Symphonie funèbre et triomphale Op. 15
Symphonie funèbre et triomphale
(b. La Côte-St.-André, 11 December 1803 — d. Paris, 8 March 1869)
Throughout the 1830s, Hector Berlioz gave serious consideration to composing a large-scale ceremonial work. In Italy in 1831, he entertained thoughts of an oratorio to be called Le Dernier jour du monde [The Last Day of the World].i A year later, his thinking turned towards a symphony with chorus on the Napoleonic theme of Le Retour de l’armée d’Italie: Symphonie militaire [The Return of the Army from Italy: Military Symphony], and sketches were begun.ii By 1835, those plans had evolved into a Fête musicale funèbre à la mémoire des hommes illustres de la France [Musical Funeral Celebration in Memory of the Illustrious Men of France].iii He actually completed two movements before abandoning that project.iv
In 1840, the French government was planning to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the revolution of 1830 by exhuming and transporting the remains of those who died in the fighting to a new monument erected in their honor at the Place de la Bastille. Berlioz proposed writing a “grand funeral symphony” to be performed during the procession and subsequent ceremony. His proposal was accepted and the Minister of the Interior, Charles de Rémusat, agreed to pay him 10,000 francs to defray expenses. Reportedly written in only forty hoursv using material from other unfinished projects (see above), the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale [Funeral and Triumphal Symphony], Op. 15 was premiered as planned at the memorial events in Paris on 28 July 1840.
The new work, Berlioz’s fourth and last symphony, was conceptually modeled after music composed for very large wind bands by Gossec, Cherubini, Catel, and others for patriotic rallies following the Revolution of 1789 and during the Napoleonic Empire. Rejecting stylistic trappings that might be considered effete or aristocratic was a deliberate strategy of those composers to make such works more accessible to unsophisticated audiences. The simplicity of traditional French patriotic music was evoked, and rhetorical grandeur was applied in broad brush-strokes as a further enticement. Although that style was essentially passé by 1840, Berlioz resurrected it to good effect in both his Requiem and the Symphonie funèbre. The result in the latter case was a dramatic symphony imbued with aspects of theatre and opera, which helped to set the stage for the subsequent symphonic poems of Liszt and Strauss.
According to Berlioz, he “planned a great symphony, on broad, simple lines, and as it was to be played in the open air where delicate orchestral effects would be lost, I engaged a military band of two hundred men.”vi It seemed to him “that for such a work the simpler the plan the better…I wished, to begin with, to recall the conflicts of the famous Three Days amidst the mourning strains of a bleak but awe-inspiring march, to be played during the procession; to follow this with a kind of…farewell address to the illustrious dead, while the bodies were lowered into the cenotaph; and to conclude with a hymn of praise…”vii
The first performance unfortunately suffered from serious acoustical challenges: “Despite the volume of sound produced by a wind band of this size, very little was heard during the procession. In the open spaces of the Place de la Bastille it was worse. Almost nothing could be made out more than ten yards away.”
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