With a wooden horse, a Trojan Horse 6 meters high and weighing 3 tons that volunteers built in the birthplace of Hector Berlioz, the Berlioz Festival began in his birthplace of La Côte Saint-André, near Grenoble, dedicated to the 160 anniversary of his death, March 8, 1869, at the age of 66.
The Trojan Horse as a symbol of the composer’s favorite work, inspired by Virgil, “The Trojans”.
Héctor Berlioz was born on December 11, 1803, ten years before Wagner and Verdi. His parents were the 27-year-old Louis Berlioz of La Côte Saint André in Isère, who died in 1848 without ever hearing his music, and Marie-Antoinette-Josephine, daughter of Nicolas Marmion, a lawyer from Meylan. Hector was the first of six children.
His father was his first music teacher and in 1815, when he was 12 years old, he taught him music lessons. A rare case for a great composer, Berlioz was not taught piano, but flute and guitar.
Due to his father’s persistence, he enrolled in 1821 at the Medical School in Paris. After two barren years, he persuaded his father to help him enroll in the Conservatoire and study composition and counterpoint.
As early as 1825, he would present his work “Grande Messe Solennelle” in the church of Saint-Roch in Paris, with 150 musicians and choristers, conducting himself. For this concert he tried to borrow money from Chateaubriand, whom he admired together with his closest friend of his youth, Humbert Ferrand. The value of his work has gained some recognition, but also an enemy similar to Salieri: the director of the Paris Conservatory, L. Cherubini (composer of « Medea”).
Deeply liberal, but also spiritually philhellene, a connoisseur like any educated Frenchman, then and now, of Greek classical history and literature, he sides from the beginning with the Greek struggle for independence. Literature in general plays a big role in his life and musical creation. He loves two great Britons: Shakespeare and Lord Byron, but also a German, Goethe. A famous Shakespearean actress, Harriet Smithson, will become his first wife.
Berlioz’s favorite Lord Byron’s work was none other than Child Harold’s Pilgrimage, perhaps the most critical work on the development of the Philhellenic movement. Byron’s tragic death in Messolonghi, April 19, 1824, and the terrible effect on his psyche of Eugene Delacroix’s famous painting “The Massacre of Chios”, which was publicly exhibited at the Salon de Paris in August of that year, shocked him.
A close friend of a lifetime, lawyer Humbert Ferrand (1805-1868), shared his ideas and wrote, in 1825, the poem “The Greek Revolution” (Scène Héroïque: La Révolution Grècque), which Berlioz composed for two Bass soloists, Choir and Orchestra. The music is in the style of Spontini, the imperial composer of La Vestale, as the young Berlioz himself proudly pointed out.
The text of the poem is extremely interesting, mainly because it highlights the way in which a liberal poet sees the Greek Revolution, that is, from the point of view of the Hellenism – Christian view that was its heroes view.
The original and direct children of the Enlightenment, who were Ferrand and Berlioz, thus contrast with later intellectual obsessional constructions.
At the beginning of the play, a Greek Hero invokes the awakening of the children of Sparta that Leonidas calls from his grave to rise up for their freedom! Then a priest invokes Constantine the Great and then the two together, in the name of the latter, call on the Greeks (Hellènes in the text) to revolt.
Berlioz found it very difficult to present the work because Rodolphe Kreutzer, the well-known great violinist who was then Director of the Paris Opera, as a true exponent of the establishment, did not even want to hear about the presentation of a then unknown composer. In vain the famous composer Le Sieur, and even the famous Comte de La Rochefoucauld intervened to the unassailable Kreutzer. Finally, Berlioz produced it himself on May 26, 1828.
Berlioz found it very difficult to be recognized in his home country, France. Despite his success in winning, in his third attempt, the famous Prix de Rome in 1830, but also some recognition brought by the Symphonie Fantastique in the same year, which won him a loyal friend, the most generous composer to his fellow craftsmen throughout the history of music, Franz Liszt, he had to write music reviews to live.
Another composer, Paganini, will order him a viola concerto for 20,000 francs. Berlioz draws from Byron again and writes the famous symphonic work “Harold in Italy”, which Paganini will never execute, unknown why.
In December 1837, he presented his own Requiem at the memorial service for General Damrémon, who was killed in Algeria, with 200 musicians and 200 choirs, at the church of Saint-Louis des Invalides.
Following repeated failures of his opera Benvenuto Cellini and Faust’s Damnation, translated from Goethe’s masterpiece by Gérard de Nerval, he will be forced to seek recognition abroad. In Germany, a guest of Liszt in Weimar, who even organized two « Berlioz weeks” in 1852 and 1853. He directed his works in ten cities in Germany, in Prague, Budapest, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Riga and 4 times in London, with which he developed a special relationship due to his love for Shakespeare and Lord Byron.
From April to April 1856-68 he wrote his leading work, Les Troyens, in his own libretto inspired from Virgil. A work in five acts lasting more than four hours. The Paris Opera, while accepting at the beginning, did not presented it in the end! Berlioz sadly had to present only the last three acts in the smaller Théâtre Lyrique, with the title “Les Troyens à Carthage” in November 1863. The entire opera will be performed for the first time after his death in Karlsruhe, Germany, under the direction of the famous Felix Mottl, in 1890!
In Paris, the entire work will be performed for the first time only in 2003, at the Théâtre du Châtelet under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. Fate wanted a Greek, Yannis Kokkos, to direct, stage and costume design! He will state in connection with the suicide of the Trojan women in the second act of the play: “In this suicide I saw the influence from the Greek history of 1821, which had greatly influenced European artists. In group suicide, Berlioz gives an echo of Messolonghi or Zalongo ».
I remember with emotion the first performance at the Bastille Opera, under Myung-Whun Chung with some small cuts, at the opening of the theater in 1990.
After the Trojans he will compose the choral work « Le Temple Universel », where he prophesies that “Europe will one day have only one flag” (1861) and the opera “Beatrice and Benedict”, based on Shakespeare’s « Much ado about Nothing” (1862).
Two major blows to his life will follow: the death of his second wife, Maria Recio, of a heart attack at the age of 48, in 1862, and the death of his son Louis, captain of a merchant ship, of yellow fever, in Havana, in 1867. Berlioz died on March 8, 1869, at his home in Paris after a stroke.
The work of this great composer and philhellene will find its recognition 90 years after his death. London, which he loved so much, will be the city of the great performances of his works. Starting with the production of the Trojans in Covent Garden in 1957, conducted by Rafael Kubelik and directed by Sir John Gielgud. Sir Colin Davis’, his greatest champion will produce and record almost everything Berlioz had composed, followed by John Nelson and John Eliot Gardiner.
Here is how Isma Toulatou presents in BIMA the performance of “Faust’s Damnation” directed by Maurice Bejart, a Paris Opera production in Epidaurus in 1965:
“The performances of Berlioz’s” La Damnation de Faust “given by the Paris Opera on July 31 and August 1, 1965 at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus, directed and choreographed by Maurice Bejart, surpassed domestic interest. Logical: It was the first appearance of the famous Company abroad in its full composition since its previous “excursion” to Japan concerned only its protagonists. This time, however, the entire potential would travel, from artists to technicians, which created a sense of anticipation.
“Four railway vehicles with the sets of Berlioz’s opera « La Damnation de Faust » have already arrived in Athens in view of the Paris Opera’s performance at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus as part of the Greek Tourism Organization’s artistic events,” (Vima July 21, 1965), describing the impending performance as “the greatest theatrical venture with the participation of the famous institution”. For the presentation of the work, we read in another part of the report, “314 technicians and artists of the Paris Opera and 164 technicians and administrative staff will collaborate. Four aircraft were deployed to transport French singers, dancers and technicians, and an air bridge will be created on the night of July 25-26 between the French city of Orange – where the group appears – and the Athens airport.
The “Greek Revolution” was presented at the Megaron in 2011 by the Symphony Orchestra of the Municipality of Athens, under Eleftherios Kalkanis and in 2019 by Byron Fidetzis, at the OLYMPIA Theater with the Philharmonia.
Lucas Karytinos and Camerata have prepared the work for the Megaron in 2020.
The great composer’s and philhellene’s Hector Berlioz works are now a constant part of the international repertoire, but for Greeks his work is even more important, as he is inspired entirely by the love of beauty and freedom, the high human ideals that make up the legacy of Hellenism.
You can watch a performance of “The Greek Revolution” here.
The original text in French follows:
Scène héroïque (La révolution grecque)
I. Récit et Air
Héros Grec: Lève-toi, fils de Sparte! allons!… N’entends-tu pas
Du tombeau de Léonidas
Une voix accuser ta vengeance endormie?
Trop longtemps de tes fers tu bénis l’infamie,
Et sur l’autel impur d’un Moloch effronté
On te vit, le front ceint de mépris et de honte,
Préparer, souriant comme aux jours d’Amathonte,
L’holocauste sanglant de notre liberté.
Ô mère des héros, terre chérie,
Dont la splendeur s’éteint sous l’opprobre et le deuil!
Ce sang qui crie en vain, ce sang de la patrie,
Nourrit de vils tyrans l’indolence et l’orgueil!
Ô mère des héros, terre chérie.
II. Choeur Prêtre Grec:
Mais la voix du Dieu des armées
A répandu l’effroi dans leurs rangs odieux.
Hellènes! rassemblez vos tribus alarmées;
L’astre de Constantin a brillé dans les cieux:
A ses clartés victorieuses, marchez en foule à l’immortalité!
Prêtre Grec et Héros Grec: Hellènes! rassemblez vos tribus alarmées;
L’astre de Constantin a brillé dans les cieux.
Prêtre Grec: A ses clartés victorieuses,
Héros! marchez en foule à l’immortalité!
Et demain de nos monts les cimes glorieuses
Verront naître l’aurore avec la liberté.
Héros Grec et Choeur: A ses clartés victorieuses,
Héros / Guerriers, marchons en foule à l’immortalité, etc.
Prêtre Grec et Choeur: Oui, la voix du Dieu des armées, etc.
Femmes: Astre terrible et saint, guide les pas du brave!
Que les rayons vaincus du croissant qui te brave
S’éteignent devant toi!
Héros, Prêtre, Choeur: Astre terrible et saint, etc.
Femmes: Que les fils de Sion, riches de jours prospères,
De la liberté sainte et du Dieu de leurs pères
Sans crainte bénisse la loi!
Choeur: Que les fils de Sion, etc.
Héros, Prêtre, Choeur: Des sommets de l’Olympe aux rives de l’Alphée
Mille échos en grondant roulent le cri de mort:
Partons /Partez !… le monde entier prépare le trophée
Que nous promet un si beau sort.
Quel bruit sur ces bords expire?…
Tyrtée éveille sa lyre,
Et la Grèce, en ce jour, oppose à ses bourreaux
Tout ce que son beau ciel éclaire de héros.
Ils s’avancent… et la victoire Rayonne sur leurs fronts poudreux;
La terre, belle encor de son antique gloire,
Retentit sous leurs pas nombreux.
Partons / Partez!… Des sommets, etc.
Aux armes!… le ciel résonne…
Harpes d’or, marquez nos pas!
Peuples!… guerriers!… l’airain tonne.
Nos fers ont soif de combats! Aux armes!