Tune In, Turn Up #2: Berlioz and Borodin, Unlikely Bedfellows

Fri, Jun 8, 2012

The Ecstatic Blog

When I started my little project of listening through my entire iTunes library, I figured it would be pretty much a breeze, blowing through a letter every other week or so. It’s now June, and I’m still in the Bs. Somehow, I forgot that Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms have that letter in common, as well as Bellini, Berlioz, Bernstein, Borodin, and Britten. I love Bach as much as the next classical junkie, and Beethoven is, without question, my favorite composer, but Berlioz and Borodin sneaked into my consciousness in a big way over the past few days.

I first came in contact with Hector Berlioz’s music during a music history class in college. Before anyone comes in and says “Well, of course that’s the problem,” I fell in love with Monteverdi and Handel because of music history classes, so that’s never been an issue for me. But for whatever reason, I just didn’t buy into Berlioz. Sure, his story is fascinating (the multiple failed Prix de Rome competitions, the cross-dressing to stalk his unrequited lover, the murder plots), but to be honest, that never really appealed to me. It didn’t help that the piece I first heard of his was the Symphonie fantastique, which was just a little too stormy for my tastes. The two pieces I had in my library were his Requiem and La damnation de Faust, which — I thought — would only promise more strum und drang, so it was with not much excitement that I started listening to his music.

I couldn’t have been more unfair to that man.

La damnation de Faust starts off with a whisper, not a bang, and though there is plenty of storming and raging at the end, there is also a shockingly charming scene barely five minutes into the piece centering on a peasant celebration. The orchestra imitates a set of bagpipes, and the feeling of calm, pastoral joy is palpable. Here is the Montreal Symphony performing the Ronde des Paysans:

Similarly, Alexander Borodin was another composer who was maligned in my head (though not to the extent as Berlioz). I always given a certain air of gravitas to Russian composers, and though I always appreciated Borodin’s music, I never really paid full attention to it. As I started listening to the overture to his opera Prince Igor, I was met with exactly what I thought I would find — beautiful music, but very somber and slow.

And again, I was entirely fooled.

About two minutes in, the music started picking up; I had no idea what I was going to hear at the end of the crescendo. What I found when it finally resolved (at about 2:10 in this video) was music that sounded like equal parts Borodin — or what I thought he was — Beethoven, and the Wild West. Strings were dancing all over the place, brass blasts were used solely to create excitement, the music went from smooth and soft to big and boisterous, while never losing the feeling of forward motion that I never thought I would find in Borodin’s music. When the French horn solo came in (at 3:38), I knew I was entirely hooked.

I’m currently listening to the rest of the opera, and I’m absolutely in love with it. I can’t wait to hear the rest of his works in my library now (and beyond!). If there’s one thing that doggedly going through every piece of music I own and forcing myself to listen to them from beginning to end has given me, it is a far more open mind than I ever thought I’d have.

Next up: Brahms and Britten. Bring it on.


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- who has written 7 posts on Ecstatic Living Room.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1989. Split childhood between Ohio and New Jersey (for better or worse). Graduated from Vassar College in 2011, and started work at 21C Media Group in October 2011.

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