What would Berlioz have made of Disney’s Frozen? Fantastique, probably

After his death, the fanciful French composer, was left out in the cold, but two Dublin concerts celebrating his 150th anniversary shows romanticism is not dead

Hector Berlioz in 1856. Our Lady’s Choral Society at the NCH with  conductor Proinnsías Ó Duinn and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, was careful to include an extract from his best-known work, the Symphonie fantastique, inspired by his passion for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. Photograph: Nadar

Hector Berlioz in 1856. Our Lady’s Choral Society at the NCH with conductor Proinnsías Ó Duinn and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, was careful to include an extract from his best-known work, the Symphonie fantastique, inspired by his passion for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. Photograph: Nadar

 

When London’s Drury Lane theatre reopens this time next year following renovations, it will be with a run of Disney’s Frozen.

You’d wonder what Hector Berlioz might make of Disney’s Frozen. Isn’t it hugely tempting to imagine that such a mould-breaking, colourful and fanciful composer would absolutely love it? All those huge gestures and melodrama, all that wide-eyed, emotional openness.

Berlioz himself once stood on that very same Drury Lane stage. That was on February 13th, 1848, a good 21 years before his death, whose 150th anniversary was marked in two Dublin concerts last week. Imagine collecting him from the theatre in a DeLorean time-machine and returning him, instantly, to the same spot 172 years later. In time for Frozen. I say he’d love it.

In 1848 he was halfway through a seven-month visit to England and was conducting a concert of his own works in Drury Lane. A critic from the Observer attended and penned a plush review that is available to read online. He notes that Berlioz had marshalled orchestral and choral forces totalling 250, and he lists the substantial programme of pieces, some of which cross over with those in last week’s commemorative concerts. He also includes the following spectacular, semicolon-rich sentence-cum-paragraph. See you on the other side.

“It cannot be doubted, however, that Berlioz is a most imaginative composer; that his mind is richly stored with new and striking ideas; that he is a consummate master of all the resources of his art; that he has carried its descriptive powers further, probably, than they have ever been carried before; Beethoven always excepted; and that the effects which he produces by his orchestral combinations, and particularly by the employment of powerful brass instruments, are almost if not wholly unparalleled in grandeur and beauty.”

Creative cul-de-sac

This summary of Berlioz from 1848 is compatible with the Berlioz we still normally imagine today. But to say it could not be doubted proved inaccurate. Not only was it doubted, but within 50 years of his death Berlioz was known only by a small number of pieces, and these were only rarely programmed. Gradually, during the 20th century, enthusiastic championing by prominent conductors such as Thomas Beecham and, later, Colin Davis restored to Berlioz the reputation he still enjoys today: as a kind of larger-than-life, audience-polarising creative cul-de-sac of the Romantic period.

Our Lady’s Choral Society, celebrating Berlioz at the NCH with their conductor Proinnsías Ó Duinn and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, was careful to include an extract from his best-known work, the Symphonie fantastique. This was his graphic and large-scale orchestral response to rejection in love, inspired by his (initially) one-way passion for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, from Ennis. The extract, a little tame under Ó Duinn on this occasion, was the macabre dream sequence March to the Gallows, which depicts the rejected lover being led to his execution for murdering the girl.

I defy those little bastards in the counterpoint classes at the Conservatoire to write a movement so tightly knit

Interestingly, certain passages in the sometimes rather sordid narrative of the Symphonie fantastique were in fact ones Berlioz had salvaged from an earlier sacred work whose score he was supposed to have destroyed: his youthful setting of the Catholic mass, the Messe solennelle. Berlioz buried it after just two disappointing performances in 1824 and 1827, only for it to pop back to the surface 164 years later in an Antwerp church in 1991. It then received the full lost-masterpiece treatment.

‘So bloody religious’

The first time round, not everyone had hated it the way the young Berlioz did. “Damn, my boy,” a woman in the choir enthused to him about the O salutaris movement. “I defy those little bastards in the counterpoint classes at the Conservatoire to write a movement so tightly knit, so bloody religious.”

Still, he was 20 when he composed it, and the Messe is in fact rather underpowered Berlioz, even dull at times. Our Lady’s Choral Society was also, unusually, underpowered – lacking security, approaching notes from below, short on energy in pronouncing text – compared to their customary good form at Christmastime with Handel’s Messiah. They were much more comfortable and persuasive in the chordal, strophic presentation of the Coeur des bergers from L’enfance du Christ.

John Molloy (bass), Andrew Gavin (tenor) and Kelli-Ann Masterson (soprano) lent refinement to the work’s solo movements. Both Masterson and Berlioz himself seemed more fully at home and able to inhabit the music and its verse in two extracts from the song-cycle Les nuits d’été, particularly Le spectre de la rose, in which the ghost of a flower describes how happy it was to be worn by the young woman at the ball the night before.

This was mature, full-blown Berlioz, as was his high-spirited Roman Carnival Overture which Ó Duinn delivered with energy and the RTÉCO brass in flying form.

‘Dramatic legend’

On the following night the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra paid its tribute with highly animated performances of the three instrumental movements regularly extracted from his sprawling “dramatic legend” for soloists, chorus and children’s choir and orchestra, The Damnation of Faust. The two dances are pictorial in effect, the first easily evocative of Mephistopheles summoning his minions, the second seeing poor Faust lulled to sleep by a chorus of sylphs in an idyllic woodland. The ensuing Hungarian March quickly dispels any notion of sleeping.

Principal guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann brought all this imagery vividly to life. But boy, was I ready for some Romantic orthodoxy by the time she closed the concert with Schumann’s Third Symphony. In Stutzmann’s hands, all that symphonic structure and convention equalled more than the sum of its parts to become a powerful and uplifting snapshot of the tradition Berlioz spent his life questioning.

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