by William Norris, Communications Director, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
It’s Valentine’s day (well it was when I wrote this…) It can be a rather grim, over-commercialised affair, but in an attempt to redress the balance, I thought it would be worth taking a look at Hector Berlioz, one of the nineteenth century’s great Romantics. He was a man whose deep-seated love for the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, coloured his adult-life with both ecstasy and tragedy, and this is reflected in some of his finest music, including his ‘symphonie dramatique’, Roméo et Juliette, which The Night Shift brings to the Roundhouse on 24 February.
Shakespeare was a fundamental influence on Berlioz all his life – it was in his plays that Berlioz discovered ‘the meaning of real grandeur, real beauty, and real dramatic truth’. However, it was also through Shakespeare that Miss Smithson was revealed to him. He wrote that he could not compare the effect ‘produced by her….dramatic genius, on my imagination and heart’.
He first saw Smithson perform at the Odéon Theatre, Paris in 1827 as the ‘fair Ophelia’, and some months later he beheld her in Romeo and Juliet. Contrary to Berlioz’s own recollection of seeing her as Juliet, it was reported in the Illustrated London News that on seeing her he exclaimed, ‘I will marry that woman! And I will write my greatest symphony on that play!’
He pursued Smithson for five years. She never met him in this time, and never wrote a line in reply to his voluminous letters. The first time she set eyes on him was in another performance as Juliet when Berlioz, so moved, ‘gave a loud cry and rushed out of the theatre, wildly wringing [his] hands.’ She was undoubtedly somewhat disturbed by this fit, and asked fellow actors to ensure he was kept a distance, as ‘she did not like the look of [his] eyes’. She left for Amsterdam, leaving Berlioz to wallow in dejection, saying that, ‘even Shakespeare has never painted the horrible gnawing at the heart’ that he felt.
Berlioz’s friends long suffered his ravings about Harriet. They complained that on walks through Paris he would ‘fill the unsympathetic boulevards and the adjacent streets with his love laments.’ Girard, a conductor and friend, wrote that ‘if it were anyone else, I would show him the door’. Berlioz’s letters to friends betray his almost delirious state – ‘today it is a year since I saw HER for the last time. Oh! Unhappy woman! How I loved you….trembling I write, HOW I LOVE YOU.’
Finally, in 1832, after hearing Berlioz’s Lélio, whose monologues make it clear the piece was intended for her, she granted him an audience. It took further months to convince her of his love – at one point he obtained a passport, threatening to quit Paris forever and move to Germany. In a rather more extreme gesture, he staged a suicide attempt, the effect of which was to leave him vomiting for two hours owing to the quantity of opium he had ingested. Nevertheless, after overcoming opposition from their families, they were wed in 1833. Berlioz remembered that ‘on the day of our marriage she had nothing in the world but debts, and the fear of never again being able to appear to advantage on the stage. My property consisted of three hundred francs, borrowed from my friend Gounet, and a fresh quarrel with my parents….But she was mine, and I defied the world.’
They had one son, Louis, but by 1840, the couple were separated. In 1854, paralysed, Harriet died in Monmartre. On travelling in his cab to fetch the Protestant pastor for the funeral ceremonies, he passed the Odéon where, he lamented, ‘I saw Juliet for the first and last time.’
There is no doubt that Berlioz’s relationship with Smithson significantly affected his artistic output. At The Night Shift, there will be the chance to hear the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform extracts from Roméo et Juliette, Berlioz’s homage to two of his great sources of inspiration, Shakespeare and Smithson.
Interview with William Norris – Communications and Artistic Director – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Roundhouse Radio: We had the Communications and Artistic Director from the OAE – William Norris – come to talk to us about the orchestra, and what they do that’s a little bit different as well as upcoming performances. It’s quite an interesting read if you don’t know much about the OAE. What can people expect from a performance?
William Norris: If you look at us on stage we look like any other orchestra to be honest but we are unique because we play on period instruments – either the musical instruments of the time that the music was composed, or replicas. So you get what the composer intended rather than the modern version of it.
RH: The orchestra chose to have no permanent music director – it was part of the original concept from 20/22 years ago – was that a general concern during its conception or was it part of the creators expressing themselves?
WN: It was them wanting to do their own thing. Most orchestras have one conductor who’s in charge – who decides what they play, when they play it and who they work with. This band of people actually wanted to decide things the other way round – they wanted to decide which conductors to work with and run the show themselves. So they set up the orchestra on their own. I actually think it was a really brave thing to do. It’s all run as a collective and all the decisions are made by collective committees. It’s quite an organic structure. The players essentially run the show.
RH: The period instruments – that’s one of the things that grabbed me – I’m not the greatest musician in the world but I can probably identify the basics but can you give us a taste of some of the cool instruments – maybe from the period of the time.
WN: Well to look at the instruments, they are not that radically different from the contemporary versions. But the old violin for example is different to the modern violin. Now the modern strings are made out of metal whereas the strings of Beethoven’s time were made out of cat gut – or sheep gut. Inevitably they produce a different kind of sound. I mean a lot of the instruments of the time were pushed to the limit in terms of what they can do – whereas now it’s quite easy to play Beethoven on modern instruments because it works so much better. But there is an element of risk involved in the old instruments when it comes to a performance.
RH: I have to ask – do we still use cat gut for the strings?
WN: Well I’m not sure whether its still cat gut but it still is definitely gut
RH: How is that to maintain? I assume it must be quite a pricey business to ensure all those instruments remain in tip top condition.
WN: Yeah, I mean it does vary. If you take the double bass for example, the strings for them are quite costly and the players all sometimes have 2 or 3 instruments for different types of music – something for older pieces and something for more recent – so the players tend to look after their own instruments
RH: I read on your website that these instruments sound their best in stone or wood environments and not so much in modern concert halls. Now you guys have travelled internationally, have you seen a venue that you’ve thought incredible – the perfect venue for the OAE in theUK or further afield?
WN: Yeah, there are some halls that are just perfect. We recently went to Luxembourg and played in a venue that was actually brand new – about 3 years old. It was the perfect shape and sound and fitted like a glove. We also recently did a gig at Village Underground – when we first arrived it felt like a warehouse space and the players were not too sure about it but in the end it sounded fantastic. It was the right size for the music that we were playing and was an unusual venue.
RH: That leads us nicely onto The Night Shift – one of your concepts I believe? Can you talk to us about the idea behind it? Perhaps describe what people can expect from it and how the idea originated?
WN: We love the music we play and it’s a great thing to get right. We hate the traditional concept of classical music. We wanted to get a different audience and be able to play different types of music. So when started to look at stuff people didn’t like about classical music concerts we realised that it’s not actually the music at all but its everything associated with it. For example the start time of 7pm, no drinking and the fact that it’s normally 2 hours long. We decided to get rid of the rules. So we put on concerts that lasted only an hour but also had things going on either side. We had music in the bar and a DJ afterwards. So even if people didn’t really enjoy the classical music part, they would still come along because they knew there would be something that they could still enjoy.
RH: That sounds like a great idea. How did you do the prep and research for it then – did you just ambush people on the way out of your concerts and asked them what they thought?
WN: To be honest we just did it and refined it. We already had thoughts about what people didn’t like. Every time we played a concert we would change it a bit depending on what people said. We also did some research afterwards with the audience. Now we’ve got it to the stage where it works and people really enjoy the event and we get good crowds.
RH: It seems very well received. It’s certainly something very different. I saw some videos online. It seems you guys even interact with the audience. I saw you chatting to the musicians and to the audience. That’s a great way to break down the barriers between the musicians and the audience. During one of the performances I even saw a garage element. There was a guy rapping on stage and with a flute as well. Who came up with the idea?
WN: That was Nathan ‘Flute Box’ Lee. He did a pre show performance slot. It was one of the concerts we did at an alternative venue called theWiltonMusic Hall. It was an amazing old derelict venue. He basically plays the flute and beat boxes at the same time – so that was pretty awesome. Then in terms of the live performances. We have a presenter and he talks to the musicians and introduces the pieces to the audience and points out some things to look out for during the piece. He also takes questions from the audience as well. We try to show that musicians are like normal people and break down that traditional barrier. That’s certainly something that the musicians enjoy because they want to feel connected to the audience
RH: It seems that way from the video and I imagine the live performances are even more all encompassing. Just taking a step back though, the idea of bringing different elements of musical style into the performances, such as the garage element. You’re aware of the Nero and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra collaboration. Do you endorse things like that? Do you think that’s a really good idea to alert people to the beauty of having different kinds of orchestra experiences?
WN: Yeah just the idea of experiencing a live orchestra is an amazing thing, so I think that anything which gets that sound out is great. Orchestras shouldn’t be set in stone – its good to experiment and I think it’s good to keep these things alive.
RH: Moving on – as part of the artistic development of the orchestra, you have introduced the idea of having 3 different strands which you call Futures – Future orchestra, Future performers and Future audience. You’ve been working with teachers, community leaders and that’s been primarily going on in the kings cross area hasn’t it? What are your plans for the future in terms of branching out and getting new people involved and picking up new talent?
WN: We have a big education programme going on where we live in Kings Cross and we also nurture future talent through our apprenticeship scheme. Young instrumentalists can come and spend a year with the orchestra and get to play in projects and some of them go on and become members of the orchestra. This is the same with the conductors. We have one conductor and the process for conductors is a bit like the x factor. They have an audition and there’s a panel and they vote internally for which one they like. Then we have a young conductor that lives with us for a year. This autumn we have something new which is like the son of the nightshift called The Works. This is another type of concert; it’s a bit more structured than the nightshift. You’ll get walked through a piece of music, bit by bit and we show you what’s happening. Then after we’ve done that, we’ll show you the whole thing through. So that’s starting up next month
RH: Well that’s an incredible opportunity – if anyone’s listening out there and wants to get involved, the best thing to do is visit the website, I guess – is that right? So for those like myself who are completely out of the loop in terms of orchestras – obviously your orchestra is inspired by a particular period. Are there any symphonies or composers that you would recommend listening to as part of an induction pack for someone that wants to learn more.
WN: Definitely Beethoven – I know it seems an obvious one – everyone’s heard of Beethoven but his music is just really powerful and really direct. And the other person I’d choose is Handel – he’s a bit older – a hundred years before Beethoven but again its really emotional and dramatic and lots of his songs from his operas are 4 minute chunks and they’re just concentrated drama and emotion. Those are good things to listen out for
RH: Excellent well that will be on my list to do – I do actually hope to come down to your performance at the end of September but can you tell us what’s coming up for people that are listening and are keen to get involved?
WN: Well our next Night Shift event is at the end of September and we’ve got music from Mozart who I suppose is the king of classical. He’s the one that everyone’s heard of and we’re doing a piano concerto by him. It’s a solo piano with an orchestra and the pianist we’ve got is absolutely incredible. He’s a fantastic pianist – that’s a given – but he’s also really good at talking to the audience and communicating and also improvising, which is not something you expect classical musicians to be good at. He will show in the concert how you can improvise around Mozart’s music and sometimes how classical music can be a bit like jazz in how free it can be.
RH: Well that sounds brilliant – I’d at least encourage everyone to head over to the website and have a look and hopefully see you down there. It’s been lovely talking to you – thanks for coming down.