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.

However, even these accomplishments pale beside what he intended to do with his music. His vision simply could not be realized in the mid-19th century, with its indifferent orchestras, conservative mindset, and lack of technology. Re-reading his Memoirs, which is full of fantastic stories about his life, adventures, and philosophy (some of it quite embellished, no doubt), I came across this glorious passage about his ideal orchestra—the music of his dreams. Imagine a bizarre Frenchman in the 1840’s dreaming up such a scheme and presenting it to an impresario. He was dead serious about this, too; he fully intended to mount such an orchestra, and actually came close in 1840, when he conducted 450 players (which he fudged into 600 in his Memoirs) in a concert that proved a colossal failure for him financially, but must have impressed the hell out of many youngsters in the audience (and back then, the average age of concertgoers was 30!).  So here is a draft of his orchestra of the future, which he felt would realize his grandiose artistic plans:

120 Violins (in four devisions)
40 violas (with ten able to play the outdated viola d’amore)
45 cellos
18 double basses tuned G-D-A
15 double basses turned E-A-D-G
4 octobasses (!), an instrument invented in 1849, which were 13 feet high with 3 strings
6 flutes
4 E-flat flutes
2 piccolos
2 D-flat piccolos
6 oboes
6 English horns
5 saxophones
4 quint bassoons (smaller bassoons pitched a fifth higher)
12 bassooons
4 E-flat clarinets
8 clarinets
3 bass clarinets
16 French horns
8 trumpets
6 cornets
4 alto trumpets
4 alto trombones
6 tenor trombones
2 bass trombones
2 ophicleides (the obsolete instrument, like a tuba, that Mendelssohn also wrote for in his Midsummer Night’s Dream overture)
2 bass tubas
30 harps
30 pianos
1 organ
8 timpani
6 small drums
3 large drums
16 cymbals
6 triangles
6 glockenspiels
2 large bells
2 tam-tams
4 half-moons (percussion instrument of Turkish derivation)

What a noise this orchestra would make! Of course, Berlioz wasn’t interested solely in sound and volume; he wanted nuance, and like a painter, desired the ability to capture the most minute qualities of orchestration which escaped the resources of a conventional orchestra. As he explains, he wanted the orchestra to capture “a hurricane in the tropics or the explosive roar of a volcano. There would be the mysterious rustle of primeval forests, the lamentations, the triumphant mournful song of the soulful, loving and emotional nations. The silence would make one tremble by its solemnity. The crescendo would cause even an unresponsive nature to shiver. It would grow like an immense fire that eventually sets the whole sky aflame.”

So this is all just a reminder of how boring and anodyne classical music is!  To get a sample of what Berlioz did accomplish with the means available to him, here is a clip from the final movement of the Symphonie Fantastique, when in a nightmare vision, the hero’s beloved becomes a witch and leads a devil’s sabbath to bring him to the gallows. (conducted by Leonard Bernstein, something of a Berlioz himself on the conductor's platform).