Chapter 2: Berlioz and His Interpreters -- An Historical Perspective

The problem with Berlioz and the performance of his works does not necessarily lie so much in the frequency, or infrequency, of those performances, but instead in two basic considerations. First of these is the balance of repertorial choices. The Symphonie Fantastique is the most frequently performed of Berlioz' orchestral compositions, which is to say that it is the most frequently encountered of all of his musical works, and it is as such a work which has "pre-empted" performances of much of his other music, save to a small but growing cohort of conductors. At the beginning of this century one would have been lucky to hear works other than the Fantastique, Le carnaval romain Overture and the Rakoczy March from La damnation de Faust. The operas Benvenuto Cellini, Béatrice et Bénédict, and Les troyens, along with the Faust work, more properly a "dramatic legend," were performed only infrequently in major opera houses and even more rarely in repertory, and even such works as the Roméo et Juliette Dramatic Symphony and the symphony Harold en Italie did not have a major hold on the repertoire. That this effective exclusion is due to the enormous popularity of the Fantastique is strongly to be suspected, first on the basis of the work's vivid imagery, second by the perception of Berlioz as a wild Romantic little capable of subtle effect, and most of all by the affection for that work by performing musicians and the public; why bother with the Byronic musings of Childe Harold, for example, when one may instead experience once again the excitement of the Witches' Sabbath?

A further reason for the fin-du-siècle discreditation of Berlioz lies in the simple dearth of performers adequate to the task. In the case of Berlioz, this clearly refers to conductors, since Berlioz' works are predominantly orchestral to the virtual exclusion of chamber music, the almost total exclusion of keyboard music, the general avoidance of songs with less-than-orchestral accompaniment, and, one must also note, to the overwhelming role of the orchestra (more so than to the voices, important though they might be) in the operas and dramatic legend. Leonard Bernstein has argued that the most effective expression of human drama and feelings in Berlioz is in Roméo et Juliette--not in the expository or narrative vocal passages, but in the orchestral movements.1

Thus it is that the effective presentation of Berlioz as a rounded composer, i.e., capable of far wider and more varied expression than the Fantastique and a handful of shorter works, is wholly dependent upon the activity of conductors worthy of the task. In Berlioz' time the overwhelming presence was, of course, Berlioz himself; such associates and successors who had had the benefit of his advice were able to bring the light of his works to far corners of the world. Yet the "tradition" failed to catch on; the light was all but extinguished. The rejection of Berlioz' music in his native France, and the concentration by most German and other performers on the more nearly "contemporary" attitudes of musical expression in the rest of Europe, diminished the dissemination of Berlioz' music.

By the end of the old century, and in the first few years of the new, there were but few conductors of world renown who championed Berlioz' non-Fantastique compositions. While such as Hans von Bülow, Gustav Mahler, Felix Mottl and Artur Nikisch did on occasion perform Berlioz' works, perhaps the seminal personality was the Dalmatian-born conductor (Paul) Felix (von) Weingartner (1863-1942).

Weingartner's earliest studies were in Graz, though his compositions earned him a scholarship in Leipzig, where he studied at the Konservatorium and at the University. He was introduced to Wagner at Bayreuth on the occasion of the premiere of Parsifal at the 1882 Festival, and soon relocated to Weimar where he became a pupil of Liszt. His conducting career began with positions in Königsberg, Danzig, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Mannheim, Berlioz (Hofkapellmeister at the Berlin Opera, 1891-1898), and Munich (as conductor of the Kaim Orchestra on their European tour of 1899). He conducted the cycle of Beethoven symphonies in 1902, inspiring Romain Rolland to write his Life of Beethoven.2

During this time, Weingartner had championed various Berlioz works. As Dyment has enumerated:

...[Weingartner's] first regular orchestral concerts, during his tenure at Mannheim when he was twenty-six, very soon saw the programming of the Symphonie fantastique; this figured also, against much opposition, in the first concert he undertook with the orchestra of the Berlin Hofoper two years later. . . . Countless other performances of this symphony were programmed by Weingartner throughout the musical world, consciously propagandistic at first, but later accepted almost as his carte de visite [sic].

The championship extended to many works well known as well as the less familiar. A few examples must serve: Benvenuto Cellini in the opera houses of Berlin and Vienna, where in 1911 it was his brilliant farewell choice upon relinquishing his direction of the Hofoper; La Morte de Cleopatre [sic] in London in 1903. . . . Harold in Vienna with Arnold Rosé making a late debut on the viola in May 1924, and in Basle with Adolph [sic] Busch in March 1928; the Grande Messe more than once in Vienna, including a performance in 1926 shortly before his departure for Basle. The list is endless.3

Weingartner's familiarity with the bulk of the Berlioz oeuvre led to his association with Charles Malherbe as co-editor of the proposed but never completed (Old) Berlioz Edition, for which Weingartner appears to have been entirely in charge of musical editing decisions.4,5

In 1903, Weingartner was awarded a medal by Berlioz' heirs, the Chapot family, for his championship of this composer's music; he represented Germany at the centenary celebrations in Grenoble, and participated as a conductor in the concomitant festival.6,7

Weingartner's career took him to America to conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1904 and in two subsequent seasons, and he maintained an active schedule as a guest conductor up to 1908 when he succeeded Gustav Mahler as Director of the Vienna Opera, a position which lasted only through 1911, although he continued to be associated with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. His constant touring brought him to Hamburg, Boston, Paris, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Rome, and during the First World War he was Generalmusikdirektor in Darmstadt.

Weingartner conducted the Vienna Volksoper from 1919-24, during which time he conducted opera and orchestral music in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo, later bringing the Vienna Philharmonic for a South American tour. In 1924 he made his home in Switzerland, and began the most intensive part of his career as guest conductor in England, though to the end of his career he continued to tour to such widespread places as Spain, Greece, Hungary, the Soviet Union, and Japan.

Today, Weingartner is principally known for his essays on conducting, and on Beethoven's and other Classical and Romantic symphonies.8 He was, however, a prolific recording artist, and some sound archivists hold his work, particularly his versions of the Beethoven symphonies, in high repute. Of Weingartner's performances of the music of Berlioz, there are some descriptions and very few recordings; unfortunately, his own writings about Berlioz were nowhere nearly as copious as those on Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann, being essentially limited to an essay on the Fantastique, which nonetheless dealt at lesser length with several other Berlioz works, particularly Harold, Roméo, and Faust.9

Weingartner's Berlioz discography is unfortunately equally limited, and presents several problems to the researcher. It should be noted that Weingartner recorded the Fantastique not merely once, but twice in the same year (1925). The reason for this apparent duplication lies in the recording technology available at that stage of development. From 1877 through 1924/5, the recording process was essentially one of mechanical coupling; sounds were gathered by the recording horn, that familiar accouterment of old-style phonographs, and the resulting vibrations were passed directly to a cutting implement which incised a helical or spiral groove onto a wax cylinder or disc; the process has come to be known as the acoustic process, and has many limitations, particularly with the distortion and resonance caused by the acoustical properties of the recording horn itself; in addition, bass response is sharply limited, a problem which was "solved" in the studios by replacing orchestral double-bass sections with tubas. Recording balance, if any, was chiefly achieved by having performers with solos run up to the horn and play their passages directly into it" As might be imagined, the acoustic method often left musical considerations behind, and yet there is much of interest which may be heard on recordings from that long period, providing that one is able mentally to compensate for the mechanical and aesthetic failings that attend to them.

The first Weingartner Fantastique was recorded on the four consecutive days 10-13 March 1925, at the British Columbia studios at Petty France. Petty France was one of the standard studios used by British Columbia during this period; Weingartner's six previous sessions for British Columbia (between 1 June 1923 and 7 November 1924, out of which came the conductor's first recordings of Mozart's 39th Symphony, Brahms' 1st, and Beethoven's 5th, 7th, and 8th, as well as a never-completed recording of the 6th) were at this English facility.10 The studio evidently was quite small (standard for acoustic orchestral recording) and had quite a "dead hall" sound by modern standards. The acoustic Fantastique was, however, not issued, since the Western Electric system of recording with microphones had only then been introduced, and British Columbia junked some of its then-unreleased acoustics with the intent of remaking them electrically.

Thus British Columbia recalled Weingartner and the London Symphony Orchestra to its Petty France studio on 28-29 October and 1 November 1925 in order that the Fantastique might be the first large-scale work to be recorded by the company with the electrical process. (Post-acoustic recordings are thus typically referred to as electric recordings.) The resultant reading was subsequently issued in an album of six 78-RPM discs in the United Kingdom, United States, Italy, and Germany.

The Weingartner Fantastique is one of that conductor's more problematic recordings. Weingartner was closely associated with the work, and reviews exist describing his reading of it. Yet this recording (despite praise given it by Sir Edward Elgar, who crossed company lines to prefer it to the early recording by Monteux) does not square easily with those reviews.11 The recorded sound gives it an air of dullness, and the performance quality is not up to the level of many other Weingartner recordings.

There are several possible explanations for this. The acoustic process, especially as it applied to large orchestral works, was a time-consuming and uncomfortable task. (One must admire the patience of Oskar Fried, who somehow managed to record Mahler's Resurrection Symphony in the acoustic era!) The cramped quarters of Petty France were not at all pleasant to the London Symphony Orchestra members; witness the account by Imogen Holst of the solo horn-player's discomfiture in the sessions for the acoustic Planets.12 The revelation by British Columbia that the lengthily-produced Fantastique of March was not to be issued surely was dispiriting in the extreme, and the performers cannot have been much pleased by the company's plans to record the work all over again.

Secondly, the March recording had been made on the heels of a very successful performance of the work at Queen's Hall on 9 March. It is not known whether the conductor and orchestra had the opportunity to rehearse and perform the work again in October as extensively as had been done in preparation for the March performance, though it may be suspected that this opportunity may not have been available.

Thirdly, the electric recording process was by its nature a new engineering venture for the British Columbia recordists; surely there must have been considerable experimentation with microphone placement, which could not have helped but to add to the players' discomfiture. The essentially experimental nature of the proceedings must also have subtracted from the technical quality of the result.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly is the matter of the tempos in the Finale, Dyment indicates that the Finale in the acoustic recording was allotted four sides (though since the recording was not published he does not indicate where the breaks were made).13 The electric recording, however, allots only two sides to the movement, the first covering measures 1-241 and the second measures 241 to the end. Even without auditioning the electric recording (the acoustic recording remaining perhaps permanently unavailable, if not nonexistent), it is clear that this would necessitate extremely quick tempos. If one may presume that the March recording, originating as it were from Weingartner's public performances, represented the composer's true attitude toward the work, then that unreleased document is surely more indicative of that attitude than the electric version--which may indeed be auditioned, and which may be heard to be too fast by almost any aesthetic standard. (It might also be noted that for technical reasons the later acoustic recordings had a slightly greater capacity with regard to side-length than did the earliest electrics.) A timing of 9:02 for the Finale almost certainly blunts the impact of the entire performance, and since the recording time allotted it was split between the second and third of the three October-November sessions, it is almost certain that Weingartner was adversely affected by the decision--presumably handed down to him by the company in order to keep the work to six discs rather than seven, and keep the cost of the album down. In any event, the performance has been described by Christopher Dyment as probably not representative of the conductor's work in Berlioz' music.14 By way of comparison, Weingartner made one further recording in the Petty France studio: the Beethoven 9th Symphony, again with the London Symphony Orchestra, with added soloists and chorus (singing in English) on 16 and 17 March 1926. This performance resembles Weingartner's hugely successful second recording of the work with the Vienna Philharmonic dating from 2-5 February 1935; but the cramped Petty France did not allow for so clean nor flexible a reading as did the Mittlerer Konzerthaushaal, not to mention the difference in recording technology in nine years' time. The conductor never recorded again in Petty France, moving for his later British recordings to the Scala Theatre in London, Central Hall in Westminster, and the No. 1 Studio at Abbey Road. The two electric Petty France recordings must be considered technical failures, and by extension one may regret that Weingartner was never done justice in his attempts to record the Fantastique.

Weingartner's sole other recording of a Berlioz work was that of the Marche troyenne from Les troyens, made during the course of an interestingly varied pair of sessions on 21-22 July 1939 with the orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire at the Théâtre Pigalle in Paris. From a technical standpoint, this recording is one of Weingartner's best, and from a musical standpoint it gives a great deal of pleasure, with a superb rhythmic thrust and a careful balance of orchestral voices giving what might be a fairly true idea of Weingartner's way with Berlioz' music. It is a shame that Weingartner did not leave more Berlioz recordings; but the time was perhaps not yet "ripe" for a true Berlioz revival, a revival that was to take place most of all in Britain, principally in Manchester, and chiefly by a conductor of Irish birth, Sir Hamilton Harty (1879-1941).

Herbert Hamilton Harty's earliest musical studies, at home in Hillsborough with his father, were in a wide variety of instruments, chiefly the piano and organ. After various stints as church organist in Magheragall and Belfast, Harty moved to Dublin where he not only built up a strong reputation as an accompanist but made the acquaintance of the conductor of a community orchestra. After further work as an organist in Bray, just south of Dublin, Harty moved to London where he established himself as organist, accompanist, and composer, and had his first experiences in 1904 as an orchestral conductor, in his own music. In 1911 he came to the attention of Hans Richter, who furthered the Irishman on his twin careers of composing and conducting (the accompanying had now taken a back seat) by inviting Harty to perform his orchestral work With the Wild Geese with the London Symphony Orchestra. Further engagements followed, notably with the opera at Covent Garden, where he conducted Tristan und Isolde and Carmen in 1913. During the First World War Harty first made his acquaintance with the Hallé Orchestra at Manchester, when the regular conductor, Michael Balling, was prevented from continuing by virtue of his being German and therefore an enemy alien.15

It was after the war that the Hallé Orchestra selected Harty as its more or less regular conductor, though he was free to guest conduct elsewhere, and his championship of Berlioz (whose works he surely must have conducted extensively, but details are unclear) from this position of stability at Manchester was permitted at last to blossom. From Manchester came, therefore, not the first British performances but certainly revelatory ones of La damnation de Faust, Harold en italie, Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Grande Messe des morts, Roméo et Juliette, and even Les Troyens. The GMdm in particular benefited from performances in 1925, 1926, and 1930; much later, after his ties with the Hallé had been severed, there was to be a significant performance with ensembles of the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1936, about which more will be said in Chapter 3.

If Weingartner had been the earliest advocate on records of the Symphonie fantastique, Harty was permitted to translate his advocacy of Berlioz in a wide variety of discs. The period 1927 to 1935 saw recordings of the overtures Béatrice et Bénédict, Le corsaire, Le roi Lear, and Le carnaval romain, orchestral excerpts from Les troyens, La damnation de Faust, and Roméo et Juliette, and Harty's own arrangement for orchestra alone of Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d'Hamlet, issued by British Columbia and Decca, with variously the Hallé Orchestra, the London Symphony, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (the latter founded by another major Berlioz conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham). These performances, though they demonstrated the variety of Berlioz' largest works only to limited extent, were still among the most important sonic documents of a conductor's devotion to Berlioz' music. Some of these recordings were reissued on LP in 1971 and remain available in Britain as monuments to Harty, perhaps the earliest conductor to bring Berlioz works in large and significantly varied doses to his audiences. Manchester and London were, during Harty's active years, the principal locales for concentrations of Berlioz performances, and since as will later be indicated Britain has since been and now remains an important center for Berlioz performance, Harty emerges clearly as perhaps the most important advocate of that composer's music in this century.

Of Weingartner's performances of Berlioz' works (other than the ubiquitous Fantastique), little document remains, and certainly he was never to record or, as far as can be determined, broadcast any works other than the two already mentioned. Harty, on the other hand, is known to have conducted many broadcasts of Berlioz' work, and particular mention must be made once more of the performance under his baton by the augmented orchestra and chorus of the British Broadcasting Corporation of the Grande Messe des morts on 4 March 1936. As prelude to this significant event, Harty prepared and delivered on 2 March 1936 a lecture over the BBC concerning Berlioz, his music in general and the two works to be performed on the following broadcast (the other being the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale), and problems faced by the performers and listeners; a transcript of this talk, very likely one of the clearest explications on the subject of Berlioz to be found, is contained in Appendix D.

Since the performance and simultaneous broadcast of the GMdm by Harty occurred during a period when His Master's Voice (a rival recording company to British Columbia, though they were later wholly subsumed together into Electro-Musical Industries, Ltd.) was known to be making excellent lacquer air-checks (off-the-air reference recordings) of certain other BBC broadcasts (most notably the concert series by Arturo Toscanini, known to a somewhat lesser extent as an advocate of some of Berlioz' works), the present author has already speculated that this Harty performance may have been taken down as well, and could possibly yet exist in the EMI vaults at Hayes.16 If this is indeed the case, the document of this performance would surely give a greater insight into the re-creative art of one of the most persuasive and influential Berlioz conductors of all time, and as such would be of extreme interest to the serious Berlioz scholar.

If Weingartner and Harty may be considered the two pivotal figures of the Berlioz revival, they may also be considered to have opened up the floodgates for Berlioz performance in this century. Certainly once the massive oeuvre of Berlioz was opened again, other performers found in the neglected works pieces worth their further consideration; indeed, several conductors were to become closely associated with the repertoire. Among these have been the Alsatian-French conductor, Charles Munch, the Frenchman, Pierre Monteux, the Britons, Sir Thomas Beecham, Baronet, and Sir Colin Davis, the Italian, Arturo Toscanini, the Argentine-born Israeli, Daniel Barenboim, and the Manchurian-born Japanese, Seiji Ozawa. Of these conductors, Munch, Beecham, Davis and Barenboim have had their performances preserved for study in this present work, and their biographies may be found in Appendix C.

Monteux and Toscanini appear to have championed many of Berlioz' larger works, but neither appears to have approached the GMdm. Monteux was enough of a proponent of the Symphonie fantastique to have recorded it no fewer than four times; but he did not take the opportunity to perform the GMdm with his American ensembles (the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra).

Toscanini's chief interest in Berlioz seems to have been directed entirely at Harold en italie, which he performed on several occasions with the NBC Symphony, Roméo et Juliette, which he reintroduced to New York with great success with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra in 1942 and the NBC Symphony in 1947, the latter of which performances was later issued as a commercial recording (while the Reine Mab Scherzo figured prominently in his concerts and tours), The Overture Le carnaval romain, and La damnation de Faust, which he had produced in Milan, Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Turin.17 Les francs-juges Overture figured less prominently in his repertoire, and sketchy references indicate that he once gave the last two movements only of the Symphonie fantastique, but never the entire work, though Legge, as reported by Schwarzkopf, claims to have talked Toscanini into agreeing to perform it at a planned, but never actualized, London concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra.18 Toscanini evidently did not perform the Fantastique because of its lesser appeal to him, and remarked pejoratively to Haggin of Munch's tempo shifts in the same last two movements.19 It may be speculated that Toscanini's odd selections from the Berlioz oeuvre reflects his temperament and his personal estimation of his ability to organize large-scale productions.

Seiji Ozawa has had extensive experience with the larger works of Berlioz, including two recordings of the Fantastique and a critically-acclaimed Roméo et Juliette. In addition he has performed the GMdm in Boston and New York on a number of occasions (some of which are treated in Chapter 3), most recently mounting a series of performances in Boston on one week's notice in 1982. Certainly in the opinion of the present author Ozawa merits consideration as a modern-day champion of Berlioz' works, a task for which his training and experience in France and Germany has well prepared him.

Copyright © 1983, 1995 by Matthew B. Tepper

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Chapter 1

Chapter 3


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