A Midsummer Night's Dream (Excerpts)
When Claudio Abbado returns once a year to the Berliner Philharmoniker, he likes to try something new, combining it with works he has prepared with the orchestra in the past. That is the case for this concert with Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The juxtaposition of Berlioz and Mendelssohn is also a fascinating idea, as it throws into relief the early period of musical romanticism. The two composers met for the first time in Rome in 1832.
Berlioz was full of admiration for Mendelssohn, who for his part had difficulty putting up with Berlioz’s effusive behaviour, “this enthusiasm turned inside out, this desperation as presented to the ladies, this ingeniousness printed in Gothic type.” And the Symphonie fantastique alienated him. Particularly in the final Witch’s Sabbath, Mendelssohn saw “utter foolishness, contrived passion […] mere grunting, shouting, screaming back and forth.” His Midsummer Night’s Dream music, in which he congenially set the material of Shakespeare’s play in music, shows us his own ideal of romantic composition. The overture from 1826 – a stroke of genius on the part of the 17-year old composer – captures the atmosphere and flavour of the world of the fairy kingdom in which the royal couple Oberon and Titania reign.
In 1843, Mendelssohn followed up with 12 additional musical pieces, commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia for a performance of AMidsummer Night’s Dream in the New Palace in Potsdam. The results were a collection of instrumental, vocal and melodramatic pieces, of which the Wedding March is probably the most famous. In 1843 as well the composers met once again when Berlioz conducted the Symphonie fantastique in Leipzig. After an initial distance, they gradually began to understand each other better and better – until a highly symbolic scene when Berlioz and Mendelssohn exchanged their batons as mutual mementos.
It is difficult to imagine the two together. On the one hand, Felix Mendelssohn – the brilliant spirit of German Romanticism, offspring of an established family, multitalented, encouraged and admired since his youth. On the other, Hector Berlioz – five years older, a sceptical champion of French music from Classicism to Romanticism, son of a doctor from the provinces, not a child prodigy, contemptuous of traditional musical practice and a visionary of music of the future, often criticised.
They met in the land where lemon trees blossom and each soon wished the other would get lost. Berlioz presented parts of his cantata Sardanapale for Mendelssohn in Rome in 1831. In his memoirs Berlioz wrote that his younger colleague called this music “frankly awful”. We must not take every word of the French composer’s autobiography at face value, but in fact several conspicuously disrespectful comments of Mendelssohn about Berlioz are documented. Berlioz, on the other hand, expressed his respect for Mendelssohn, despite the criticism, for example, when he praised Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture or thanked him for engaging Berlioz to conduct a performance of the Symphonie fantastique with the Gewandhaus Orchestra.
Both composers were as drawn to England as they were to Italy, also because of the literary topography. “His immense literary erudition; he knew all the important passages of the Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe, J. Paul, (also Homer) nearly by heart” – Robert Schumann’s note about Mendelssohn could apply just as well to Berlioz. Both had long been reading the great classics at an age when most people could not even read yet, and both regarded the works of William Shakespeare, in particular, as a formative influence on their lives.
At the age of six Mendelssohn was given a puppet theatre in which he immediately staged works by Goethe and Shakespeare. According to his mother’s account, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the boy’s “favourite reading”. Approximately ten years later, in July 1826, Mendelssohn wrote to his sister Fanny of his desire “to dream the midsummer night’s dream”. The score of the overture to the Midsummer Night’s Dream was finished only a month later. From the beginning everyone agreed that he had not only set a dream to music but had also composed exquisitely beautiful, original music.
In addition to the brilliance of the overture, what is especially astonishing about Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is the fact that the incidental music which developed so organically from it was not composed until 17 years later – the overture op. 21 was published again with the incidental music as op. 61 in 1843. Without meaning to play down the importance of the following numbers (we need only think of the wedding march, which is played all over the world every day!), the overture already says a great deal, since in the end Mendelssohn was less interested in the stage than the theatre of the imagination. Don’t the four opening wind chords softly gliding towards E major already exude an incomparable aura? Doesn’t Shakespeare’s fairy magic envelop us in the twinkling of an eye with the rapidly whispered staccatos of the violins? Don’t we see the head of poor Bottom before us as he is transformed into a donkey when we hear the comical falling ninths of the “loutish” music? The incidental music returns to the worlds presented in the overture; women’s voices now represent the fairies singing their queen, Titania, to sleep with their lullaby. New ideas are heard particularly in the intermezzo after the end of the second act, which reflects the agitated mood of Hermia, the forsaken lover. At the close, the dream ends as it began 17 years earlier – with the magical wind chords of the overture.
The cantata Sardanapale that Mendelssohn disliked so much was the result of Berlioz’s fourth attempt at winning the Prix de Rome. The most prestigious award of French musical life required setting prescribed, generally dull texts and included a stay at the Villa Medici in Rome. Berlioz had already entered the competition for the second time in 1828 with the cantata Herminie (based on Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata). Today’s listener hears this work with astonishment, since it opens with the expansive melody we encounter in the Symphonie fantastique, composed two years later. It is the legendary idée fixe, which – introduced by the flute and violins – dominates the first movement of this work and recurs throughout the following four movements.
Regardless of the literary idealization in his memoirs, there were at least two surreal love stories in Berlioz’s life. The first was his unrequited love for Estelle Duboeuf, with whom he became infatuated as a twelve-year-old and who rekindled his passion almost 50 years later. The second was his love for the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, whom he worshipped from afar until she actually became Madame Berlioz and in her real life as his wife deeply disappointed him, the master of the imaginary. The Symphonie fantastique is inconceivable without the composer’s manic obsession with these two long-time amours and the musical motif they inspired. “Love,” Berlioz wrote at the end of his memoirs, “can give no idea of music; music can give an idea of love. . . . Why separate the two? They are the two wings of the soul.”
To illustrate that, although indirectly, Berlioz attached great importance to the programme of the symphony, subtitled Épisode de la vie d’un artiste (Episode in the Life of an Artist). The first movement is called “Daydreams – Passions”; after a slow introduction in C minor, the idée fixe – the theme of the beloved – takes over. The second movement, an elegant waltz in A major, transports us to a ball, the third to a scene in the country with the sound of shepherds’ reed pipes. But even there, the “symphonic self” is overcome by the musical and erotic obsession of the idée fixe. Will opium help? A drug trip ends in the visions of the last two movements – during the fourth, the guillotine falls as the percussion puts an end to the terrible squealing of the C clarinet and dry pizzicatos symbolise the head rolling away. In the finale, the tortured soul finally turns up again at a witches’ sabbath, where there is only scorn and derision for true love in the cold brilliance of C major – the Gregorian chant theme Dies irae is paraphrased and parodied in the most colourful ways conceivable.
The Symphonie fantastique has three levels of consciousness corresponding to its programme: dream/daydream (first movement), reality (second and third movements) and drug frenzy (fourth and fifth movements). The macabre C-major jubilation of the finale obscures the fact that we are still in an “artificial paradise”. The “day after” is depicted in the monodrama Lélio, ou Le Retour à la vie (Lélio, or the Return to Life), composed in 1831, which Berlioz linked to his symphony op. 14 with the programmatic opus number “14bis” (14b). In contrast to the Symphonie fantastique, which is a work about sin, Lélio is about remorse. It is rarely performed because it is extremely elaborate and an anticlimax to the absolutely unparalleled symphony. If we take Berlioz’s conception literally, the performances of the Symphonie fantastique alone that are familiar to us represent only one side of the coin. But let’s be honest – isn’t sin more appealing than remorse?
Claudio Abbado first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1966. In October 1989 he was appointed the orchestra’s artistic director, and between then and 2002 he fashioned its artistic profile and shaped its concert programmes in many decisive ways, granting the music of the 20th century a status equal to that of the Classical and Romantic periods and helping to decide which areas of the repertory should receive particular attention each season. In 1994 he also assumed the artistic direction of the Salzburg Easter Festival. Prior to taking up his post in Berlin, Claudio Abbado had held a number of other important positions. From 1968 to 1986 he was director of music of La Scala in his native Milan, where he had made his conducting debut in 1960. From 1979 until 1988 he was at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra, between 1986 and 1991 he was music director of the Vienna State Opera and from 1987 was also general music director of the city. In 1988 he established the Wien Modern Festival. He has always been keen to foster new talent, and it was this desire that led him to form the European Community Youth Orchestra (now the European Union Youth Orchestra) and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. Since 2005 he has also worked with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela. Among Claudio Abbado’s awards are the Gold Medal of the International Mahler Society and the Großes Verdienstkreuz of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2003 he received the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal, and in the summer of 2005 he was given the freedom of the city of Lucerne, where in 2003 he had revived the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The first desks of this last-named orchestra are filled with international soloists of the eminence of Kolja Blacher, Wolfram Christ, Sabine Meyer and the members of the Hagen Quartet. Since 2004 Claudio Abbado has returned to conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker regularly, most recently in May 2012, when he presented works by Robert Schumann and Alban Berg.
Stella Doufexis received her vocal training from such prestigious teachers as Ingrid Figur, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Aribert Reimann at the Berlin University of the Arts, and from Anna Reynolds in Great Britain. The mezzo-soprano made her Berlin debut in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in 1992; from 1995 to 1997 she was a member of the ensemble at the Theater der Stadt Heidelberg where she performed the major mezzo roles. With a wide-ranging repertoire which includes works from the baroque as well as contemporary compositions, she is held in equally high regard by the music world as an opera, concert, and lieder singer. Following her debut as Cherubino in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro in 2005, she has had a close association with the Komische Oper in Berlin, where she also performs the roles of Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier), Nicklausse (The Tales of Hoffmann) and Dorabella (Così fan tutte) as well as the title roles in the 2009 premiere of Christian Jost’s opera Hamlet and in Handel’s Xerxes. Stella Doufexis’s close artistic connection to the Berliner Philharmoniker reaches back to 1997, during which time she has performed in many of their concerts and recordings. She most recently appeared with the orchestra in Luciano Berio‘s Coro in September 2010, in three concerts conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
Deborah York was born in Sheffield and received her vocal training at Manchester University and from Laura Sarti and Janice Chapman in London. The soprano is at home in sacred music as well as in opera and chamber music. A key area of her repertoire is music of the Baroque. Deborah York is a regular guest on international concert stages and has worked together with conductors such as René Jacobs, Rinaldo Alessandrini, Ivor Bolton, Marc Minkowski, Christophe Rousset, Markus Creed and Trevor Pinnock. She has appeared at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Sydney Opera House, Dresden’s Semperoper, the Bavarian State Opera and the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. In addition, she performs in the dance company Sasha Waltz & Guests’ production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Deborah York also teaches singing in her adopted home of Berlin and gives master classes at the Royal College of Music in London. With these concerts, she now makes her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
The Bavarian Radio Chorus was formed in 1946 and is the oldest of the station’s three ensembles. Its artistic fortunes have always gone hand in hand with those of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, whose principal conductor – currently Mariss Jansons – holds the same position with the chorus, working in close association with its chorus master. From 1990 to 2005 the chorus master was Michael Gläser, who transformed the choir into one of the world’s leading ensembles and brought it to international attention. Since 2005 its chorus master has been Peter Dijkstra, who was born in the Netherlands in 1978. Thanks to its homogeneity of timbre and a stylistic versatility that encompasses all periods and genres, the Bavarian Radio Chorus is much sought after by leading orchestras throughout Europe. Since 1998 it has had its own series of subscription concerts at Munich’s Prinzregententheater. The Bavarian Radio Chorus last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2012, when it took part in performances of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis under the direction of Herbert Blomstedt.