with low rumbles of timpani and brass, warning of the march and death to come. Next, the celli and bassi come in with the march theme. My time to SHINE on the cello! I LOVED playing this part. The low strings play a somber march descending by steps in a minor mode. This theme builds throughout the movement and Berlioz also writes a triumphant theme for the brass. The excited, blood-thirsty, and angry crowd of onlookers is depicted through an exchange between the strings and brass. As the artist awaits his death on the scaffold, he sees the ghost of his beloved beckoning, which Berlioz depicts with a reappearance of the beloved’s theme. But, there is no hope for the artist as he dies by the guillotine as the applauding crowd cheers.

Berlioz is a magnificent composer and I am so glad I was introduced to him those many years ago in youth orchestra. Take a look at this wonderful performance of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Orchestre National de France available on youtube.


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