Music: The tragedy and the glory

Stephen Fay on the rediscovery of the mighty Hector Berlioz
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The Independent Culture
Asmall, framed photograph of Hector Berlioz stands on the radiator shelf behind Sir Colin Davis's sofa. The great French composer stares out, hollow-cheeked, with a head of grey hair, looking like a man who knows all about pain and disenchantment. He has a place in the conductor's sitting room because the "incredible vitality and enormous tenderness" of his music has brought Davis much happiness.

Davis is one of a handful of pre-eminent Berlioz conductors, and, in the Barbican next month, he begins a Berlioz odyssey. It is a long journey, and by the end of it, in 12 months' time, Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra will have performed all Berlioz's operas, plus much of his vocal and symphonic music.

This monumental series of 21 concerts is a prelude to the feast of Berlioz's music that will accompany the 200th anniversary of his birth, in 2003. Unlike the French, the British have always had a taste for Berlioz. His reception in London in 1851 was so warm, he thought he might settle here. When his reputation languished in the deep shadow of Richard Wagner, he was nurtured by Sir Thomas Beecham, and it was this conductor who brought The Trojans to a radio audience, conducting the performance for the BBC's Third Programme in 1947.

Another performance, 10 years later at Covent Garden conducted by Rafael Kubelik, inspired a new generation of Berlioz devotees. Kubelik's performance dazzled Davis, who, in the early Sixties, began his first odyssey through Berlioz's repertoire. One of the percussionists in his orchestra was a young music critic named David Cairns, who became a biographer of the musician. Cairns also helped Davis record much of Berlioz's music, and organised the first publication of the full score of The Trojans.

A tight-knit group, including Ernest Fleischmann of the London Symphony Orchestra, and Nicholas Snowman, now at Glyndebourne, conspired to decide where next to take their Berlioz offensive. Between them, they have thoroughly resurrected, polished up and gilded his reputation.

Cairns's vivid biography tells a story that mixes tragedy and farce. Berlioz loved being in love, but found no lasting happiness. His first wife, Harriet Smithson, an actress mainly in Shakespeare plays, died an unhappy woman; his mistress, a singer who became his second wife, died long before him; so did the younger woman whom he loved after the singer's death. The worst blow in his old age was the death of his son at the age of 33. And for years Berlioz was so hard up he could not afford to compose and had to write music criticism to support his family; he was good at journalism but hated it. Because no one else would conduct his music in Paris, he was forced to do it himself and became one of Europe's foremost conductors.

But what he wanted most was to listen to his music, and he never heard enough of it. His last, heart-rending, words were said to be: "Enfin on va jouer ma musique." (They are finally going to play my music.)

Cairns believes the life was necessary to the art. "If his capacity for grief, for regret, had not been so cruelly sharpened, his music might not have been what it was. Sadness and suffering mark many of his characteristic utterances ... the suffering of a nature in love with unattainable beauty, capable of infinite tenderness."

Although the greatest single influence on Berlioz was Shakespeare, the composer is usually described as a 19th-century romantic. A strong infusion of classicism makes definition tricky, however. The influences on The Trojans were Virgil (for the story), the painter Claude Lorrain (for the setting), and the 18th-century composer Gluck. This was not the classicism of Bach or Mozart, and by turning his back on them Berlioz encouraged his critics. Unable to appreciate the extended melodies and complex, irregular rhythms, they accused him of denying the principles of sound composition. Some still do; the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez believes that Berlioz can't write music properly. Wagner did not really approve of Berlioz. (The reverse was also true.)

But Verdi understood the man and his music, loving the one and esteeming the other. And Berlioz left his mark on Bizet, Mahler and Stravinsky.

The odyssey at the Barbican was Davis's idea. The conductor proposed this tribute to Berlioz three years before the anniversary for two reasons: he wanted to have his say first, before other Berlioz cycles appeared on the concert hall programmes; and he was reluctant to wait until 2003 because, he thought, he would be "past it by them". Davis is only 72, however, and longevity is not uncommon among conductors. "Yes, but there comes a point where you don't have the energy you had when you were young," he explains.

Nonetheless, Davis claims to be embarrassed by some of his earlier recordings. "When you're younger you're getting in the way all the time." But he adds: "Your pulse slows down [with age], you get less excitable, your ego is declining." As the pulse slows, so, apparently, does the tempo of the music.

Davis loves playing with the LSO, who, early in December, will perform Benvenuto Cellini, one of the most rarely performed of Berlioz's operas. The Childhood of Christ is scheduled for the weekend before Christmas, and next year Davis conducts Shakespeare inspired works by Berlioz, such as Romeo and Juliet. The climax in this festival is the three performances of The Trojans, each over two days, in December 2000.

They are, definitely, playing Berlioz's music.