The Great Composer’s Ten Essential Works: The Best of Berlioz

ByQuyen Anne

Dec 18, 2023
He was one of the defining Romantic composers of the 19th century.

French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz wrote some of the defining Romantic works of the 19th century, including Symphonie Fantastique, his most famous work. He was a composer of startling originality and one of the boldest pioneers in new orchestral sonorities. Berlioz was also one of the strongest proponents of using literature to create a musical narrative. He is most known for developing symphonic program music and the ‘idée fixe’ where a melody or theme is used over and over to represent a person or a programmatic idea throughout an entire musical composition. His influence was critical for the further development of Romanticism, especially in composers including Richard Wagner, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz LisztRichard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler. Explore our selection of the best Berlioz works, including Symphonie FantastiqueLes Troyens, and La Damnation De Faust.

Symphonie Fantastique

In 1830 Berlioz cemented his reputation as a musical radical with the premiere of Symphonie Fantastique, his most famous work, which is widely recognized as an early example of programme music. The symphonic work, inspired by his infatuation for the actress Harriet Smithson, depicts an artist who falls in love and then, in the depths of despair because of hopeless, unrequited love, poisons himself with opium. Central to the work is the ‘idée fixe’ – the innovative use of a recurring theme throughout all movements.

Harold In Italy

Harold In Italy, based on a poem by Lord Byron, is a symphony in four movements for solo viola and an orchestra. Berlioz composed Harold In Italy in 1834 on commission from the virtuoso violinist Paganini, who had just bought a Stradivarius viola. Paganini never played the piece as he thought it did not display his technical skills sufficiently; however, when he heard the work publicly performed, he apologized to Berlioz on his knees in front of an orchestra. The character of Harold is loosely based on Byron’s Childe Harold, a melancholy wanderer who witnesses scenes of Italian life. The experience behind the symphony owes rather less to Byron’s poem than Berlioz’s own travels in Italy.

Grande Messe Des Morts

Berlioz’s monumental Requiem Grande Messe Des Morts was composed in 1837 for the French soldiers killed in the war. The composer declared, “If I were threatened with the destruction of the whole of my works save one, I should crave mercy for the Messe Des Morts.” The Grande Messe Des Morts is one of Berlioz’s best works, and the text is derived from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass.

Roméo Et Juliette

Roméo Et Juliette, one of the best Berlioz works, is based on Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet and was composed in 1839. Berlioz’s initial inspiration came from a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Odéon Theatre in Paris in 1827, not only from the dramatic force of the poetry and drama, but also because the leading actress was Harriet Smithson, who also inspired Symphonie Fantastique and later became his wife. The composer called his work a ‘dramatic’ symphony, wishing to underscore not so much the tragic element in the plot as the theatrical nature of its form.

Les Nuits D’Éte

For Les Nuits D’Éte, Berlioz selected six poems from the collection La Comédie De La Mort (The Comedy Of Death) by his close friend Théophile Gautier. The poems consider love from different angles, but the loss of love permeates them all. The song cycle, completed in 1841, was neglected for many years, but during the 20th century, it became, and has remained, one of the composer’s most popular works.

Le Carnaval Romain

Berlioz composed Le Carnaval Romain, a stand-alone overture intended for concert performance, in 1844. The overture is based on themes from Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini including some music from the opera’s carnival scene – hence the title. Berlioz used orchestral color as a fundamental element of his music and ingeniously found novel instrumental combinations and sounds.

La Damnation De Faust

Inspired by a translation of Goethe’s dramatic poem Faust Berlioz composed La Damnation De Faust during an extended conducting tour in 1845 – 1846. Like the masterpiece on which it is based, the work defies easy categorization. Originally subtitled ‘concert opera’ and later ‘legend opera,’ Berlioz ultimately called the work a ‘dramatic legend.’ Berlioz’s fantastically inventive choral triumph depicts everything from love duets, drinking songs, and a galloping ride to hell.

L’Enfance Du Christ

L’Enfance Du Christ is an oratorio by Berlioz based on the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. It tells the story of the birth of Jesus and the journey of the Holy Family as they escape Bethlehem and head across Egypt to the city of Sais. The beautiful carol Shepherd’s Farewell (L’Adieu Des Bergers), from L’Enfance Du Christ, depicts the shepherds saying goodbye to Jesus as the Holy family leaves Bethlehem for Egypt. Most of the work was composed in 1853 and 1854, but it also incorporates an earlier work, La Fuite En Egypte, composed in 1850.

Les Troyens

Berlioz’s five-act opera Les Troyens, composed between 1856 and 1858, was his most ambitious work and is considered by many to be his masterpiece. The drama of the Trojan war has captivated audiences from literature to film, and nowhere does it come to life more vividly than in Les Troyens. The opera, one of the best Berlioz works, represented the pinnacle of Berlioz’s creative abilities and the convergence of all his major influences, literary and musical, that shaped his musical personality.

Béatrice Et Bénédict

Berlioz’s comic opera Béatrice Et Bénédict, composed between 1860 and 1862, was Berlioz’s last major work. The opera is another example of Berlioz’s admiration for Shakespeare and is based on a simplified version of Much Ado About Nothing. Berlioz had been interested in setting Shakespeare’s comedy since his return from Italy in 1833 but only composed the score following the completion of Les Troyens.

Recommended Recording

John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique are the leading internationally recognized interpreters of Berlioz’s works, with their performances vividly presenting the composer’s delight in complex rhythmic interplay, and their period instruments revealing a much wider range of sonorities. Berlioz Rediscovered, an 8CD +1DVD set of their ground-breaking Philips recordings, includes the key orchestral works Symphonie FantastiqueHarold in Italy, the “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette, the “dramatic legend” La Damnation de Faust and the world premiere recording and Grammy Award-winning Messe Solenelle. The set is accompanied by performances on DVD of Symphonie Fantastique (from the same hall in which it was premiered in 1830) and the Messe Solennelle from Westminster Cathedral 1992 (the first performance of this large-scale Mass for 150 years).

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