Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Hector Berlioz. Others can claim Ravel or Debussy or Bizet as France's greatest composer, but for me it's HB. Here is a rough list of his greatest works.
(For recordings, you generally can't go wrong with any Berlioz conducted by Sir Colin Davis, who has mined the Berlioz repertoire a number of times over the years, most recently in a series of budget-priced live recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra. I also admire Charles Dutoit's recordings with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, although some of those are harder to find. And finally, Sir Thomas Beecham was a great conductor of Berlioz.)
:: The symphonies.
Symphonie fantastique is Berlioz's fist symphony, and it is also his most well-known work. And well it should be, because even now, nearly 180 years after he wrote it, it is still fresh and exuberant. In its five movements instead of the standard four, its use of a recurring melody (the "idee fixe") in each movement, and its programmatic nature, this vibrant work has moments of power, beauty, and – in the last two movements – demonic darkness.
The second symphony, Harold in Italy, is more conventional at first glance. It has four movements, but again, there is a recurring theme in each movement, and the work prominently features a solo viola. This is because the work was commissioned by none other than Nicolo Paganini, the great violin virtuoso who had acquired a Stradivarius viola and wished for a concerto to show it off. He never played the final work, judging the solo viola part not showy enough. It simply wasn't in Berlioz's nature to write a virtuoso showpiece, and indeed the viola is more a "partner" than a featured soloist in the work. Its inspiration is Byron, one of Berlioz's great loves.
And then there is the Romeo et Juliet symphony, which bears as little resemblance to a Schumann or Brahms symphony as anything Mahler would later write. Calling for a large orchestra, two choruses and three vocal soloists, the work is at times almost cantata-like in its opening twenty minutes before reaching the central movements which are purely orchestral (especially the Love Scene, which may be Berlioz's crowning achievement). Then there is a nearly operatic finale as a baritone, singing the role of Father Laurence, swears the Capulets and Montagues to an oath of friendship. In Shakespeare Berlioz often found his greatest inspiration, never moreso than here. This is my favorite of Berlioz's works. I hear something new in this symphony every time I listen to it.
The last symphony is a strange work, the Symphonie funebre et triomphale. It is a three-movement work written for military band, and intended originally for outdoor performance. Its opening movement is a fifteen-minute funeral march; its second is a lament that features a solo trombone; and the finale is a rousing "triumphal march" in the grand style to which Berlioz later added parts for strings and chorus. It's an odd work, but not without charm.
:: The overtures.
Berlioz wrote a number of concert overtures and short works. Most famous here is Le Carnival Romain, which is probably the next most-performed Berlioz work after the Symphonie fantastique. It is a flashy piece that displays Berlioz's gift for orchestration. My favorite Berlioz overture is Le Corsaire, a swashbuckling work that to me anticipates some of the great film music of Korngold and Steiner. His Rob Roy overture features the first appearance of the melody that would later feature in Harold in Italy (Berlioz was never shy about reusing melodies in later works if he felt like it). There are a number of good collection CDs of Berlioz overtures available, and the overtures often turn up on recordings of longer Berlioz works as fillers.
:: The operas.
Berlioz wrote three operas. Benvenuto Cellini is a fine work that, like many other Berlioz works, has never received much acclaim or performance. (I'm not even sure if a recording of Cellini is in the catalog right now.) His last opera, Beatrice et Benedict, is a comic gem that gives the lie to the idea of Berlioz as a composer mostly interested in huge ensembles playing huge music. But his greatest opera, and what may be his greatest achievement as a composer, is Les Troyens. Based on Virgil's Aeneid (Berlioz adored Virgil), this opera is five hours long and is as demanding as any of Wagner's towering operas. Berlioz never heard Les Troyens performed in its entirety; instead, the French musical powers-that-were insisted on major cuts to the work and ultimately it was actually split in two. The whole work is amazing, although to ears accustomed to Wagner it can seem dry at first. But it's not. Believe me, it's not.
Not operas, but not really able to be put into any other category, are two works of strange pedigree: La Damnation de Faust and L'Enfance du Christ. The former is one of Berlioz's most famous works. It could be called "Almost an opera"; much of it is directly operatic, but much of it is purely orchestral. It features some of Berlioz's best known shorter excerpts, like the "Hungarian March" (which literally incited a riot when Berlioz performed it for actual Hungarians). L'Enfance du Christ is an intimate work that I had never heard in its entirety until a year ago. For anyone who thinks that Berlioz is only about giant orchestral gestures, this oratorio will come as a welcome surprise.
:: Sacred music.
An early Mass, called the Messe Solenelle, of Berlioz's was uncovered a few years ago and recorded by John Gardiner. It's an interesting early work. There is also the Tuba Mirum, to which I confess never developing a real fondness (although I must confess I have not listened to it in nearly a decade). But then there is the Requiem. Quite long, this is my favorite Requiem after Mozart's. It is also the work to turn to if you want to hear that stereotypical "Big Berlioz" sound. If you have a neighbor who is possessed of an unnatural fear of the Almighty, don't play the Dies Irae from the Berlioz Requiem. When the four brass bands start playing, they'll think the world is ending.
Finally, there are some other works that fit no real category. Berlioz wrote a song cycle called Les Nuits d'Ete which is quite impressive; many singers have recorded it. He also wrote a number of pieces of incidental music for plays, such as a Funeral March for Hamlet. And there is the rarely performed Lelio, which is a musical sequel to the story begun in the Symphonie fantastique. It's a curious amalgam of shorter works connected by monologues spoken by a voice actor, culminating in the Choral Fantasy on "The Tempest", which doesn't deserve the obscurity it has suffered by being part of Lelio.
Berlioz did not have a huge output, but there is nothing he wrote that does not speak to me on some level. (Excepting the Te Deum, which I should give another chance one of these days. Maybe today.) May his music last another two hundred years, and beyond.