The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis here perform seven dazzling orchestral overtures by Hector Berlioz, a composer who excelled in blending literary and musical elements into highly energetic and personal creations.
The overtures are widely varied in mood, as are the operas from which they were drawn. Berlioz wrote his first large-scale instrumental composition, the Overture to Les Francs-juges, in 1826, the year in which he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire. Even though the opera itself was never performed, Berlioz remained proudly affectionate of the overture, which was played all over Germany and Holland in its early days. His second opera, Benvenuto Cellini, followed in 1838; its music gave rise both to the opera’s overture and to the concert overture Le Carnaval romain which depicts its subject in brilliant colour through breathtakingly vibrant orchestration.
The comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict took its inspiration from Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. The overture draws on an intense solo scene for Béatrice and adds elements of the cheerful banter that make up the story of the title characters’ playful courtship.
When Berlioz visited the Hungarian capital Pest in 1846, it was suggested to him that one way of winning the hearts of the audiences there would be to make an arrangement of the beloved Rákóczy March, which up until that point had been known only as a piano piece. Berlioz agreed, and on the very night before he left for Pest, he put together his own orchestral version of the piece. It was a resounding success when performed at his first concert, to the extent that Berlioz promptly included it in the large work on which he was working at the time: La Damnation de Faust.
Le Roi Lear, Le Corsaire, and Waverley have one thing in common: all are independent concert pieces that have been given the title overture as in many respects they do resemble opera overtures – but none is in actual fact connected to an opera. The composer here took his inspiration from literary works. Le Roi Lear, for instance, is a remarkable tone portrait of Shakespeare’s deranged king, full of energy and anger, while Le Corsaire may be loosely based on Byron’s The Corsair. Berlioz based Waverley on a novel of the same name by Sir Walter Scott, and the score bears a quotation in English: ‘Dreams of love and Lady’s charms, give place to honour and to arms.’ The contrast expressed so well in this simple quotation is equally evident in the music itself. Here the ‘dreams of love’ unfold in a long cello melody, which is repeated with richer orchestrations, before leading into the vigorous musical depiction of ‘honour and arms’.