Archive for Hector Berlioz

Symphonie Fantastique

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2017 by telescoper

After a busy weekend I’m gradually trying to catch up on last week’s happenings. One thing I haven’t had time to mention yet is that on Thursday night I went to a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff that featured the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Xian Zhang. The orchestra repeated the programme the following day (Friday) at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, so you can listen to it it for the next month on the BBC iPlayer.

The main item on the menu was the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. I have to confess that I’ve been a bit prejudiced about this piece since I was at school. I had a music teacher who adored Berlioz and wouldn’t shut up about him, basically telling us that he was the best composer ever. I didn’t buy it then, and despite a very fine performance on Thursday, I still don’t buy it now. It’s n0t that Berlioz is short of musical ideas or technical accomplishment: there are some memorable passages in this Symphonie, including the dance-like theme of the second movement, and the  “march to the scaffold” in the fourth movement.  I’m not at all averse to big loud symphonic works, either, as regular readers of this blog will know. My difficulty is that it’s all a bit too obvious. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is a fine orchestra and I enjoyed their playing enormously. I particularly appreciated seeing the  percussion section get a good workout! I was also impressed by the conducting of Xian Zhang who gave a sense of shape where previously I’d heard only bombast. It’s the composition that’s the problem for me, though. Berlioz lays it on with a shovel, but I still think this is a rather superficial piece.

Before the Berlioz, in the first half, were two much more interesting pieces. The first, a piece called Internet Symphony No. 1 “Eroica” by Tan Dun is less than five minutes long is a hugely entertaining blend of Eastern and Western musical influences.

After that appetizer we had a dazzling performance of the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninov with soloist Stephen Hough at the piano. This piece comprises a set of 24 variations on a them from one of Paganini’s caprices for solo violin.

Incidentally, the “theme by Paganini” used as the basis of this piece is the same one that was used for the musical introduction to the TV programme “South Bank Show“, although I think quite a lot of people know that.

The Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini is piece full of contrasts: sometimes pyrotechnical, sometimes lyrical. My favourite section is the 18th variation, in which a lovely romantic melody emerges and is picked up by the whole orchestra in a manner that’s very characteristic of Rachmaninov. It gets me every time, but then I am a terrible softy. You can hear this played by Stephen Hough at the Proms in 2013 here (about 20:20 into the video). Incidentally, this tune is just an inversion of the theme transposed into a different  key and slowed down.

The Rachmaninov alone was worth the cost of the ticket! It’s such a shame that he wrote so little music after emigrating from Russia to the United States in 1917. He made a living doing concert tours after that, and had little time to compose. Thank goodness he found time to write this, though!

We also had an encore by Stephen Hough that provided yet another contrast. Debussy’s Clair de Lune is a very familiar piece, but it provided an appropriately light and reflective epilogue to the first half.

I will persevere with Berlioz, I suppose, like I do with Brahms, but I think I’m going to be hard to convince. If anyone can suggest a piece by Hector Berlioz that they think will change my mind, please feel free to suggest it via the comments box!


Music 101

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2009 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a very laid-back kind of guy, unlikely to take an irrational dislike to anything or anyone and in possession of an easy-going and tolerant nature not disposed to any form of grumpiness.

However, I’ve decided to celebrate the fact that I’ve finished marking all my resit examinations by letting my hair down a bit and giving you a list of my musical pet hates. The title is an allusion to  George Orwell’s 1984, wherein Room 101 was a personalised torture chamber containing a prisoner’s own worst nightmare. Here I’ve confined myself to music. I was going to include rap but, as I said, I’ve decided to confine myself to music.

Brass Bands. I don’t mind brass bands – particularly colliery bands and the Salvation Army band – at Christmas or for singing hymns to, but I’ve put them on my list for the excruciating brass-band arrangements of classical or jazz that make my skin crawl. You wouldn’t want to play Jimi Hendrix on the banjo, and you shouldn’t let a brass band play Wagner.

Elvis Presley. His music was largely nicked from much more talented black musicians, and his inferior versions became popular simply because he was white and (when he was young) good-looking. He wasn’t even average as a singer. During his later years he became a monument to extreme self-indulgence and dreadful Las Vegas Kitsch, a bloated laughing-stock in a sequinned jumpsuit. I like a lot of Rock’n’Roll, but Elvis was the pits.

Brahms & Liszt . Where the majestic journey of the Germanic romantic tradition veered off into a tedious cul-de-sac. Turgid and impenetrable on the one hand, flowery and overwrought on the other. But what about Brahms’ German Requiem? I’m with George Bernard Shaw, who said that it was a work to be “patiently borne only by a corpse”. When invited to hear the work for a second time, he declined. “There are are some sacrifices which should not be demanded twice from any man; and one of them is listening to Brahms’ Reqiuem.” I could have added Schumann to this too, but then I would have lost the reference to Cockney rhyming slang.

Period Instruments My heart always sinks when I pick up a CD of a much-loved piece only to read the dreaded words “played on period instruments”. Read “played on inferior instruments (and probably out of tune too)”. Why on Earth would anyone prefer the buttock-clenchingly awful scraping sound made by a baroque cello or viola da gamba to a proper instrument? And as for the so-called “natural trumpet”, words fail me.

I’ve added this from Anton, which makes the point better than I could!


Barbershop Quartets Close-harmony singing can be wonderful to listen to – I’m a great admirer of Welsh male voice choirs, for example. However, the whining fake joviality of a Barbershop quartet is quite unendurable. Cut my throat with a razor rather than make me listen to one!

The Four Seasons I’m prepared to accept that Antonio Vivaldi might have written a reasonably competent piece of music in The Four Seasons. After all, he wrote so many little concerti that he’d be expected to come up with one half-decent one just by chance. The problem is that I’ve heard it so many times, in lifts, shops and, worst of all, at the other end of a telephone call centre line – and usually in very badly played versions – that I think I’ll commit murder the next time I hear it. And don’t get me started on Nigel Kennedy either.

Pan Pipes I dream of the day when it is possible to walk along a British high street without my ears being assaulted by faux Andean tootling to the accompaniment of overamplified muzak. Those guys may dress like Incas but they’ve probably never been closer to South America than Weston-super-mare. And do they think people can’t tell they’re miming?

Hector Berlioz Revoltingly overblown bombastic nonsense from a man whose ego exceeded his talent by as large a factor as you can find. My music teacher at School loved Berlioz, with the result that his vacuous splurgy ramblings were inflicted on me and my classmates lesson after lesson. The normally generous Giuseppe Verdi said that Berlioz “was a poor, sick fellow, full of fury against the world at large, bitter and spiteful.” Perhaps he couldn’t come to terms with his own mediocrity.

Folk Singers I like a lot of folk music, but don’t like English folk singers,  especially those that sing in a made-up west country accent and stick their fingers in their ears as they do so. If we have to listen to their irritating nasal droning, then at least they should have the courtesy to unblock their ears and suffer with the rest of us.

Harpsichords I could have included these under “period instruments”, but I think they deserve to be singled out for special mention. There might have been an excuse for playing a harpsichord in the days before the pianoforte was invented, but they should now all be destroyed to save us from the hideous plinky-plonky jingly-jangly noise they make. “Like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof” was how Sir Thomas Beecham described them, and who am I to disagree? Nothing was ever written for the harpsichord that didn’t sound better when played on the piano.

So there you are. That’s my list. If you feel like relieving a bit of stress feel free to add your own via the comments box. But please keep your contributions as measured and reasonable as mine.