When Henry Lee Higginson founded the Boston Symphony in 1881, he wanted to create an orchestra in the best German tradition. In preparation for this, Higginson had traveled around Europe and considered the best models for his new ensemble, recruiting musicians (all men, at that time) from several of the prominent German music schools– including, importantly, the conservatory in Leipzig. All six of the first music directors of the BSO were German, with great experience in – and preference View more
When Henry Lee Higginson founded the Boston Symphony in 1881, he wanted to create an orchestra in the best German tradition. In preparation for this, Higginson had traveled around Europe and considered the best models for his new ensemble, recruiting musicians (all men, at that time) from several of the prominent German music schools– including, importantly, the conservatory in Leipzig. All six of the first music directors of the BSO were German, with great experience in – and preference for – the Austro-Germanic traditions.
But this balance began to change in 1918, when the Frenchman Pierre Monteux first conducted the BSO. He became music director a year later and, amazingly, was a regular guest until his last concert in 1963 – certainly one of the longest conductor relationships in the orchestra’s history. Monteux quickly moved the tonal center of gravity of the BSO, adding greater transparency and lightness of articulation – qualities very much associated with a French school of playing. These became the hallmarks of the BSO style during the tenure of Charles Munch as music director (1949-62) and documented richly through a series of legendary recordings in the new stereo format.
Whether in the music of Berlioz, Debussy or Ravel, or in recent years Henri Dutilleux, Eric Tanguy, Betsy Jolas, or Jean-Frédéric Neuberger, the BSO has maintained a singular and unique relationship with French composers for over a century.
If we were to compile a list of so-called ‘signature’ works for the Boston Symphony, Claude Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ would certainly feature prominently. Virtually every music director and major guest conductor from Karl Muck onwards has led the work. The BSO’s own score and set of performing parts for the piece, held in Symphony Hall’s music library, include penciled markings by Pierre Monteux, reportedly reflecting corrections and directions given personally to Monteux by Debussy himself. Charles Munch conducted ‘La Mer’ 88 times with the BSO between 1950 and 1963, and made a famous recording for RCA. Here’s a thrilling performance from Symphony Hall in March 1962. Listen especially for the distinctive sound of the BSO’s trumpet section at this time – they were all trained in the French tradition.
Georges Bizet’s youthful and charming Symphony in C (1855) is one of his few purely orchestral pieces and already hints at the brilliance of his later famous works. This performance is especially significant in that it was the first occasion on which Seiji Ozawa conducted the BSO. Seiji went on to become the longest-serving music director of the ensemble (1973-2002) and is now the BSO’s Conductor Laureate. French repertoire was a mainstay of his programs – whether Berlioz or Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, or Dutilleux. He is credited with a huge discography of recordings of French works.
Of the many undisputed masterpieces by Hector Berlioz, among those for voices and orchestra ‘The Damnation of Faust’ is perhaps the greatest of all. Berlioz’s invention and imagination in this work are staggering. He takes Goethe’s ‘Faust’ as the basis: the poetic character Faust is captivated by the devil, Mephistopheles, and led on a wild journey which tests his moral and spiritual well-being, only to be saved at the end by the power of love as embodied in Marguerite. Berlioz uses this dramatic outline as the basis of a work which is part-opera, part-cantata. It’s been performed over the years as often in the opera house as in the concert hall. The style of solo vocal writing and timbre of voices Berlioz had in mind were very specific to a French style of singing. This performance from Tanglewood in 1960 with Charles Munch, features the great French baritone Martial Singher as Mephistopheles. The role of Marguerite – sometime taken by a soprano, sometimes a mezzo – is here sung movingly by Eleanor Steber.
Bernard Haitink has always been one of the Boston Symphony’s most admired conductors. He first worked with the BSO in 1971 and his final appearance was in May 2018, a little over a year before his retirement from the concert stage. He was for a period the Principal Guest Conductor and is now the orchestra’s Conductor Emeritus. Though renowned principally as an interpreter of Mahler, Bruckner, and the German romantics, he gave a number of outstanding performances of French music with the BSO, including a recorded cycle of the major works of Ravel and, in 2003, a memorable performance of Debussy’s ‘Pelleas and Melisande.’ As part of this week’s offerings, he conducts the third symphony by Albert Roussel (1869-1937). This piece was commissioned for the BSO’s 50th anniversary and is yet another legacy of the Serge Koussevitzky era.
And to round out the week’s selection, I’ve included an additional three of those BSO ‘signature’ works: Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ and the 2nd suite from ‘Daphnis and Chloé,’ and the ‘Symphonie fantastique’ by Berlioz. The performance of ‘Daphnis’ is with Koussevitzky from Tanglewood in 1946 and is one of the oldest recordings in this series. And the Berlioz is conducted by Sir Colin Davis, one of the greatest Berlioz interpreters of any era.