Berlioz in Britain, 1870-1920

'Agency and Change: Berlioz in Britain, 1870–1920', Journal of the Royal Musical Association 132 (2007), 306-48

The progressive composer Hector Berlioz (1803-69) had difficulty winning respect as a music innovator in his native France in the mid-19th century. A 'rejected genius' narrative ran throughout biographical and critical accounts after his death and for most of the 20th century, despite the notable successes he enjoyed abroad in his lifetime - in Russia, Germany and England. Such negative accounts were fed alike by practical difficulties in performing his music, and by partisan writers shadowing Berlioz's despair perhaps a little too closely. At length, a proper edition of his works was completed for the composer's bicentenary in 2003. His canonic status is now definitively secured.

This article looks at a crucial period between the eras of Berlioz's general rejection and his now-undisputed arrival, specifically across Britain, 1879-1920 - a place and period largely ignored by Berlioz scholars. Using the composer as a prism through which to view concert history, I argue that his music both contributed to and benefitted from major changes in the British concert industry at this time - above all in orchestral presentation and audience development up and down the country.

Far from being unjustly neglected until the late 20th century, it turns out that Berlioz enjoyed dedicated performance and considerable admiration a century earlier, in the UK. His orchestral works, in particular, were taken up by a range of skilful players and conductors from the 1870s, yielding performances in the English regions, the London suburbs and in Scotland that appealed to ordinary listeners much more than to many experienced ones.

'a useful corrective to the view that Berlioz was always unjustly neglected ... [He] is here not a curiosity but a vital element in musical culture, his reputation made, developed, diminished, and revived. ... One of the greatest strengths .... is [her] awareness that Britain is not the same as London'

An anonymous reader for the Journal

The article is available here.

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