Symphony Saturday

Today we come to the end of Hector Berlioz’s symphonic output, during which we’ve seen that Berlioz was one of the most unique of symphonists, refusing to adhere to the standards of the symphonic form. This work is no exception. Here we have the Symphonie funebre et triomphale, which was originally written for concert band or military band. Berlioz later added optional parts for strings and choir. Berlioz was commissioned to write this symphony by the French government for use at a ceremony honoring the tenth anniversary of the July Revolution, one of France’s numerous Revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. Berlioz wasn’t terribly enamored of the existing government of his day, but figuring that 10,000 francs was 10,000 francs, he dusted off some old, abandoned works of his and reconfigured them for this piece. Apparently the first performance — with an enormous ensemble that couldn’t be heard very well outdoors — was something of a fiasco, but this symphony became fairly popular during Berlioz’s lifetime.

The Symphonie funebre et triomphale is in three movements: The Funeral march, the Funeral oration, and the “apotheosis”. In this piece Berlioz looks backward to the state of French ceremonial music from the early 19th century, with the enormous funeral march to begin and the triumphal march to conclude. The central movement, with its beautiful melody for solo trombone, comes as a welcome respite between these two large, spectacle-filled movements.

Next week: Robert Schumann.

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