On Sunday, 24 February, The Music Treasury will be highlighting works of Hector Berlioz, who died 150 years ago. Of added note, Dmitri Mitropouloos will be featured as the conductor of the show. It will air between 19:00 and 21:00 PST from KSZU in the Bay Area, with concurrent streaming at kzsu.stanford.edu. Dr Gary Lemco will host the show, adding his wit and insights to the evening presentation.
Dimitri Mitropoulos conducts Berlioz (1803-1869)
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the death of French composer Hector Berlioz, whose contribution to the world of music remains at once spectacular and unique. Among the various, great interpreters of his music, few rival the passion and erotic energy generated by Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960), who among other premieres he gave in New York, presented that city with the first complete rendition of the song-cycle Les Nuits d’ete [The Summer Nights] in April 1953 with Eleanor Steber. Pierre Boulez wrote of Mitropoulos that Mitropoulos exerted “inexhaustible curiosity toward every novelty, but still more [a] commitment to the works he was conducting. His single-minded passion for his calling [bubbled] over with the joy of serving the works under his baton with rarely equaled fervor. And so he remains in the recordings he left us.”
It is well to recall that for Berlioz, as for Mahler, the world of song and operatic expression stand at the pinnacle of musical expression. In so many of his compositions for orchestra, the harp plays an important function, serving in the manner of a troubadour’s guitar or an invocation to an epic ode. Skilled on both flute and guitar, Berlioz imbibed the worlds of French romance and church music in his early youth, and his hearing of the Eucharistic Hymn sung by the girls’ voices at his sister Nanci’s convent at his first communion formed a kind of template for his musical mind. That numinous sensibility would infiltrate his later compositions, such as the Te Deum, L’enfance du Christ, and his Messe Solennelle (Solemn Mass).
Upon his 18th birthday, Berlioz sojourned to Paris, where he became mesmerized by the music of Spontini, Salieri, and Gluck. No less a factor in his stylistic development was the magical world of Shakespeare, represented in his choral symphony Roméo and Juliette, Op. 17. Berlioz took his song composed as a teenager, “Je vais donc quitter mon doux pays, ma douce amie” [I will leave my sweet country, my sweet friend] for the opening of his Symphonie fantastique. His song, “Depit de la bergere,” [Spite of the shepherdess] appears in one of his last operas, Beatrice et Benedict. In the last of the cycle Les nuits d’ete [The Summer Nights], the “Unknown isle” looks back to the playful Villanelle, but the mood has absorbed the sense of a “lost horizon,” a receding land that, like one’s youth, cannot be recaptured. Much of the mercurial, fleeting powers of Nature and song emerge in the course the Scene aux champs [Scene in the fields] of the Symphonie fantastique, the performance of which by Mitropoulos conveys a fierce yearning for transcendence.
Berlioz: King Lear Overture, Op. 4 (NBC 1945)
Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17: Orchestral selections (1951)
Berlioz: Les Nuits d’ete, Op. 7 (E. Steber, 1954): Villanelle; L’ile inconnue [The unknown Island]
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14a (1951)