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Berlioz - King Lear - Overture

Identifier

021217

Type of spiritual experience

Background

Berlioz writes in his Memoirs,

In an artist's life one thunderclap sometimes follows swiftly on another ... I had just had the successive revelations of Shakespeare and Weber. Now at another point on the horizon I saw the giant form of Beethoven rear up. The shock was almost as great as that of Shakespeare had been. Beethoven opened before me a new world of music, as Shakespeare had revealed a new universe of poetry.

He was able to hear Beethoven's works through the performances of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, an orchestra founded by François Antoine Habeneck and his colleagues to promote modern orchestral music. The inaugural concert, on 9 March 1828, featured the French premiere of the Eroica Symphony. Despite protests from French and Italian composers, by the end of the first season Habeneck and the orchestra had also performed the Third Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto as well as other works.

By the end of 1828 Berlioz had also heard Beethoven's third and fifth symphonies performed at the Paris Conservatoire – an experience that he found overwhelming.  He also came into contact with Beethoven's string quartets and piano sonatas, and recognised the importance of these immediately.

For Berlioz the experience of hearing the Eroica brought the last and greatest revelation of the power of instrumental music as an expressive language, along with the freedom of action with which it could be expressive. He understood at once that the symphony was a dramatic form to an extent that he had not previously realized, and that in Beethoven he saw a way to the dramatic manner in which he desired to compose.

Most tellingly, hearing the Eroica inspired Berlioz to widen his horizons for the first time past opera and other vocal works and consider the expressive power of purely instrumental music. Prior to this, he had defaulted to the dominant view of the Parisian music establishment, as typified by Le Sueur: that the symphony was a lesser form of composition that Mozart and Haydn had already taken as far as possible. Berlioz would go on to find instrumental music to be far more penetrating in expression and articulation than vocal setting.

 "Now that I have heard that terrifying giant Beethoven", he wrote, "I know exactly where my musical art stands; the question is to take it from there and push it further."

A description of the experience

Berlioz - King Lear - Overture

Le roi Lear (English: King Lear), Opus 4. Composed in Nice in 1831 during Berlioz's journey back to France after his stay in Italy (as a result of winning the Prix de Rome). The overture is based on Shakespeare's King Lear, a recent discovery for the composer whose love of the dramatist is evident in many other of his works. It was first performed at the Paris Conservatoire on 22 December 1833.

The source of the experience

Berlioz

Concepts and Symbols used in the text or image

Activities

Observation contributed by: Rosie Rock-Evans