I first heard of and listened to Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triumphale by Hector Berlioz when the LP shown below was sent to me in 1969 as a member of the World Record Club. I was enthralled by the work on my first hearing, and nearly 50 years later it still excites and moves me when I play and listen to the work, or just parts of it. The entire recording is 33’76” long, as conducted by Desire Dondeyne.
There other recordings of the work now, but this one is still my favourite. The following is quoted from this page.
This symphony is among Berlioz’ least known works, probably due, in part, to the fact that it is originally a band piece. Although some critics have panned it as inferior to Berlioz’s other works, it also has its defenders. Jacues Barzun, author of Berlioz and the Romantic Century, writes “he fully achieved his goal of blending grandeur with nobility and simplicity with elevation…” Virgil Thomson, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote the following on the occasion of the symphony’s American premiere by the Goldman Band:
“The sound of the thing is Berlioz at his best. No other composer has ever made a band sound so dark, so rich, so nobly somber. That sound is not only a beautiful and wondrous thing in itself; it is also part of the work’s expressivity. It is everything that could possibly be meant by the adjectives funereal and triumphal. The tunes are noble, too; not one is lacking in sobriety. The whole composition is at once simple, serious and utterly sumptuous. It is as impersonal as a public building and at the same time deeply touching. The touching quality does not come from any private emotional assertion of the composer and still less from any calculated attempt on his part to provoke our tears. It comes, believe it or not, from the perfect taste of his stylistic conception…the military combined with a memorial subject call forth a richness of utterance and an impeccability of tone that make his “Grand Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale” one of the great ceremonial pieces of all time.“
The following is the text on the rear cover of the LP:
“In July, 1840,” wrote Berlioz in his Memoirs, “the French Government decided to celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of the 1830 Revolution by arranging State ceremonies of the victims of those three days to the monument which had just been completed on the Place de la Bastille.”
It was then that Berlioz was commissioned by the Minister of the Interior, M. de Remusat, to write a symphony which was to be performed during these ceremonies. Its form was left entirely to the composer’s discretion.
“I felt,” writes Berlioz, “that for such a work the simplest plan would be the best and that a large body of wind instruments would be the only suitable forces for a symphony intended to be heard (at least on the first occasion) in the open air. It was my intention to recall at first the fighting of those three famous days, through the grief of a funeral march which would be heard during the procession of the cortege; then to have a kind of funeral or farewell oration for the famous victims, while their remains were placed in the monumental grave; and finally a hymn of glory — the Apotheosis, when the only thing which could be seen by the people would be the tall column surmounted by the Statue of Liberty spreading out her wings and reaching towards the sky like the souls of those who perished for her.”
The three movements of this Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale Op. 15 were therefore composed according to this plan and performed according to the intentions of the composer and the Minister of the Interior: the Funeral March during the procession starting at Saint-Germain I’Auxerrois, the other two movements at the Place de la Bastille during the dual ceremony of burial and inauguration of the monument.
However, Berlioz could not anticipate some unfortunate incidents which seriously compromised the success of his work: the hearse bearing the fifty coffins, covered with black drapes and pulled by 24 horses caparisoned in black, nearly tipped over at the start; and when the cortege reached the Louvre, King Louis-Philippe and his suite appeared on the balcony! — all these incidents provoked shouting which drowned the music. “But the worst,” wrote Berlioz himself, “happened on the Place de la Bastille, where the National Guards, who had been standing at attention under the burning sun, began to march at the sound of some fifty drums which continued to beat during the entire performance of the Apotheosis.”
This unfortunate first performance had been preceded by a private rehearsal which had received tremendous success and produced, according to some listeners, an electrifying effect. This enabled Berlioz to repeat the performance in a concert hall on the 6th and 14th August of the same year, adding a symphonic orchestra to the original band, as well as a chorus on a text by Antony Deschamps to the final Apotheosis:
This Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale was inspired by the symphonic and vocal frescoes of the French Revolution which were intended to stimulate the patriotic sentiments of the crowd during the great national ceremonies.
This work was not the first of Berlioz relating to the musical aspects of the French Revolution: during the days which preceded the 1830 uprising, Berlioz had written an arrangement for double choir and large orchestra of the “Marseillaise.” The original composer of the French National Anthem, Rouget de Lisle, was deeply moved by Berlioz’ effort.
Furthermore, the great popular musical ceremonies of the July monarchy — which indeed were based on a large scale — inspired Berlioz to write a number of comparable works. It must be remembered that Berlioz was naturally disposed towards using large vocal and instrumental forces.
The famous Requiem or the Te Deum, in spite of their Latin words, stem from the large frescoes of Lesueur, who had taught composition to Berlioz. Other works had been composed by Berlioz for similar national occasions: the Chant des Chemins de Fer for the inauguration of the first railway, and the Cantata of the 5th May on the occasion of the return of Napoleon’s ashes.
The extent to which the Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale belongs to the very essence of the best works of the French Revolution was stressed by Wagner — who had heard it whilst residing in Paris — in a famous article published in the “Abendzeitung” of Dresden on 5th May, 1841:
“One cannot deny that Berlioz intended to provide a popular composition in the most literal sense of the word. In listening to the symphony which he wrote for the removal of the ashes of the July victims, I felt deeply that any child of the people would understand it completely.” Furthermore, he found the work “great — from the first to the last note — without any morbid fanaticism, and retaining a high and patriotic emotion rising from lamentation to the highest peaks of the Apotheosis . .
Understandably enough, the work was seldom performed after 1840; the required forces could not be easily mustered after the initial occasion. And the general scorn held for the band of wind instruments and its repertoire has seldom encouraged the inclusion of such a lengthy work in traditional programmes.
Without doubt all these factors underline the importance of this recording in which the original version has been followed faithfully, without adjunction nor abridging.
Adapted from Notes by FREDERIC ROBERT
For this post, I decided to record the LP at 192kHz 24 bit and on my PC convert the FLAC files to two MP3 files, one for each side of the LP.
Here is the recording converted from the FLAC files totalling 2.3GB to two mp3 files for this post:. The 1st Movement, the Funeral March is Side 1 of the LP. The 2nd and 3rd Movements are one track on Side 2 of the LP because there is no break between the two Movements. As the last notes of the trombone solo fade away at the end of the 2nd Movement, a drum roll begins and continues into the 3rd Movement – the Apotheosis.
In subsequent years I have bought other recordings of the work, and I’ve been surprised by how different they can be. The most obvious differences are in tempo and performances played by a symphony orchestra, and those without a choir, But there are also small differences such as the volume of the drum rolls and drum beats, and the way the woodwinds blend. I even have one performance on super quality Blu-ray audio, with a European brass band, and yet it is conducted and played in such a way that it seems to lack the same excitement. Some recordings have a track break between the 2nd and 3rd Movements.
“Grande Symphonie funebre et triomphale”, Op. 15.
Central Military Band of the Russian Ministry of Defence.
Conductor: Valery Khalilov and Sergei Durygin (chorus)
Soloist: Erkin Yusupov (trombone)
Tchaikovsky Concert Hall of the Moscow Philharmonic
1. Marche funèbre (Funeral march)
2. Oraison funèbre (Funeral oration)
3. Apothéose (Apotheosis)
My friend Ralph made a few comments after I published this post, and that he watched the above on YouTube. I was shocked, because I thought it was in what I had published. No wonder I finished the post earlier than expected. The above video was in my very first basic draft for this post on 16 August 2013 and I later added the comment “There are two versions of this performance on YouTube. The first was uploaded with the vision and music slightly out of sync. This is the corrected version.” Now it seems there is only one version, and it is the one which has the video and audio slightly out of sync. The link to the old video is here but it seems out of sync as well. Anyway, it doesn’t affect the quality of the playing or sound. The reason I included this video is because I thought it is an excellent version and uses a Russian military brass band and chorus, and I think it’s always interesting to see the performance as well as hear it.
I thought it was worth including the following YouTube video which is a 3 minute sample of the orchestral version with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the renowned Berliner Philharmoniker recorded at the Gala Concert “50 years of the Philharmonie”, 20 October 2013 in the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall:
I found this brief video quite fascinating when I really looked at and thought about what I was seeing, This orchestra is one of the finest, symphony orchestra in the world, and is particularly notable for its silky smooth strings. But when I looked at the stage I had to search to find the string section. Normally they are always at the front in an orchestra, but here there are masses of woodwinds, and further back a huge brass section, and a row of drummers and other percussion instruments. I say “sample” because the Berliner Philharmoniker requires subscription to enjoy full performances and live concerts.
At this point I decided that this post was complete and I would not add anything else, and I published it. But an hour later I reneged and decided to add the cover notes of the LP with Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra performing this work.
Symphonie funebre et triomphale
The Funeral and Triumphal Symphony belongs to a class of work in Berlioz’ output which he himself recognised as being distinct from the rest: the monumental or architectural works, in which the usual “Berliozian” qualities of nervous, unpredictable rhythms, often startling irregularity of phrase, lyrical intensity, swiftly changing mood, and constantly varied instrumental textures, are largely replaced by broad effects, austere colours, deliberate harmonic movement, rhythmic simplicity, and massive orchestration.
The symphony was written to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the July Revolution of 1830. By then, the spirit of 1830 had evaporated: the impulses of the July Days had been deflected into bourgeois affluence or driven into opposition; but the government of the time was interested in distracting attention from its shortcomings by a revival of patriotic sentiment. A commemorative column was put up on the site of the Bastille, and the ashes of the July dead were carried through the streets and ceremonially placed in a cenotaph at the foot of the column.
Berlioz describes his intention in his Memoirs: “It seemed to me that for such a work the simpler the plan the better, and that only a large body of wind instruments would be suitable for a symphony that was to be heard – the first time at any rate – in the open air. I wished, to begin with, to recall the conflicts of the famous Three Days amidst the strains of a bleak but awe-inspiring march, to be played during the procession; to follow this with a kind of funeral oration or farewell address to the illustrious dead, while the bodies were lowered into the cenotaph; and to conclude with a hymn of praise at the moment when, the tomb being sealed, all eyes were fixed on the high column on which Liberty, with wings outspread, seemed soaring towards heaven like the souls of those who had given their lives for her.”
Subsequently he replaced the original title, “Military Symphony,” with the present one, and added optional strings and chorus (the latter entering right at the end of the work). But the style and layout of the writing remain firmly rooted in the conventions of the military band; the music is his answer to the challenge of an unexplored sonority, which he handles in a manner that is at once personal and traditional.
Indeed, Berlioz’s symphony, like his Requiem and Te Deum, represents a renewal of tradition. For this commemoration of the Revolution of 1830, he revived the French Revolution’s concept of music as a public, outdoor activity on the grandest scale. The massed choirs, bands, and orchestras for which Gossec, Mehul, and Lesueur wrote their ceremonial works were intended to symbolise the nation united in a collective act of prayer and praise. But like the Requiem and the Te Deum, the Funeral and Triumphal Symphony goes farther, achieving at its best, in Wilfrid Mellers’ words, “a vision of Napoleonic grandeur not as it was, but as it might be.”
The long first movement, the funeral March, is Berlioz at his most massively “architectural.” Over an ostinato on muffled side-drums and a steady pulsation in the brass, clarinets and flutes proclaim a long, broadly arched melody, at once mournful and grand. The music maintains almost uninterruptedly a mood of dark solemnity lit by gleams of a sad, sweet serenity; the only exception is the brief, more declamatory passage which separates statement from counter-statement, providing momentary relief, and seeming to suggest some extra-musical, military idea. In the second half of the movement Berlioz varies his material to screw up the tension still further; the coda, with sustained cries from the brass cutting across the woodwind, and syncopated thuds on the bass drum like a giant heart near the end of its tether, makes a conclusion which is truly “awe-inspiring.”
For the Funeral Oration Berlioz borrowed from a scene in his unperformed opera “Les Francs-Juges.” A solo trombone takes the vocal line, beginning with a speech-like recitative, which flowers into arioso and then into aria, the rest of the orchestra answering the soloist in the manner of a chorus.
The aria, which is short, leads without a pause to an expectant roll of timpani and side-drums (no longer muffled). Above the drums a fanfare is built up, at the end of which the whole orchestra announces a rousing march theme. This finale is on a lower plane of eloquence and invention than the first movement. It is pure military band music, but of an exalted kind, with an exhilarating vigour and momentum to it. The wind forces (tellingly augmented by the full body of strings) are handled with great resource; the percussion is enlivened by the Turkish Crescent or “Jingling Johnny,” an exuberant instrument popular in nineteenth-century bands. The movement makes an effective conclusion to a work which Wagner called “thoroughly popular in the ideal sense.” Sixty bars from the end the chorus enter, in the lower register of the voices, with the effect of a distant roar, suggesting Auguste Barbier’s lines on the 1830 Revolution: “Que dans Paris entier, comme la mer qui monte/Le peuple souleve grondait.” The text (by Antony Deschamps) utters conventional homage to the heroic dead for whom the ceremony was planned. The government of the day may have used them for its own purpose, but the work largely transcends it. We may conclude with Wagner’s words: “When one further takes into account the service rendered by Berlioz in his altogether noble treatment of the military wind band … I must say with delight that I am convinced this symphony will last and exalt the hearts of men as long as there exists a nation called France.”
Here is the Berliner Philharmoniker in a more conventional configuration of instruments.