Languishing With the Spectre of a Rose

Les Nuits d'été - brilliantly set into music by Berlioz. © Charles Thibo
Les Nuits d’été – brilliantly set into music by Berlioz. © Charles Thibo

A forest. A lake. The silver reflection of moonlight on the water. Fireflies. Shadows. A voice. A female voice singing. Soft as silk. The orchestra – subtle as can be – is lifting the mezzo-soprano up, guiding her through the piece. Or is it the singer guiding the orchestra?

Can you fall in love with a piece of music? I can. I did with “Les nuits d’été” from the French composer Hector Berlioz. And I am forever grateful to a certain pianist that I happen to know to have pointed out this piece to me. Berlioz composed these very melancholic melodies between 1840 and 1842 as cycle for piano and voice on the basis of six poems written by the French romantic writer Théophile Gautier. The arrangement for orchestra dating from 1856 is better known and I call my own a fabulous recording of the Berliner Philharmoniker under James Levine and the Swedish mezzosoprano Anne Sofie von Otter. It is precisely this recording that moves me so much; I must have played it a hundred times by now.

The cycle has six parts: “Villanelle” describes an idyllic spring scene. “Le spectre de la rose” – my favourite part – evokes the memories of a rose that was worn by a young girl at a ball and is now fading. “Sur les lagunes – Lamento” speaks of the death of a beloved one while “Absence” cries out the feeling of loss and “Au cimetière – Clair de lune” depicts a lonely person at a graveyard listening to the complaining song of a dove. “L’île inconnue” finally concludes that eternal love – symbolized by a distant island – will forever remain an illusion.

“Nuits d’été” is incredibly sad and of incredible beauty when set in music. Little is known about the motivation of Berlioz to write this piece. Many have speculated that he and his wife had a tough time when he composed the cycle, but surprisingly there is no hint at all in his personal papers about the source of his inspiration.

Berlioz devoted much of his life to write a fundamental theory on orchestration and composed four symphonies that earned him a worldwide reputation: The “Symphonie Fantastique”, “Roméo et Juliette”, “Harold en Italie” and “Symphonie funèbre et triomphale”. One hallmark of Berlioz’ works is that he did go beyond the traditional rules of orchestration, dictated by formal principles of music theory, and had the ambition to describe through his composition technique abstract concepts like ideas and feelings as well as human actions.

The “Symphonie Fantastique”, written in 1830, for example depicts the life of an artist, how he meets a woman that represents the ideal of beauty to him, how he falls in love with her. His love drives him into a folly, makes him imagine her death and ends with a vision of an orgy of sorcerers at night. The origin again is a novel: “René”, written by the French author François-René de Chateaubriand, and the symphony reflects Berlioz’ fascination by the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom he married in 1833.

Since I have encountered Berlioz only a short while ago, I will venture no further. His works match my interest in music (and literature) from the romantic period in Germany and France and I will certainly come back to him in a later post. Promis, juré!

© Charles Thibo

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