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French composers drew inspiration from Beethoven

February 11, 2005|by Elizabeth Schulze

This weekend's Maryland Symphony Orchestra performances at The Maryland Theatre will feature two French orchestral masterpieces from the 19th century.

Hector Berlioz and Cesar Franck composed their symphonies 50 years apart, but each looked to Ludwig von Beethoven for inspiration. Berlioz's symphony with solo viola, "Harold in Italy," follows the precedent set by Beethoven's "Pastorale" Symphony and uses a program, or background story, to describe the music's meaning.

And both composers borrow an idea from the last movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in quoting musical themes from earlier movements in their respective symphonic finales.

But there the similarities stop. Berlioz and Franck were originals who found little sympathy in the mainstream musical establishments of their time. Indeed, audiences at the premieres of these works would have found Berlioz and Franck to have little in common with the great German master.

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From our vantage point in the 21st century, it is difficult to understand contemporary listeners' resistance to these wonderful works. The sheer orchestral brilliance of Berlioz's musical descriptions of mountain scenes with shepherds' serenades and brigands' revelries continue to delight us with their inventive variety and lyric force. Franck's Symphony in D Minor, awash in Wagnerian harmonies, keeps us enveloped in lush melodies as we are carried inexorably to a powerful conclusion.

The solo violist in Berlioz's "Harold in Italy" is called upon to be an observer of and an occasional participant in the scenes presented in the symphony. Berlioz deliberately chose not to feature the soloist in a concerto-like setting that focuses mostly on technical virtuosity. Instead, the viola is a prominent partner with the orchestra, adding its particular warmth and heroic glow to the overall musical tableau.

We are fortunate to have MSO principal violist Phyllis Freeman joining us as the soloist in "Harold in Italy." A seasoned performer, Ms. Freeman is highly regarded as a player and as a master teacher. Her outstanding musical leadership has contributed immensely to the Maryland Symphony Orchestra's artistic growth over recent seasons.

The Romantic music of 19th-century France was initially misunderstood by a musical establishment dominated by Germanic traditions. The dramatic musical gestures of Berlioz were thought to be unorthodox, even over the top. The harmonies of Franck were considered too unstable and his musical rhetoric formless.

What a difference a century makes! These musical originals span a period of remarkable musical achievement. Their contributions are firmly recognized today as shining examples of inspired and passionate innovation.

Elizabeth Schulze is music director of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

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