Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Berlioz - Les Francs-Juges Overture

The earliest composition for orchestra by Hector Berlioz that is still in the repertoire is the overture to his opera Les Francs-Juges.  Berlioz wrote the opera to a libretto by Humbert Ferrand, a close friend of Berlioz. The name means The Free Judges  and refers to trials held in medieval Germany by a fraternal order of lay judges, or free judges. These Vehmic courts operated in the area of Westphalia in Germany, and sometimes held trials in secret.  They were one of the few organizations that derived their power directly from the Holy Roman Emperor and as such had the power to use the death penalty.

Berlioz tried to get the opera performed shortly after its composition in 1826, but funding was not available to stage it. He revised the opera twice and tried to get it performed, but after 1833 he destroyed most of the work except for the overture and a few excerpts.  The plot of the opera concerns a wicked uncle that tries to cheat his nephew out of his throne and beautiful fiancee. The nephew is brought before the Free Judges who convene in The Black Forest in Germany, and is sentenced to death. The fiancee manages to escape the clutches of the evil uncle and save her beloved.

Berlioz wrote the overture while he was still a student at the Conservatiore and was unsure that his writing for
Humbert Ferrand
the trombone was playable. Berlioz years later wrote,
I was at that time so ignorant of the mechanism of some of the instruments that after I had written the trombone solo in the Introduction in the key of D flat, I feared it might be too difficult to play. So I took it to one of the trombone players of the Opéra who examined it and reassured me by saying that ‘D flat as it happens is one of the best keys for the instrument, and you may count on the passage having a grand effect’.
 The orchestra begins with a slow introduction that includes loud music from the brass that perhaps represents the Free Judges convening. The rest of the overture has main themes that are presented and developed in Berlioz's own style of sonata form.
Berlioz was also one of the great orchestral conductors of his era, and he performed Les Francs-Juges Overture many times in his career.

Even at this early time in his career, Berlioz's penchant for large forces and novel orchestration is evident in this work. Berlioz's reputation for using large forces grew and when Berlioz visited Vienna Prince Klemens von Metternich asked him, “Is it not you who writes for an orchestra of 500 players?” Berlioz replied, “Not always, Monseigneur, I sometimes write for only 450.”

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