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Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Hector Berlioz. Today, the July Revolution may be thundering around him, but he has a cantata to finish!

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Hector Berlioz. Today, the July Revolution may be thundering about him, but he has a cantata to finish!

The Prix de Rome – usually qualified by the adjective ‘coveted’ – was established in 1663, to encourage talented ‘fine’ artists: painters and sculptors. The Prize was a competitive bursary, paid for by the crown, that included an extended period of residential study in the Holy City. In 1720, the award was extended to architects, but it was not until 1803, more than a decade after the first French Revolution, that composers were eligible to enter; the first victor was Albert Androt, no longer a household name. By 1827, the year of Berlioz’s first attempt to win it, the Prix de Rome was recognised as the principal route to recognition for a French composer – usually followed by a glittering career at the Paris Opéra. It took Berlioz four attempts to snag the vaunted gong, with his setting of The Death of Sardanapalus, the set-text for that year’s competition cantata. Presumably to avoid any chance of collusion, the contestants were locked away in the Institut de France for a maximum of 25 days – Berlioz completed his setting in a mere 12, perhaps because he was impatient to join the revolutionary fray that was erupting outside the building. As he recalled in his Memoirs, “I dashed off the final pages of my orchestral score to the sound of stray bullets coming over the roofs and pattering on the wall outside my window”. It was in the same year, 1830, that Berlioz unleashed his Symphonie fantastique on the world, and, less successfully, fell for the musically gifted Camille Moke. They were engaged to be married on Berlioz’s return from Rome, but Cupid – in the form of Camille’s mother, whom Berlioz dubbed “the hippopotamus” – had other plans, and instead, Mademoiselle Moke tied the knot with another Camille: Pleyel, the celebrated piano manufacturer. Berlioz may later have derived some bitter satisfaction from the fact that their marriage lasted a mere four years – due, it was said, to his former inamorata’s “multiple infidelities”.

Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, arr Berlioz
La Marseillaise
Placido Domingo, tenor
Choeur et orchestre de Paris
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

La mort de Sardanapale (conclusion)
Daniel Galvez Vallejo, tenor
Pas-de-Calais North Regional Choir
Orchestre National de Lille
Jean-Claude Casadesus, conductor

Ouverture pour la Tempête de Shakespeare
San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Symphonie fantastique, Op 14 (3rd movement, Scène aux champs)
Philharmonia Orchestra
André Cluytens, conductor

Grand symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Op 15 (3rd movement, Apothéose)
The Wallace Collection
Leeds Festival Chorus
John Wallace, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

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