The Romantic Wind Symphony
Program NotesIn 1879, flutist Paul Taffanel founded the Society for Wind Chamber Music in Paris; over the years he invited numerous French composers to write for his group. The most successful of the pieces he commissioned was the Petite symphonie by Charles Gounod, the celebrated composer of Faust and Roméo et Juliette. The work was deliberately modeled after Mozart’s wind serenades, staying mostly within the limits of 18th-century harmony and form. Only in some of the melodies does a recognizably French way of writing appear.
To the typical scoring of Mozart serenades (pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons), Gounod added a flute part in honor of Taffanel. A loving tribute to a composer Gounod held particularly dear, this graceful nonet in four movements has long been a favorite in the wind ensemble repertory.
The 1830s—Chopin’s great decade—also saw the birth of some of Berlioz’s most important works, such as the Symphonie fantastique, Harold en Italie, Requiem, and Roméo et Juliette. Following the 1830 July Revolution that overthrew the Bourbon dynasty, Berlioz established himself as a prominent, though highly controversial, composer. In 1840, the French government, eager to celebrate the 10th anniversary of July 1830, commissioned him to write a celebratory composition. Five years earlier, he had been asked to create something festive for the fifth anniversary, but he completed that project only in part. (He turned the completed portion into a cantata in memory of Napoleon.) Now he was ready to live up to the task.
The Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale was intended to be played at a solemn procession: the coffins of those killed during the Three Glorious Days, as the events of July 1830 were called, were to be entombed at the base of a new monument on the Place de la Bastille (site of the famous prison fortress, demolished in 1789). The first movement, the funeral march, which was recycled from the 1835 commission, accompanied the procession. The funeral oration was intended for the reburial of the bodies, followed by a grandiose hymn in honor of the heroes. In his two-volume biography of Berlioz, British scholar David Cairns points out that Berlioz’s music, even with 200 instrumentalists, must have been completely drowned out by the noise of the crowd.
One might think that a funeral march can only be written in a few ways, especially one for an actual political function. Yet the opening movement of Berlioz’s symphony, while eminently suited to its function, contains a great many idiosyncrasies: irregular phrase lengths, unexpected harmonies at every turn. For Berlioz, there was no such thing as a routine assignment. A second melody, forming the trio or middle section of the movement, is played by the woodwinds as the percussion drops out. This melody is more lyrical than, but just as unpredictable as, the funeral march theme that eventually returns. The final section contains a few striking dissonances but ends with solemn and peaceful chords.
The second movement is a funeral sermon in which a solo trombone takes the role of the orator. The sermon is in the form of an operatic recitative and aria; the music was in fact adapted from Berlioz’s unfinished early opera Les francs-juges (The Self-Appointed Judges). The last movement is called “Apothéose” (the Greek word’s originalmeaning is “elevation to the rank of a god”). The glorification of the heroes of the Three Glorious Days calls for another march, this time a triumphal march of majestic proportions. Again, Berlioz put his stamp on the music by adding some subtle, personal twists to the melody and harmony.
The Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale, seldom heard today, was considered by his contemporaries to be one of Berlioz’s finest works. Critics bewildered by the Fantastique were enthusiastic about the Grande symphonie. One particular visitor from Germany— Richard Wagner, who had certainly understood the Fantastique—had this to say about the later work:
“Truly I feel tempted to give this work of Berlioz’s precedence over all the others. It is big and noble from beginning to end: what it may contain of morbid exaltation is checked and overridden by a patriotic enthusiasm raising the lament to the lofty peak of its final apotheosis. When I furthermore place to Berlioz’s credit the noble treatment of the military band instruments, which were all he had at his disposal, then . . . I gladly predict that this July Symphony will continue to live and provide inspiration as long as a nation that calls itself France exists.”
—Peter Laki, Visiting Associate Professor of Music, Bard College