Bring back the Ophicleide and the Serpent!

On Friday night I went to hear the SSO play:

PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No.3 in C major
BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique

The conductor was Tugan Sokhiev and the pianist was Boris Berezovsky.

Because he is Russian, it is tempting to descripe Berezovsky as a bear of a man.  Something about the way he carries himself reminds me of Stephen Fry.  So far as comedy is concerned, there was a funny moment when Berezovsky disppeared from the stage at the end of the first movement – an almost unprecedented occurrence.  He returned, evidently not having found what he was looking for, and ended up borrowing a large white hanky from Sokhiev which he proceeded to lick ostentatiously (with some guying to the audience) and use to clean the middle register of the keyboard – and not a perfunctory swipe but a quite determined attack on some specific spots.  After that, all proceeded as normal, save that as an encore, he and the orchestra played the finale to the last movement even faster.

I thought some of the orchestral playing in the Prokofiev a little scrappy, and particularly the violins.  Thankfully, there was a return to a more silky smooth violin sound in the Berlioz. 

The Symphonie is subtitled Episode in the Life of an Artist and culminates in not one but two opium inspired dreams, first of being marched to the scaffold on being condemned to death for murdering his beloved, and secondly (or, in terms of movements, fifthly) of a witches’ sabbath.   Later Berlioz wrote a sequel and retrospectively reprogrammed the entire symphony as an opium dream, though not, I think, with any significant recasting of the first three movements.  Love, death and opium are a heady combination, which certainly captured my imagination when I first fell for this piece as a teenager.  The symphony also has a famous à clef aspect: it purports to document Berlioz’s obsession with the Irish Shakespearian actress Harriet Smithson (a Shakespeare craze was one of the marks of French Romanticism), whom Berlioz subsequently married.

In her program note, Natalie Shea cited the description of the premiere of the symphony in 1830, when Berlioz was 27, as “the concert at which French Romanticism was born.”  The birth was not universally welcomed.  The Figaro declared the symphony “the most bizarre monstrosity one can possibly imagine.”  Even in 1879, Edward Dannreuther, writing in the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, said that “one must draw the line somewhere, and I would draw it on the hitherside” and that:

“Bloodthirsty delirious passion such as is here depicted may have been excited by gladiator and wild beast shows in Roman arenas; but its rites…are surely more honoured in the breach than in the observance.”

Once I would have scoffed at such views, and accepted “the most bizarre monstrosity one can possibly imagine” as unintended praise.  Now middle age has caught up with me.  It’s not that I don’t still love the work, but once you have heard it in all its grotesque splendour a few or indeed many times, where can you go and how much can it still excite you? 

There is a trick of history in that, because of developments in orchestral instruments since the nineteenth century, Berlioz is known for his blaring brass section, which can easily overpower the rest of the orchestra.  The last movement (the Witches’ Sabbath) riffs on the Dies Irae (the sequence for the mass of the dead which also rears its sinister head in Rhachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini). These days this usually features two tubas.  I find the sound of the tubas too thick and creamy for Berlioz’s contrapuntal writing.  One place I would like to go to is to hear this piece with the ophicleide and serpent for which Berlioz originally scored it.  I know that the SSO has at least one ophicleide available because I heard a performance of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture a few years ago which used one (it may have belonged to Nick Byrne, one of the trombonists).  The serpent might be harder to source, but I’m sure one can be found somewhere.  Is such an original instrument fetish simply a symptom of a jaded taste?

Alternatively, opium could be served.

5 Responses to “Bring back the Ophicleide and the Serpent!”

  1. John Gibbons Says:

    Thanks for this post! I’m going through the Berlioz symphonies right now in preparation to teach a class on the Symphony Since Beethoven in Chicago. I would really like to hear the original instrumentation as well, since I’ve got a little bee in my bonnet about how important it is sometimes for conductors to “fix” the orchestration and I’d like to test whether the original instruments sound right to me (a trained but nonpracticing composer).

    I have several posts lately on 19th century symphonies here:

  2. Thom Says:

    Sounds like you attended on the night Mr Berezovsky split a finger. The cleaning of the keyboard was to remove the blood.

  3. Short Notes « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] PS: regrettably (in my view), the Symph Fant was played with two tubas and sans ophicleide and serpent. […]

  4. Ophicleide! Another Ophicleide! Serpent! – How romantic! « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] I shall be going this time. How could I fail to, when they are featuring two ophicleides and a serpent? […]

  5. Will Says:

    For a whole bunch of images of serpents and ophicleides, see

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