Genius: Shakespeare, Berlioz, and Sibelius

The Minnesota Orchestra’s Shakespeare Winterfest is coming to a close… but not without presenting one last concert that I’ve been waiting for all season. We are getting two wholly original masterpieces: Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été and selections from Sibelius’s The Tempest.

That sound you hear in the background is me doing a little dance at my computer just thinking about it.

Allow me to provide a preview of the concert.

* * *

First, let me say what an interesting pairing this is—two composers that essentially bookend the entire Romantic movement in music. Together they show Romanticism’s fundamental unity, and yet the vast transformation the movement underwent between the 1830s and 1920s.

But more than that, Berlioz and Sibelius were two of the most relentlessly creative, original composers to have ever lived.

I don’t say that lightly, but stand by it completely. Too often we are conditioned to think of “originality” in very narrow terms… usually in harmonic language. This criteria doesn’t apply to either composer—both men were essentially happy to leave musical harmony more or less as they found it. Both composers were original in very different ways, radically different in terms of concept, inspiration, and overall impact.

It is mind-boggling, for example, to consider that Berlioz’s famous Symphonie fantastique debuted only six years after Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and yet its opium-drenched psychophantasms come from a completely different universe. And Berlioz followed this up with the completely unique sound worlds of the Requiem, Roméo et Juliette, and Les Troyens.

Sibelius, too, was a one-of-a-kind… Ralph Vaughan Williams once remarked that only Sibelius could make a C-major chord sound fresh. His tone poems evoked completely unimagined worlds, and his symphonies are remarkable for their concentration and tightness of construction. And his portrayal of nature is shatteringly original—and often completely devoid of human presence.

No one—no one—writes music like these two composers.

* * *

Left to his own devices, Berlioz tended to think big. While Mahler’s Eighth Symphony has been dubbed “The Symphony of a Thousand,” it has nothing on the performing forces Berlioz demanded for his Requiem—over 400 singers and instrumentalists took part in the premiere, and Berlioz he made provisions for performances with a chorus of 600 or 800 choristers. His opera Les Troyens is frequently called “elephantine.”

But in Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, we get a glimpse of what a Berlioz chamber work might have been like. The title, “Summer Nights,” is a nod to the French title of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—a homage to Berlioz’s favorite writer. It is an astonishing orchestral song cycle, a setting of six poems by Théophile Gautier. And although the work is a model of delicacy and restraint, it still manages to pack a huge emotional punch.

It is unfortunate that we know next to nothing about how these astonishing songs came into being. They are of course about love—but a love that tinged with regret and loss. This is amplified when performed as a cycle, so that the eternal love alluded to in the first song becomes unattainable in the last.

More than one writer has noted that at the same time Berlioz completed the songs, his marriage to Harriet Smithson (the woman who inspired him to write the earlier Symphonie fantastique) had reached a crisis point, leading to their permanent separation. It’s easy to hear how the pain of this break seeped into Berlioz’s music.

(Just as an aside, I have on occasion thought about that memorable concert in 1832 when Berlioz arranged for Harriet to hear the Symphonie fantastique—the work she inspired—for the first time. I mean, knowing how crazy the piece is, what could he have possibly said on such an occasion? I can almost picture the composer whispering: “…and this is the part where in the throes of obsessive love for you I take a massive dose of opium and kill you… and now’s the part where I’m executed for your murder. Oh! I love this part—this is where my decapitated head rolls around on the ground! We’re coming up on the part where a coven of witches celebrates my damnation and drags my screaming soul down to Hell for killing you… what do you think about the woodwinds?” And yet, she agreed to marry him….)

Regardless, the songs that make up the Les nuits d’été are absolute jewels. They are framed by the most extroverted pieces, the teasing “Villanelle” and “L’Île Inconnue.” The “Le spectre de la rose” (“The Ghost of the Rose”) is deeply sensual, with a shimmering accompaniment that builds to a thrilling climax. The middle movements suggest deep longing, even despair, with a naked emotion that is not usually associated with Berlioz.

This magnificent song-cycle shows that Berlioz was just as skilled composing intimate, chamber-sized works as he was composing huge Technicolor epics.

* * *

In 1925, Danish publisher Wilhem Hansen approached Sibelius about writing music to accompany a production of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, for the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. He quickly agreed—and created what is widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces of his career.

Oddly enough, this was also one of the last works of his career; with the completion of the Seventh Symphony (1924), The Tempest (1925), and the tone poem Tapiola (1925-6), the composer lapsed into “The Silence of Järvenpää” that lasted until his death in 1957.

The Tempest is not as well-known as these two works, but it is their equal. This is all the more remarkable in that unlike symphonies or tone poems, the genre of incidental music (like today’s movie music) is a notoriously difficult to get right. The difficulty is that it has to be arresting and interesting, but it cannot overpower the story or it will become a distraction. And from a purely practical point of view, the music cannot overwhelm the actors’ voices, or the play will be ruined.

In his music for The Tempest, Sibelius effortlessly avoided these traps, creating a delicate score that vividly evokes the supernatural aspects of the story, but also heightens the emotional drama. Moreover, Sibelius created a fascinating sound world—he used unusual groupings of instruments to create completely unexpected orchestral colors and textures.

Take for example the titular storm that opens the play—a great tempest raised by the magnus Prospero (a modernist wizard). Henry Woods famously declared it “the single most onomatopoetic stretch of music ever composed.” On the page it looks like nothing; there is little musical structure. But somehow, the strings’ chromatic augmented fourths, the keening chords of winds, the snarling brass, the savage thunder of basses and lightning-flashes of the snare-drums come together in one of the most visceral storms in all of music. Plus, it brilliantly underscores the emotional turmoil Prospero feels at meeting again the conspirators who wronged him so many years ago.

And there are many more remarkable moments. “The Oak Tree” follows a moment where the air-spirit Ariel breaks off a branch of an oak tree and “plays” it like a flute to work one of his spells. It is at once beautiful, eerie and completely otherworldly. It consists simply of a haunting flute solo with a delicate string accompaniment that creates a dream-like haze—the aural equivalent of a painting by Maxfield Parrish. “Miranda Lulled into Slumber” (sometimes titled “Berceuse”) is similarly affecting. Again, the music is nothing on the page, but the aural impact is immense; Sibelius uses the simplest of means to create a haunting lullaby tinged with melancholy and a deep sense of loss. “Prospero” is a fascinating study of the protagonist. For this movement, Sibelius reaches back to early English music for inspiration… the result is a musical sketch that seems to have been written by Henry Purcell, but still has a distinct Sibelian touch.

What is most intriguing about Sibelius’s The Tempest is its incredible richness of musical language. Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony, the works he composed at nearly the same time, are brilliant for their musical economy—they are almost impossibly condensed and compressed in terms of melody, phrase and gesture. In contrast, The Tempest is an exuberance of sound. Here, Sibelius delights in using different voices and different voicing to bring the characters and fantasy elements to life. And it shows Sibelius wasn’t just stuck composing musical granite… he could indulge in whimsy, bawdy humor and magic.

In all, this score shatters the notion that “background” music has to be nondescript. Not surprisingly, the original production was an enormous hit, with one reviewer writing, “Shakespeare and Sibelius, these two geniuses, have finally found each other!”

Yet for all its marvelous music, The Tempest has been difficult to program for the concert hall. The complete, full score (which clocks in at about an hour long) is wonderful, but many of the “movements” are tiny flecks of sound… little more than aural cues. The “Entrance of Ariel,” for example, is a perfectly fine moment, but is used every time the character enters… leading to a bit of musical fatigue. To make the music more accessible, Sibelius pulled a few movements to create a series of concert suites similar to Prokofiev’s suites from Romeo and Juliet (which, as I just wrote about, just had a fantastic performance as part of the Orchestra’s Shakespeare Winterfest). But also like Prokofiev, Sibelius did so in a somewhat hap-hazard manner, throwing the movements together in a way that obscures the drama and omits some of the most magical sections from the score.

Osmo has split the difference for these concerts at Orchestra Hall—creating a new condensed version that includes most of the stage music and constructed to more faithfully follow the plot. Do not miss it… performances like this are as elusive as the air-spirit Ariel himself.

* * *

All in all, this will be a fantastic concert. The two works being performed are both unqualified masterpieces… but they are also wonderful example of two creative geniuses stepping outside their comfort zone. They are unexpected masterpieces, and all the more fascinating as a result.

Don’t miss it—get your tickets here.



4 thoughts on “Genius: Shakespeare, Berlioz, and Sibelius

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