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Berlioz: Self-Sabotage?

The classical music world is filled with examples of musical parents steering their children into musical careers. Think Leopold and Wolfgang from the Mozart family. Or Johann and Ludwig van Beethoven. Perhaps the parents wished for their children to attain the lucrative position of a music director at the various courts, which would have meant a stipend for life.

The music world is equally filled with parents who did not wish for their children to have unstable music careers and tried to steer them away from it. Giaocchino Rossini's parents had meant for him to be a blacksmith. And Hector Berlioz would have turned out a doctor, had he not often sneaked to the opera houses during his medical studies, taken composition lessons, convinced himself he was going to be a musician, and switched degree courses without the knowledge of his parents.

How annoyed they must have been when they found out! But this kind of impulsive, slightly erratic behaviour would characterise Berlioz in his later life. Spurned by a fiance, who chose to marry another man, his intended revenge plot involved pistols, poison, dressing up in a maid's costume and taking his own life, but thankfully all that did not come to fruition because he was convinced the world would be a sadder place if it were denied his genius.

Berlioz certainly did not do things by halves.

The caricature of musicians as extreme individuals, switching from one extreme of emotion to the other might as well have been based on Berlioz himself. He was known to have a short fuse, was frequently impulsive, yet hopelessly romantic when it came to love. He could be angry one moment, then extremely sensitive the next. The limits of his emotions seemed to be exaggerated at both ends of the emotional spectrum.

The same could be seen in his music. The Berlioz Requiem incorporates expressive ranges from ppppp to fffff. Now, bearing in mind "p" is short form for "piano", meaning "soft", and "pp" means pianissimo or very soft, how did Berlioz expect performers to crank out even greater degrees of soft sound to that extent? The same could be said of the "f" expression markings, which mean "forte" or loud. Most pieces of music involve dynamic ranges between "fff" and "ppp", so Berlioz somehow expected extremes beyond that. His Requiem was written for large numbers of musicians, including four brass bands - one at each corner of the stage - which would have given an enormous amount of sound.

Berlioz didn't do normal.

Staging Berlioz's works are often costly affairs because of the number of musicians and the space required. The Requiem calls for four flutes, two oboes, two English horns, four clarinets, 12 horns, eight bassoons, 25 first violins, 25 second violins, 20 violas, 20 violoncellos, 18 double basses, eight pairs of timpani, four tam-tams, a bass drum, and 10 pairs of cymbals; four brass choirs each consisting of four trumpets, four trombones, two tubas, and four ophicleides (a large, now obsolete brass instrument); and a chorus of 80 sopranos, 80 altos, 60 tenors, and 70 basses. The forces required in staging this work mean it is not as frequently performed as works on a smaller scale.

How ironic it is, then, that in aiming to write music on a grand scale, Berlioz actually minimised its chances of being performed.

Both ends of the spectrum.


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