Monday, May 26, 2014

Berlioz and the Orchestra of the 21st Century

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is one of the most colorful characters in all of Western music—no small feat in a room crowded with Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and so many others who led noteworthy, and often scandalous, lives.  Yet Berlioz holds his own with any of them musically as well as biographically, as he was an eccentric in an age of eccentrics. A virtually self-taught composer, Berlioz took the orchestra that he inherited from Beethoven and launched it head first into the 21st century. Yes, the 21st century, as his ideas were so radical that only recently are we able to appreciate them, much less try to emulate them. Among his many achievements are the still wildly Romantic Symphonie Fantastique, a symphony with an autobiographical program inspired by an opium dream (emulating Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, though sounding even more like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner); a Requiem for such immense forces that it seems like it would implode under its own weight; and the exotic picture postcard symphony, Harold in Italie, which sort of follows the narrative of Byron’s poem, but in reality follows Berlioz’s own adventures in Italy.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

“Neither for me honey nor the honey bee”: Reading Sappho’s Fragments

Imagine if the majority of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry had disappeared long ago.  It’s not a far-fetched proposition, when you think about it; all of Shakespeare’s personal writing and manuscripts are missing, and several of the plays are missing (Cardenio, Love’s Labors Found, etc).  However, a few scraps would inevitably survive as references in noblemen’s letters, maybe a page or two of Hamlet on a quarto used for wrapping paper, or the odd actor’s prompt.  Imagine that all we had of the famous Sonnet 18 were the following lines:

Sonnet 18
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? 
Thou art more lovely
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
too short a date: 
 every fair from fair
 summer shall not fade
fair thou ow'st;
  or eyes can see,
So long lives this