Hector Berlioz, professional closer

The suit says “fashionable artiste,” but the hair says “blowin’ hella chronic smoke.”

Hector Berlioz is an interesting character in music history, the first real Romantic in the “it seems shockingly apparent that this guy, aside from his genius as a writer of music, is dangerously fucking unstable” way that would dominate the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He’s the first great example of a musician who found new avenues of expression in the realm of drugs and alcohol, showing the way for a group that includes the likes of Mussorgsky, Dr. Dre, Amy Winehouse, and that one guy who overdosed after making that one good album. Berlioz redefined the orchestra and wrote a book about it, shaping the way in which all future composers used the orchestral palette (by way of example, listen to the trombone parts in Beethoven 9 and then listen to the trombone parts in Symphonie Fantastique, works written 6 years apart).

He lived a full and interesting life, married the woman of his dreams, shouted furiously at her for a few years, became good friends with Franz Liszt, won the Prix de Rome, worked as a critic and conductor, traveled throughout Europe and Russia, received a baton from Mendelssohn, didn’t like Wagner, and was made an Officer in the Legion d’honneur. His last words were, allegedly, awesomely, and probably not truly but still: “At last, they’re going to play my music.” It was the kind of life that makes your last known photograph look like you were narrowly edged out by Maggie Smith for the role of The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey:


Berlioz was unquestionably a genius, the kind of visionary mind that was capable of ignoring what was going on around him and doing his own thing, which is how you end up with a work as startling as Fantastique being written the same year that more “mainstream” works like Mendelssohn’s Reformation and Chopin’s First Concerto arrived. His gift for orchestration inspired most of the other generally-acknowledged masters like Rimsky-Korsakov, Mahler, and Respighi, he was secretly a good songwriter (Les nuits d’ete can stand up to any song cycle out there), and he could write a catchy melody about as well as anyone in the non-Tschaikovsky division.

But I’m here today to talk about what Berlioz did best of all, and that was finish strong. Nobody could write an ending like Berlioz. It seems a bit trivial to point this out, underhandedly reducing the rest of the works to something lower, but that’s not my intention at all. These brilliant endings are brilliant in the context of the entire work, yes, but there’s no escaping the fact that ending a piece (or a pop song for that matter) is tough to do in the right way. In some ways I think this difficulty explains why so much music is filled with essentially the same ending: a unison note or a tonic chord. This is obvious, yes, and necessary in historical context, but therein lies the challenge. Symphonic endings from Mozart to Shostakovich abound with repeated bludgeoning of the tonic, many in less than interesting ways (the ending is MAYBE the only real quibble one could have with the Beethoven 5th). Composers fought back in whatever way they could (say, the diminuendo at the end of New World or the furiously pounding timpani at the end of Schumann 2), but the options were still fairly limited.

And they were especially limited in the first half of the 19th century. So what was Berlioz’s secret? Hell if I know, but let’s take a look at some examples and see what’s interesting about them.

Le Corsaire

This one’s pretty obvious: everything fucking stops and then there’s four loud-ass chords. But what’s interesting about the cords is the voicing and orchestration. This is without question one of the the best disguised 5-1 cadences ever, mostly because the upper voices have a funky-sounding C-Eb-D-E and the bass line rises through all four chords so it feels a bit like the floor is slipping out from underneath you. In a related story, that young-looking bastard has this band playing like it’s their last night on Earth. Wow.

Roman Carnival

This one’s pretty obvious, too: a manic trill from the entire band and then a shimmering brass chord without timpani. Plus, Liszt would be proud of those last two chords (F# minor in 1st inversion & A major), and anytime we can make Liszt proud of us, well… I posted this because moving pictures are fun, but I like it when orchestras play this ending with complete musical recklessness. MTT takes a restrained, refined approach and they sound quite lovely, but the structural integrity of the Sydney Opera House should have been compromised by that shit and it clearly still stands today.

Hungarian March from The Damnation of Faust

This one is a little subtler than the first two, most of it’s interest being based on the consolidation of the orchestra into one rhythmic entity for the last 8 bars. Having the whole group play one rhythm wasn’t really anything new, but the fact that damn near everybody gets a crack at the grace note 4 from the end is pretty cool, and that simple half a measure has a ridiculous burst of energy for one second of time. Solti is so fun to watch, although it looks like it might have been crazy to try and play under him.

Benvenuto Cellini

Kind of in the same mold as Le Corsaire in that everything comes to a halt, only instead of big chords, we’re left with this mysterious melody in the cellos that ultimately rises to serve as the 5th in a dominant chord that sounds like it came from nowhere (because in some sense it did, almost like a premature “amen” cadence that isn’t actually an “amen” cadence). A quick crescendo and a huge tonic chord and we’re out. This one is definitely the weirdest, but also might be the most appealing.

King Lear

I really like this one, too, even though it might be the simplest of all. Berlioz takes a bit of a cue from Beethoven in having everybody pound out repeated quarter notes, but it’s the transformation in two bars from repeated tonic-Neapolitan 6th to repeated tonic-dominant that I find so entertaining – it’s such a head-turning sound to hear the D-flat turn to D-natural in the upper voices. And then to top it off Berlioz uses a kick-ass syncopation (E minor!) to lead into a sneering final cadence. I have no idea what those boxes are, but I do know that Colin Davis is a winner for Berlioz.

Symphonie Fantastique

This one doesn’t really need explanation. That descending line in the trombones will always be one of the three coolest things anyone’s ever done and is the mother of all distractions from the dominant-tonic relationship. Fantastique ends like Roman Carnival, with a percussion-less chord, but it gets there through a frenzied repetition of the tonic that features some “what the fuck is happening” arpeggiation in the tuba (the fucking tuba!) and bassoons. I love Myung-Whun Chung’s reaction to this finish, the bored face followed by the “ooooh” face followed by the vigorous head-nodding and light applause for the orchestra.

Is there anybody better at closing in style than Berlioz? Chime in if you think you’ve got a better answer.


3 thoughts on “Hector Berlioz, professional closer

  1. Very appreciative for this introduction to Berlioz, he’s not high profile and I’ve never given him a serious look. I love Beethoven and it seems Berlioz also has a talent for writing directly, concisely and powerfully.

  2. In contrast to Matthew, I’ve adored HB for decades-(with side ventures into Debussy, Vaughan-Williams, Delius, etc.)

    I can still get boyish chills hearing Festivities at the Capulets, & the Friar Laurence finale (must be a good recording though.)

    I just wonder what the opening night audience thought at the end of the Fantastique.

    Nice site.



  3. Pingback: Invasion of the aliens, starring Carl Maria von Weber, Franz von Suppe, Ludwig van Beethoven and a cast of all-stars! | Everything But The Music

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