From Troyens to Tristan

December seemed to be a month obsessively occupied by Hector Berlioz, particularly Les Troyens in versions onstage at the Met, the High Definition transmission, DVDs, plus the score at home.  It’s January, and Berlioz is still echoing through the corridors of my thoughts.

At the end of this month I’m looking forward to the Canadian Opera Company’s main commemoration of the bicentennial of Richard Wagner’s birth in a production of Tristan und Isolde directed by Peter Sellars.

While Wagner had many influences I am particularly mindful of Berlioz’s influence on Wagner simply because my head and my ears are so full of Berlioz.  I am not interested in the question of who is the key influence on Wagner, when the answer is beyond us.  I’m more like a foodie wandering in a city, noticing that there are resemblances between the food on either side of the street, traces of a flavour or a colour.

I will be thinking of this for the next few days, expanding on this.  For today I am moved to toss out a few glib pathways for exploration.  Simplistic? If you say so, but first have a look.

1) idée fixe and leit-motiv

Berlioz doesn’t use themes the way Wagner does.  I wouldn’t dream of saying one is better than the other.  Each has its merits.  When you come to Symphonie Fantastique, which premiered in 1830, we encounter a use of a recurring theme that in its way is simultaneously conservative compared to Wagner, yet in its way, beyond anything Wagner ever attempted.  How? The theme is relatively static as an idea in the first three movements.  In the nightmarish last two movements we get (in IV) a furtive little snippet as the hero is about to be executed, and then (in V) a kind of parody of the theme in the last movement.

2) druggy music

Thomas de Quincey

First off some of you may find this a totally disrespectful category in the first place.  Before even talking about music, however, I want to establish this firmly as an artistic category, arguably an important trope in music & the arts.  Some writers such as Thomas de Quincey and more recently, Aldous Huxley, Hunter Thompson or William Burroughs are famous for their explorations of altered states.  Music has been intimately associated with drug culture(s) since the 20th Century, but that’s not where it began.  Berlioz is one of the first composers to not only use drugs but to depict the subjective experience in their music.  In speaking of Wagner we may not find a powdery trail (evidence of drug use), but the music and its subjective experience is something else again.  

3) powerful endings

This may seem like the most superficial connection, but I would argue that it’s under-estimated.  When you listen to one of Berlioz’s overtures or orchestral compositions, they often have endings of extraordinary power, and for me, looking at them in historical context, these endings dwarf anything that came before.  While some of Beethoven’s endings are remarkable –and as unprecedented in their time as Berlioz’s pieces are in the next era—for me this is when I feel a kind of quantum leap.  The thing that’s different with Wagner is not that his endings are bigger & more powerful than Berlioz’s endings.   They’re not actually.  But with each subsequence work –especially once we’re out of “romantic opera,” after Lohengrin and into “music drama” with the Ring operas begun in the 1850s—we see a greater and greater concentration of the musical materials, making the concluding gestures of acts remarkably symbolic, a kind of epitome of the larger action.

Here’s just one example (Berlioz), but there are a great many to choose from.

4) love music

Before Berlioz & Wagner, as far as I know, you’d sometimes see characters in love onstage.  Their duets would be their love music.  Had anyone yet abstracted love from the situations onstage as pure compositions without words, to show the feelings of lovers: their desire, their ardent actions, their intoxication, and their passion upon parting? Not as far as I can remember, and certainly not with the clarity Berlioz & Wagner would bring to the subject.

Awhile ago I mentioned Wagner’s thank you to Berlioz, acknowledging his respect for Roméo et Juliette.  What if anything connects these two compositions? Hm, we’ll see.


That’s a partial roadmap for January and some of the things I’ll write about on the path from Troyens to Tristan.

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