Hector Berlioz the Libertarian

About a week ago, a friend and fellow classical music aficionado posted the following on Facebook:

I’ve waited my whole life to come to realize, through some dawning revelation, why precisely I’m supposed to like the Symphonie Fantastique. Today, right now where I sit, I’m fully prepared to say what I’ve put off saying for as long as I can remember: the Symphonie Fantastique is wrongly named.

For numerous reasons, I vehemently disagreed with his assessment. But there’s one reason I want to focus on in particular. The individual who posted this also happens to be a libertarian like me and like Hector Berlioz, the composer of Symphonie Fantastique.

My response:

I’m going to have to disagree with you here…Symphonie Fantastique is a grand example of a composer breaking conventional molds of form and orchestration. Five movements. Strange instruments. An implied program. Intentionally irreverent use of religious cantus. One of my personal favorites. Hector Berlioz don’t care!

Hector Berlioz embraced an attitude of intentional, intelligent irreverence toward all things customary and conventional. Throughout his life, he challenged the status quo, musically and otherwise. He wasn’t a rebel just for the sake of being a rebel; he understood exactly what the state of the world was and how he could change it. He held individual expression up as a pinnacle virtue, harnessing his own to influence others peacefully and thoughtfully.

Like many libertarians, Berlioz was a voracious autodidact. Unlike many other composers of the era, he received no formal musical training early in his life. Nor was he precocious like Mozart. Rather, he diligently studied harmony textbooks, teaching himself how to write music.

When he turned eighteen, Berlioz left home to study medicine in Paris. After a short stint at the university (and a reviling experience of viewing a human corpse being dissected), he abandoned medicine and attended the Paris Conservatoire. There, under the tutelage of Jean-François Le Sueur and Anton Reicha, Berlioz refined his composition skills.

This was a time not unlike today: A “new economy” was emerging. “The decay of absolutism on the European continent spelled the end of artistic patronage on the part of the aristocracy and the church,” writes musicologist Richard Taruskin. “The broad middle-class public now replaced the traditional elite.”

According to historian Giorgio Pestelli, these economic allowed for the emergence of the modern freelance musician. “Free from immediate detailed instructions from his master or protector,” composers and musicians “could be subject in a similar way to the kind of demand imposed by the musical market.” The “new course” appealed “above all to the competitive spirit” and, in so doing, rewarded entrepreneurial insight.

Like many young entrepreneurs today, Berlioz needed to supplement his income. In addition to composing, young Hector also worked as chorus singer and vaudeville performer. Over time, his hard work paid off as he became famous as a composer and conductor across France and western Europe.

Berlioz’s most famous and most remembered work is Symphonie Fantastique—by far. Since its first public performance in 1830, critics and audiences alike have proffered their strong opinions on the 50-minute-long behemoth. Some love it. Some hate it. Some are downright flummoxed by it.

Symphonie Fantastique called for ninety instrumentalists at a time when the standard orchestra employed half that. Compared to contemporaneous scores, Berlioz’s presents dynamics, articulations, and other expressive markings with revolutionary explicitness and meticulous detail. Brass players need mutes and the timpanist needs “sponge-headed sticks.” The range of wind instruments extends from the piccolo to the tuba. While all of these things are commonplace now, they were utterly radical at the time.

To add to the uproar, Berlioz tied the music to a program in a particular way. Purely instrumental music was elevated, becoming sacrilegiously tantamount to opera. “Berlioz wished to have [the program] distributed to audiences to prepare them to understand the work,” says Taruskin. “[M]any in the Victorian era understandably found shocking.”

The program describes each of five (five!—as opposed to the standard four) movements in scenic detail. “Funeral knell, ludicrous parody of the Dies irae,” part of the fifth movement program, alludes to Berlioz’s satirical use of a Catholic funeral hymn in a movement entitled “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”

Libertarianism has an ideological component. Economic freedom, civil rights, free speech, private property—they’re all part of the package. But libertarianism also has an attitudinal component. Liberty lovers aren’t afraid to brazenly resist established norms and expectations. Like Hector Berlioz, we don’t fit nicely into the mold society prescribes. We question what others accept and rebuke anyone who stands in our way.

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