Patti Johnson Wilson Classics Series

Fantastique: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique

TSO’s own concertmaster, Rossitza Goza, is the featured soloist for this fantastical evening. Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole is a virtuosic and colorful composition for violin and orchestra. It was composed in 1874 and stands as one of the most popular and frequently performed violin concertos in the Romantic repertoire. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is a groundbreaking and influential composition that premiered in 1830 and remains one of his most renowned works.

JoAnn Falletta, guest conductor
Rossitza Goza, violin

Tailleferre – Overture
Lalo – Symphonie espagnole, op. 21
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique, op. 14

Saturday, February 3, 2024 | 7:30 PM
Tulsa Performing Arts Center

Program Notes:

A concert of French music by three composers ranging from the obscure to the illustrious constitutes this program of orchestral music. Germaine Tailleferre is certainly the least well-known composer of the group. As a woman composer in the early 20th century, her path to familiarity was certainly thwarted by her gender. Edouard Lalo sought the limelight throughout his career but only achieved wide acknowledgement late in his career. Hector Berlioz is recognized as one of the towering figures of 19th-century music, French or otherwise.

Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) is a name nearly lost to history but for the fact that she was a member of one of France’s more famous groups of composers from the early part of the 20th century. Chauvinism toward women, and particularly women composers, has a long tradition that has stifled the voices of some of history’s most gifted composers. Tailleferre, like many female composers, faced obstacles to realizing her potential both from family members and society at large. Her father strongly objected to her desire to pursue a career in music despite clear evidence of her talent as a young child. In response, she eventually changed her last name, from Taillefesse to Tailleferre, to separate herself from him, an indication of her personal conviction and sense of independence in pursuit of her own gifts. While a student at the Paris Conservatory, she befriended several male classmates with whom she became associated as protégés of the well-known composer, Erik Satie and the author, Jean Cocteau. This group of one female and five male composers became famously referred to as “Les Six,” though their music is stylistically distinct from one another. In this group Tailleferre, the lone female, was joined by more familiar names including Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and Arthur Honegger. Despite her support and praise by her Les Six colleagues and Satie, Tailleferre faced great difficulty gaining wider acceptance by the French and European public and critics. In an infamous publication describing members of the Six, the author wrote, “Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It’s not done well. But you were surprised to find it done at all.” Such dismissive and hostile response to Tailleferre’s chosen career unfortunately characterize much of her life, which included two unhappy marriages to abusive men unsupportive of her compositional activities.

Despite her association with this famed group of composers, Tailleferre’s career long outlasted both Les Six as an entity and all of its male members. She was a prolific composer in a wide variety of genres and actively composed throughout most of her ninety-year lifespan. In an interview with the NY Times at the age of 90 Tailleferre reflected that “I have had a very difficult life, you know. Only I do not like to talk about it, because I write happy music as a release…I think that music is an expression, that it is a way to express something in notes. If one expresses in an incomprehensible way, what purpose does it serve?” The relative obscurity of her music is undoubtedly due to the pervasive resistance to the acceptance of music by women composers even to this day, though fortunately a reappraisal and revival of her works is beginning to develop. In that context, a performance of her infrequently heard Ouverture seems fitting. The Ouverture is the only published portion of an opera composed by Tailleferre in 1932 titled Zoulaina. The work is a brief but energetic movement in three main sections with the opening and closing based on a repeated three-note motto followed by jaunty music evocative of a musical hall scene of crowds and bustling activity. The middle section contrasts briefly as the mood relaxes, led by the woodwinds. The opening rhythm once again signals the return of the bustling music that builds to a nearly frantic conclusion.

Like Germaine Tailleferre, Edouard Lalo (1823-1892), faced opposition to his destined career as a musician. His father, a distinguished military officer, disdained his desire to pursue music, but Lalo remained undeterred, moving to Paris to study after his initial training on cello and violin in Lille, in northeastern France. As a student Lalo was recognized as a talented musician and composer but, despite a second-place award in the famous Prix de Rome, his compositional success didn’t occur until rather late in life. As a performer he was active as a founding member of Armingaud Quartet beginning in 1855, playing viola and second violin. The Armingaud Quartet had a highly regarded reputation for helping to establish the works of Viennese masters, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and 19th century composers like Mendelssohn, Schumann as standard chamber music repertoire in France.

Lalo’s family lineage traces to Spain before settling in Flanders in the 17th century and this Spanish element is a key feature in his most famous and frequently performed composition, the Symphonie Espagnole for Violin and Orchestra, op. 21 (1874). The two words in the title of this work are telling in terms of its style and character. By all rights the Symphonie Espagnole is a violin concerto, yet Lalo designates the work as a symphony. The violin is clearly center stage throughout, but this concerto is unusual in its overall structure. Its expansive, five-movement layout is more characteristic of symphonies than the more standard three-movement concerto form consistently used through the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition, Lalo imbues this work with a distinctly Spanish musical character, using the varied tonal colors and dancing rhythms evocative of Spain as the basis for each movement. The work’s dedicatee and performer at the premiere, the Spanish violin virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate, may have also played an important role in influencing the Iberian character of the music. Sarasate is considered one of the greatest violinists of the 19th century and this work reflects his musical character, not only in national flavor, but in its delicate balancing of demanding soloistic virtuosity and understated flamboyance.

The work begins with a boldly rhythmic theme first heard in the orchestra immediately picked up in the solo violin and soon followed by a more seductively lyrical idea. The main material of the movement has been established with the rhythmic theme recurring throughout interspersed by extended bouts of violinistic brilliance. The second movement, marked Scherzando, relaxes to the mood of a colorful seguidilla. The central Intermezzo is a darkly passionate Habañera that tests the true mettle of the soloist. Brooding brass and low strings introduce the fourth movement, Andante. In response the solo violin then takes up its touchingly impassioned song as the work reaches its emotional climax. The Symphonie concludes with a movement of effervescent excitement marked by the joyfully dancing rhythm that is unmistakably Iberian in manner evoking a scene of some kind of fiesta. The violin once again is featured with brilliant and demanding passagework as the main theme alternates with sections of new music led by the soloist.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) found in his music an outlet for the expression of a sometimes explicitly autobiographical nature. The Symphonie Fantastique is certainly Berlioz’ most famous work and is perhaps the most well-known example of a musical genre known as the “program symphony”—a symphonic work whose musical content is inspired by or associated with non-musical events. This remarkable work is a true musical landmark that further opened the door for the symphony to the dramatically expressive world of romanticism. Berlioz’ symphony expands the range of orchestral color through his bold use of common and unusual instruments. He makes prominent use of instruments such as the harps in the second movement, the English horn in the third movement, and bells and a shrieking E-flat clarinet in the finale. The expanded brass section is brought to new and impressive importance in addition to a plethora of interesting techniques –listen for the chattering of the violin and viola bows as they use the wood rather than the hair to create a bone clattering effect in the finale.  While the Symphonie Fantastique superficially conforms to the idea of the classical symphony—it bares considerable similarities to Beethoven’s programmatic Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”—its dramatic and exciting music draws us into the flow of its famous program.

The complete title of the work is Episode in the Life of an artist, Fantastic Symphony in Five Parts. Berlioz conceived his Fantastic Symphony with an explicit program roughly based on his own obsessive and ill-fated infatuation with an Irish Shakespearean actress named Harriet Smithson. In the symphony’s program, the young musician and the object of his obsessive love are generally recognized as Berlioz and Smithson. The program that follows was frequently revised by Berlioz between 1830 and 1845—the year of the symphony’s publication—when he described it as “indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic outline of the work.”

            The composer’s aim has been to develop, to the extent that they have musical possibilities, various situations in the life of an artist. The plan of the instrumental drama, which is deprived of the help of words, needs to be outlined in advance.  The following program should therefore be thought of like the spoken text of an opera, serving to introduce the musical movements, whose character and expression it calls into being.

            Part One: Dreams, Passions-The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a celebrated writer calls “the surge of passions,” sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being of whom he has dreamed, and he falls hopelessly in love with her. Through a bizarre trick of fancy, the beloved image always appears in the mind’s eye of the artist to a musical thought whose character, passionate but also noble and reticent, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

            The melodic image its human model pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe.  This is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholic reverie, interrupted by a few fits of unmotivated joy, to one of delirious passion, with its movements of fury and jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolation-all this is the subject of the first movement.

            Part Two: A Ball-The artist finds himself in the most varied situations-in the midst of THE TUMULT OF A FESTIVITY, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but wherever he is, in the city, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and troubles his soul.

            Part Three: Scene in the Fields-Finding himself in the country at evening he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently disturbed by the wind, certain hopes he has recently found reason to entertain-all these come together in giving his heart an unaccustomed calm, and in giving a brighter color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation he hopes that soon he will no longer be alone. … but what if she were deceiving him! … This mixture of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the ADAGIO. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. … The distant sound of thunder … solitude … silence.

            Part Four: March to the Scaffold-Having become certain that his love goes unrecognized, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed the woman he had loved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing HIS OWN EXECUTION. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without mediation to the most noisy clangor. At the end of the march, the first four measures of the IDÉE FIXE reappear like a last thought of the love interrupted by the fatal blow.

            Part Five: Dream of a Witches Sabbath-He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful assembly of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, all come together for his funeral.  Strange noises, groans, outbursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer.  The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and reticence; now it is no more than the tune of an ignoble dance, trivial and grotesque: it is she, come to join the sabbath. … A roar of joy at her arrival. … She takes part in the devilish orgy. … Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the DIES IRAE, SABBATH ROUND DANCE. The sabbath round and the Dies irae combined. ©2024 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.