Saturday, 14 April 2012

An overture to Berlioz

As an overture to what is likely to be a long, spread-out series of posts on the music of Hector Berlioz, I'd like to look at the exciting overture to his abandoned opera Les Franc-juges. I have a real soft spot for this early work by Berlioz. The opera itself was a tale of rescue from medieval tyranny.

Its slow introduction, like those of so many of Hector's later overtures and symphonic first movements, is both long and rich in incident. It has an ominous character, with initial stirrings yielding to tension-generating tremolos and a grim fanfare-like theme from the brass helping conjure a spirit of implacable severity (seemingly representing the forces of tyranny). Add touches of chromatic mystery and a brief passage of melodic loveliness from the violins (around one minute in) and you have an involving tone-painting in miniature. 

The symphonic main allegro begins as a feathery yet slightly hysterical scamper across hot coals, involving some brilliant string writing, but soon finds itself menaced by the brass figures from the introduction. Not to worry, for along comes the delightful second subject, a melody with little of the quirkiness but all of the lyrical magic that we Berlioz-lovers expect from our man - a tune that drew the attention of the BBC, who used it to introduce a prestigious interview programme called Face to Face. The mysterious central passage, however, restores the primacy of drama. Here a hopeful woodwind duet is attacked from all sides. If played with commitment (and without holding back the timpani), this passage can rouse itself to a very striking climax...out of which emerges the benign second subject (try not to whistle along!) Another tense scamper follows, the recapitulation, with added menacing swirls and even more fantasy, building again towards those severe brass figures. Having already re-heard the second subject in full song, Berlioz artfully gives us a skeletal version of the theme in its place. However, being generous, its form - ever gaining in martial spirit - eventually erupts in exhilarating full-throated song again. All that remains is an extraordinary riotous rush to the end.

Berlioz had many decades of composing to go after writing his Les Franc-juges overture yet its youthful energy never vanished from his music.

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