Episodes de la Vie d’un Artiste

Episodes de la Vie d’un Artiste (1992/93)

with financial support of the Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst
on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest
first performance: June 11-1994, De Doelen, Rotterdam
Charles van Tassel – Hector Berlioz (baritone)
Elisabeth Laurence – Harriët Smithson (soprano)
Philip Salmon – biographer (tenore)
Michael Preston-Roberts – civil servant (tenore)
Toonkunst Koor Rotterdam (choir master: Daan Admiraal)
Southend Boys’ Choir (choir master: Michael Crabb) – Louis Berlioz
Miny Dekkers/Astrid in ’t Veld – accordion
Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest
conductor: Jan Latham-Koenig

Subject of this piece is the relationship between the French composer Hector Berlioz and the Irish actress Harriet Smithson.The title, Episodes de la Vie d’un Artiste, is, apart from the plural -s- at the end of ‘Episodes’, the same as the subtitle of the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz.

There are three large parts.
The first one is about the stormy love and the spectacular courting of Hector Berlioz. In the beginning Harriet Smithson is firmly resisting, but in the end she agrees to a marriage.
The second part starts with a description of their marriage, its failure and the disastrous effect the domestic quarrels have on their son Louis, represented by the boys’ choir. He is a tragic figure who found it difficult to settle down. Finally, he becomes a sailor on a merchantman and dies from the yellow fever in Havana, earlier than his father. The part ends with Harriet’s decline and her death.
The third part begins with a painfully accurate description by Berlioz himself of the excavation and replacement of Harriet’s corpse to a bigger cemetery and ends with Berlioz’ despair when he is told about the death of his son Louis. In the distance the boys’ choir is singing a sailor’s song, accompanied by two accordions at the back of the hall. The words are from a letter Louis wrote to his mother: ‘When my father dies, I’ll die also!’ He had no idea that their roles would be reverse.
Hector Berlioz stays behind, alone…

The texts are partly in French and partly in English. They originate from the Mémoires by Berliozhimself, from letters by Harriet and Louis and from letters, newspaper articles and biographical notes by contemporaries, among them Franz Liszt. The latter writes on the occasion of Harriet’s death to the mourning widower: ‘She has inspired you, you have loved her, you have sung about her, her task has ended’…
Especially in the second part extensive quotes from D. Kern Holoman’s biography Berlioz are used and at the end the choir sings lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (the motto chosen by Berlioz for his Mémoires):‘Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

In the opening-choir the musical material is introduced on which the whole piece has been built: a descending motif of three tones, part of a six-tones mode, that gradually is changing into the six other tones of the chromatic scale, an organ-point on c, the ‘plaintive’ Seufzer-figure, which has been used by Berlioz incredibly often, chromatic clusters and variable ostinati.
In the second part a quote from  Léos Janaçek’s Glagolitic Mass is used. Janaçek had surprisingly much in common with Berlioz.

Episodes de la Vie d’un Artiste is midway between an opera and an oratorium, as is also the case with a number of substantial compositions by Berlioz, among them Roméo et Juliette and La Damnation de Faust. Although they have the grand gestures of an opera, they are written for the concert hall.

For the texts click here