Sir Mark Elder has been a champion of Berlioz’ music for many years, continuing a tradition which began with the founder of his Manchester orchestra, Charles Hallé. Ahead of performing La Damnation de Faust as part of events marking the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death, Sir Mark spoke about this remarkable work and what makes Berlioz sound like Berlioz.

Sir Mark Elder
© Benjamin Ealovega

The French would be the first to acknowledge that for a long time Berlioz was better appreciated in Britain then in France. Where did our Berlioz tradition begin?

My orchestra was founded by Charles Hallé, the only orchestra in the world named after its founder. Before he came to England, Hallé lived for many years in Paris, where he became a friend of Berlioz. When the revolutions happened in the middle of the 19th century, he was about to go back to Germany but someone suggested he go and find work in England. Hallé conceived the idea of forming an orchestra in Manchester and he was crucial in being one of the first people to introduce Berlioz’ music to this country.

With La Damnation de Faust, Hallé introduced one part each year to an unsuspecting public so they gradually got into the idiom of Berlioz’ very strange music. By the time he came to the whole thing, the music had become so accepted by the Manchester public that he did many many performances of it.

Faust by stealth, as it were.

Exactly. Of course, they did it in English. It was only after the Second World War that everyone got up themselves and decided they were too Euro to do things in English. In the 19th century, nobody would have considered performing it in the original language. Why should a Mancunian chorus of amateur singers be able to master the French in this very difficult piece?

Our interest in Berlioz has snowballed from Hallé’s time. The next generation took it up – Beecham was a great Berlioz conductor who enjoyed the fire, variety and drama in it. When I was a young man, it was Sir Colin Davis’ advocacy, his determination to go on tussling with this music, that got to me very early. Colin did it constantly and renewed it and that’s something I’ve tried to do as well.

Hector Berlioz
© Public domain

Damnation seems to defy categorisation. A légende dramatique, it’s always seemed to exist somewhere between the opera house and the concert hall. Does it cry out for a staged production?

I’ve conducted Damnation in three different productions and I will never do it again. I adore this piece. I revere it. But when you conduct it in the theatre, you realise that the way he’s written for orchestra belongs in the concert hall. It’s much too detailed and elaborate and ornamented for the opera house. In the theatre, you never get the right sonority, the ability to concentrate on the way Berlioz elaborates his musical ideas. In the concert hall, where there’s nothing visual, you can do that. That whole scene where he magically sends Faust to sleep and gives him this vision of Marguerite, that is something specially for the concert hall. It doesn’t work as a piece of dramatic music because when you have a visual counterpart, there’s too much to think about. You can’t hear the imagination in the music because you’re too busy trying to work out what’s on the stage.

It should be done, ideally, by soloists who are totally inside their roles so that one feels they are giving us a concert performance of an opera. This weekend, Laurent Naouri sings Mephistophélès – he does it by heart, standing around beside the chorus, hiding. He uses whatever stage space we can give him.

Now why isn’t it an opera? The answer is because Berlioz was so downtrodden by the Paris Opera. The demands that Benvenuto Cellini made were so unusual – everyone thought he was slightly mad and they didn’t know how to cope with his eccentricity. The audience didn't either, so the piece was a failure. He was rather downhearted and nobody thought he could write an opera for Paris again. I think that if Cellini had been a fantastic success, the idea of writing a Faust opera would have been uppermost in his mind. He loved Goethe and he saw the musical possibilities.

What makes Berlioz’ music so unique, so instantly recognisable?

This is a very rich topic. Berlioz was a maverick. He was very badly behaved at the conservatoire and didn’t toe the line – it was against his nature. I’m sure he felt that if he was going to find his individual voice he didn’t want to develop that voice through the traditional channels of obedience to harmony and counterpoint that composers were expected to follow.

By the time he started composing – not at all confident that his music would ever reach the light of day – he was driven on by some inner force and that musical will was something that carried him through his whole career and gave us some of the most original masterpieces the world has ever heard.

Closely aligned with this – particularly in relation to Damnation – he wanted to make the orchestra speak in a manner which was unknown at that time. This was part of his problem: getting people to accept so many different sonorities – that’s the crucial word for me in trying to epitomise what makes him what he is. The sonority of his music, at the beginning of all his major pieces, is the first thing that strikes you. Harold in Italy – inspired by Lord Byron, set as a symphony but also a viola concerto – starts with this mumbling down in the cellos and basses, which is clear and cantabile. But what does it mean? The music finds its feet, as if someone’s gradually climbing a hill and they eventually get to the top of it and you get the melody with the viola. Two of his greatest pieces – Damnation and Roméo et Juliette – both start with unaccompanied violas. Now, in the early 19th century, most of the time you couldn’t even rely upon the violas to turn up! Starting Damnation with this beautiful, long drawn out, slightly melancholic pastoral tune … nobody else would have done that. The next time that the violas started a piece was the Adagio to Mahler 10! Berlioz’ ear for instrumental colour and sonority was original because it was allied to an intensely personal imagination – an imagination with no barriers.

Hommage à Berlioz by Henri Fantin-Latour depicting Cleopatra, Marguerite and Dido
© Public domain

Damnation didn’t meet with initial success: "Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference." Was Berlioz just too radical? Too ahead of his time?

Absolutely. The broad ticket buying public found Damnation very difficult. They were confused and bemused – and that’s not surprising because it was very radical. First was the sonority. Next was the harmony and this is one reason why the French have found Berlioz so difficult to take to their hearts. His harmony is totally rule-breaking. It’s absolutely not what you’re supposed to do. Even now, the French still find it impossible to see integrity in his music. They thought it was amateur and untutored.

Now in England, those of us who adore his music love it for that untutored quality. What I love about his harmony is that it’s at the mercy of his creative imagination. Almost all the time there’s another Big Idea that he’s trying to get over. If he had been different, if he’d have been more elegant and polite and traditional – like Gounod – then that would have given him a very broad public.

Several years ago now I conducted Roméo et Juliette in France with an orchestra which knew nothing of this music. During a coffee break, I walked past one of the double basses and asked how he was enjoying it and he replied, “Maître, cette musique c'est ne pas mal!” And I thought to myself, “High praise!”

Sir Mark Elder conducting The Hallé
© Russell Hart

You must never let Berlioz become routine. The Symphonie fantastique was written immediately after Beethoven’s death, so you must make it sound more like Beethoven. Do it without vibrato, with brilliant clarity and no mush. Don’t wallow. And take the tempi as fast as he said. This is another topic. Berlioz became a conductor as a way to salvage his music from a lack of understanding. He thought the only way to get the music across was to conduct himself and show how the tempi go. He was so determined about this that he made sure that he believed the metronome marks he printed.

For example, the March to the Scaffold is often done much much faster than Berlioz wrote it. If you look at the first bar, there is a note for the conductor at the bottom of the page which says the tempo ♩= 72 is to allow the timpanist to play the six notes written solely with the right hand, using the left hand to emphasise little accents. And you must maintain this tempo of 72. Most people set off at 90, a rip-roaring Scherzo – but if you do that, it sounds like operetta! It sounds like Offenbach! It’s supposed to be solemn and savage and cold and heartless, threatening.

Trusting in the score is crucial. I can’t bear it when people say “Berlioz was such an original” and then they don’t make any attempt to do the originality!

The Ride to the Abyss in L'Art du Théâtre: The Victrola book of the opera
© Public domain

Damnation is such a good example. On the one hand, you have this man who lives by his brain alone – the light is on in his head and in his intellect, but the rest of his body is lit dimly. Mephistophélès comes to take advantage of that. So the idea that a devil can wheedle and can suddenly be vociferous and incredibly energetic and demonic as opposed to this man who is lost in a world that isn’t related to reality – this is brilliant for a person of Berlioz’ musical imagination.

Look at his writing for chorus. They have to assume very different roles and part of the challenge is to get an amateur choir to make the most of that. The first time you hear them is as a peasant community having a knees up, which contrasts enormously with the huge Easter hymn where they have to sound elevated and spiritually centred.

I think Berlioz was turned on by the thought of shocking the ear. The biggest example is how he manages the ending. The noise that comes out of the orchestra and chorus in hell is massive and dangerous, but all the time Berlioz is thinking, how am I going to bring this to a climax? He saw the idea of Faust not being saved and he did that because he wanted to write hell. He thought he’d create a good effect by damning him, allowing Mephisto to win.

But you can’t finish like that, so what happens to this simple, rather naive girl? Marguerite needs to be elevated in some sense, so how does he do that? Very simply – but so difficult in performance – two things: how many harps and how many children? Berlioz asks for the most ridiculous thing in the score that I’d love to do but even if I found 350 children, there’d be no space for them! As it is I’ve got more than ever before. But I have got six harps! The Ring was written for six harps but nothing else has more – Berlioz says you need at least three on each part! If you don’t do that, you don’t hear the harp sonority because the voices cover it.

You can bet the Hallé harps will give Marguerite a heavenly send-off in Manchester this weekend!