Simon Rattle conducts the “Symphonie fantastique”

28 Aug 2009
Opening of the 2009/2010 season

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Benjamin Britten
    The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, op. 34 (19 min.)

  • Kaija Saariaho
    Laterna Magica (première) (24 min.)

  • Hector Berlioz
    Symphonie fantastique, op. 14 (57 min.)

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle in conversation with Claus Spahn (18 min.)

Many music lovers will remember the dramatic circumstances the last time Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was performed by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. After welding work had set fire to the roof of the Philharmonie, resulting in its temporary closure, a hangar at Berlin’s Tempelhof airport was used as an alternative venue. Despite the unfavourable conditions, it was a thrilling interpretation. The Berliner Zeitung wrote: “Even given the acoustic difficulties of the hangar, it became clear how much the Symphonie fantastique suits Rattle, how he not only gets to the heart of its more bizarre aspects but also manages to combine them.” It will be all the more exciting to experience this interpretation with the acoustics in the Philharmonie. This opening concert of the 2009/10 season starts, however, with two other works. First, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – a sequence of virtuoso variations based on a rondo by Purcell, which gives the different sections of the orchestra the opportunity to shine. And a première, with a work by Kaija Saariaho, promisingly entitled Laterna Magica, which brings together two themes central to this Finnish composer’s œuvre: the creation of magical moments and the rendering of light audible.

The Magic of Musical Imagery

Works by Benjamin Britten, Kaija Saariaho and Hector Berlioz

World War II has barely ended when England is already commemorating its most important composer from the past. As chance would have it, the 250th anniversary of Henry Purcell’s death falls on 21 November, and one day later another important English composer is observing his 32nd birthday. Because Benjamin Britten is keen to participate in the Purcell celebrations, the premiere of his song cycle The Holy Sonnets of John Donne is scheduled for 22 November 1945. The evening before, another work composed under Purcell’s influence, Britten’s Second String Quartet, was given its first hearing at London’s Wigmore Hall. Both performances mark the continuation of his long preoccupation with the Baroque master. When the Ministry of Education approaches him in 1945 with a commission to write the music for a film entitled Instruments of the Orchestra, directed by the conductor Muir Mathieson, Britten takes his inspiration from a Purcell rondeau. He names his work The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and lays it out in the form of a theme, variations and fugue.

The composition opens with Purcell’s grave hornpipe theme. In the variations which follow, Britten then successfully undertakes to invest each instrument of the orchestra with an individual personality. The flute family leads off, their sound suggesting the chirping of birds. By contrast, there is an elegiac quality to the intertwining melody of the two oboes in the second variation. After which, the clarinets, in their variation, almost seem to be playing the clown: for them Britten has devised dancelike gestures with wide interval leaps. In sharp contrast with the clarinets’ flippancy, the bassoons at first seem downright gruff and rustic, but their playing, accompanied by the strings, soon turns delicate and graceful.

After the woodwind have introduced themselves, it is the turn of the strings to step into the spotlight. With a broad-arched cantilena, the violins shape the fifth variation. The wistful melody of the violas which follows seems like an antiphon. And as if this were only the beginning of a descent into broodiness, the cellos sound almost melancholy in their alloted variation. No sooner does their song come to an end, when the double basses take us by surprise in the eighth variation with their dialogical lively dance. The following arabesque-like flourishes of the harps, which is interrupted only by one brief but hearty interjection by the brass, is quite angelic.

This juxtaposition happens again in the horns’ variation: in dialogue with the strings they sound menacing, with an ominous crescendo motif; but then the trumpets’ jaunty variation dispels the shudders, before the trombones and bass tuba add a note of pomposity to the proceedings. The last variation Britten reserves for the percussion. Above a rhythmicized layer of strings, the timpani introduce a motif which is then taken up by the other percussion instruments. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra concludes with a fugue, whose subject is first presented by the piccolo, then migrates through all the other instruments, in the same order as before, and is finally combined thrillingly with the work’s main theme in a grand apotheosis.

If you look for such moments in the music of Kaija Saariaho, you won’t find many. The Finnish composer’s works tend to the sublime, not infrequently imbued with spiritual qualities. No less essential to Saariaho’s compositions is her constitution of the sonorities along with their most diverse transformations. Thus one finds a varied stream of refined musical light and colours in Laterna Magica, commissioned from Saariaho by the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker and the Lucerne Festival. The work’s title is taken from that of the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography, The Magic Lantern.

The basic pulse in this elliptically-shaped composition is calm. As in many of Saariaho’s works, the sound is grounded on long-sustained strings. The musical events take place almost exclusively upon this surface, which, however, is not unyielding but rather flexible – like a floating raft. All movement of the material, whether dynamic, rhythmic or repetitive, is based on and “happens” above this flowing continuum – for example, the wide interval leap of a 10th, which occurs again and again in the course of the piece and is used as counterpoint to the clearly audible chromatic structures.

In Laterna Magica, Saariaho is working with nuanced sounds that recall the lighting variations in a film. The central role of light in this work is made explicit by the flutes, which in parts of the composition are transformed into instruments of speech. This happens first in the “doloroso” section (from bar 13), where the words “the gentle light” are aspirated in intervals of a 2nd (C sharp-D-E). In the second section (from bar 125), in which the basic tempo is violently increased, this process undergoes an intensification that far transcends a conventional symphonic framework: after syncopated patterns in the melody and bass figuration at the beginning of the section become style-forming elements, language mutates to become the work’s central medium. Subsequently, different manifestations of light are made “visible”, so to speak: as “dangerous light”, “dreamy light”, “living dead clear light”, “hazy, hot, intense, stark light”, as “sudden, dark, springlike, low-incident light”, as “outward-pressing, straight light”, “oblique, sensuous, compelling light”, as “restricting light”, “poisonous light”, “becalming light”, and finally as “bright light”.

Towards the end of Saariaho’s composition, which plays for around 20 minutes and is scored with great subtlety and variety, a process of musical “contraction” takes place: each burgeoning impulse in the different instrumental sections is interrupted by a general pause; every musical event and motif is presented in truncated form. A gradual thinning out of the sound can be observed: the flow seems restrained, a tendency not affected by a last melodic surge on the three flutes. Six bars before the end of the piece comes the last general pause, after which the music withdraws into the glissandi, trills and sustained notes that we know from the opening, finally to be snuffed out misterioso in the last two bars.

The imaginative potential to which Saariaho’s Laterna Magica owes it effect is also found – though in a form more spectacular than spiritual – in the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. Before pulling off this compositional stroke of genius, the 27-year-old Berlioz had been contemplating a Symphonie descriptive de Faust, with which he meant to “stagger the musical world”: “If I succeed,” he wrote to his long-standing friend Humbert Ferrand, “I feel certain beyond a shadow of doubt that I shall become a colossus in music.” What remained of this conception was the Symphonie fantastique’s final movement, “Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat”, presumably based on Goethe’s Walpurgis-Night episode.

The shift of programmatic hero from Faust to the artist who experiences an opium-induced vision of an unhappy love affair is not as drastic as it may seem at first glance. In fact, all the literary, mythological and historical heroes that the composer portrays in his works are reflections of his own ego. Berlioz may thus be regarded as the prototype of the narcissistic, neurotic artist, as described by Freud in the 23rd lecture of his General Introduction to Psychoanalysis: “He...possesses the puzzling ability of moulding a specific material into a faithful image of the creatures of his imagination, and then he is able to attach to this representation of his unconscious phantasies so much pleasurable gratification that, for a time at least, it is able to outweigh and release the suppressions” (Eng. trans. G.S. Hall, New York, 1920).

On one point, admittedly, the Frenchman does not at all correspond to Freud’s artist type, who “understands how to elaborate his daydreams so that they lose their essentially personal element, which would repel strangers, and yield satisfaction to others as well” (trans. Hall). Berlioz allows his listeners absolutely no chance not to discover him in his music – which led to vehement reproach among German composers of his day: Robert Schumann decried lapses of taste in parts of the symphony’s programme, especially in the finale. And the influential Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick was completely baffled by the composer’s musical self-revelation: “Berlioz liked in conversation to emphasize that he had written it in his life's blood. Yes, blood is ‘a juice of very special kind’ Goethe: Faust. But we want to be warmed and invigorated with it, not doused.”

Such reservations notwithstanding, the premiere of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique at the Paris Conservatoire on 5 December 1830 marked the beginning of new musical era: the age of “ego exploration”, to which Peter Gay dedicated his study The Naked Heart. As the Berlin-born American cultural historian demonstrates, “the 19th century was intensely preoccupied with the self, to the point of neurosis. During the very decades of the most sustained campaign for master of the world ever undertaken, bourgeois devoted much delightful and perhaps even more anxious time to introspection.” Considered against this background, Berlioz surely accomplished what he had resolved to do even before writing the Symphonie fantastique: “to stagger the musical world” and to become “a colossus in music”.

Jürgen Otten, Michael Stegemann (Berlioz)

Translation: Richard Evidon (3. Absatz Innes Wilson)

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