Bose Presents Berlioz

Shaw (Watha T. Daniel) Library

Bose Presents Berlioz

I bought a nice pair of Bose headphones and they changed my life. The sound quality was so good that I decided it was finally time to jump back into listening to classical music. Classical recordings, even the smaller label records, are almost always of extreme audiophile quality. Soon I was hovering over my favorite orchestras again, hearing every nuance and harmonic that distinguishes one version of the Eroica, for example, from the next. In high school I was obsessed with Beethoven, and through the master was introduced to several other early romance composers including one of my favorites—Hector Berlioz.


For a little background, Berlioz is one of the few legendary composers who was not also a performer. He studied music from treatises and sheet music rather than being groomed at the piano bench like virtuoso performers Liszt, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and so many others. He had to study in secret because his parents expected him to be a doctor. How lucky we are that the doctor thing didn’t work out!


I was on the Metro the other day listening to one of my favorite pieces, the second movement of The Symphonie Fantasique, when an elderly gentleman tugged on my sleeve and asked what I was listening to. I guess he wasn’t scared off by the tattoos and wanted to know what music could possibly set this long-haired roughneck’s foot tapping, and provoking an ear-to-ear smile. When I told him it was Berlioz, he told me a great story.


When the French Revolution of 1830 was beginning, Hector was at his desk in his third-floor apartment in Paris working feverishly on the Fantastique. He was at a critical juncture in a piece that would radically redefine what future orchestras would look and sound like. He had doubled the number of tubas in his orchestra because, well, he wanted more tubas. This was unheard of at the time, but Berlioz was somewhat of a radical himself. So, through the sound of cannon fire he hurried to transcribe the sounds in his head before the whole city erupted. He worked well into the night by lamplight, until finally the bullets were whizzing over his roof and smashing through the windows of neighboring houses, the tenants having long left Paris fearing the violence. Finally Berlioz realized it was time to leave, so he rolled up his manuscripts still wet with ink and ran down the stairs and into the street with pistol in hand, ready to handle any hoodlums looting and robbing in Paris that night.


How cool! To add to the drama, it has been established that, years later, the composer had plotted to dress up as a woman, slip into the house of the woman with whom he was obsessively in love and kill her, her fiancé and her mother. This plot was foiled when, in the carriage halfway to her house, he realized he’d left part of his disguise behind, after which he realized the foolishness of his plan and gave up.


These unexpected little vignettes add a sense of realness and humanity to these larger-than-life figures, and to the recordings we listen to. Now, whenever I listen to the 2nd movement of the Fantastique, which is so light and lush, I picture old Hector jogging down the dark cobblestone streets of Paris with this very music under his arm. Who knows…maybe it was the same pistol!