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Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale

Although the need for the patriotic muse waned after the Revolution, large-scale works for wind and brass were still written occasionally in France: Reicha completed his ’Musique pour célébrer…les grands événements de la République française’ in 1815 and his pupil, Berlioz, started similar pieces in 1832 and 1835. Although these were not completed and are now lost, Berlioz may have used ideas from them in the outer movements of the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale which he wrote in 1840 in response to a commission for a work to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the 1830 Revolution. The second movement, which is based on a scene from the opera, Les Francs-Juges, features Berlioz’s original vocal line in an extended arrangement for trombone, perhaps to reflect the instrument’;s traditional role in funeral music, but perhaps because Antonio Dieppo, an outstanding soloist, was in Paris at the time. This movement leads straight into the brass fanfare which introduces the Apotheosis and which Berlioz rewrote several times before satisfying himself that he had created his vision of ’a trumpet call of archangels, simple but sublime, boundless, glittering, an immense radiance swelling and rebounding, proclaiming to earth and heaven the opening of the Empyrean gates.’ 

The first performance of the Grande symphonie was a disaster. Berlioz conducted the work by walking backwards as over 200 regimental musicians played it during the anniversary procession, but little could be heard, and when the Apotheosis was played again at the Place de la Bastille, it was lost in the sound of the National Guard marching off to the beat of 50 side-drums. Berlioz was also unimpressed by his payment of 2,800 francs, but admitted that subsequent performances, with words he commissioned from Anthony Deschamps in 1842, made him ’a lot of money.’ This is not surprising: Richard Wagner heard the work in Paris and ’had the vivid impression that every street urchin in blue shirt and red cap must have understood it down to the very last note.’ Wagner also wrote, however, that he was ’inclined to rank this composition above all Berlioz’s others’ and concluded, ’I am convinced that this symphony will last and exalt the hearts of men as long as there lives a nation called France.’

© John Humphries

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