87. Keys to making the Berlioz “Symphony for Band” musical

David Whitwell conducting the Berlioz Symphony for Band.

I would really have no hesitation in placing this composition ahead of the other works of Berlioz: it is noble and elevated from the first note to the last, a sublime patriotic enthusiasm, which rises from the strains of lamentation to the highest peaks of apotheosis … I must express with joy my conviction that this symphony will endure and exalt the courage of people so long as a nation with the name of France endures.

5 May 1841 newspaper article, Richard Wagner writing about Berlioz

Who can explain how this unusually strong and heart-felt recommendation by one the greatest composers of all time, Richard Wagner, of a new original symphony for band by another immortal composer, Hector Berlioz, has fallen on deaf ears of an entire generation of very musical and talented band conductors of our time? The answer must and can only lie in a misunderstanding of the notation itself.


Most band conductors in seeing this title of the first movement would assume that a literal funeral procession was intended and would immediately think of the second movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which also carries this title. This Beethoven movement, “Marcia funebre” carries the tempo indication, “adagio assai,” which means “very slowly.” Subsequently, major conductors have established a tradition of performing this movement at a very slow tempo. I recently listened to three recordings by conductors of note and found the following tempi: Eugen Jocham, 44 MM; Josef Krips, 52 MM and von Karajan, 52 MM.

Now regarding the first movement of the Berlioz band Symphony, it is true that his original government commission did suggest a funeral march as well as a second piece (the second and third movements are played without a pause) of a memorial style commemorating the Revolution of 1830 with the unveiling of a new Statue of Liberty, which can be seen today in the Place de la Bastille in Paris.

Sir, I have the honor of informing you that you have been bestowed with the commission of composing a funeral march for the transporting of the remains of the soldiers of July as well as another piece of music that will be played during the time that their coffins are lowered into the tombs.

You will conduct both pieces yourself.

Before focusing our attention on the first movement, the Marche funebre, we are fortunate to have an extended account by Berlioz himself of the origin of this music.

In 1840, as the month of July drew near, the government proposed to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the 1830 Revolution with public ceremonies on an imposing scale. The relics of the glorious victims of the Three Days were to be translated to the monument lately erected to them in the Place de la Bastille. M. de Remusat, who was the Minister of the Interior at the time, happens by a remarkable coincidence to be, like M. de Gasparin, a lover of music. He decided to commission me to write a symphony for the occasion, leaving the choice of the form of the work and the forces entirely to me. In return I would receive ten thousand francs, out of which I was to pay the expenses of copying and performance.

It seemed to me that for such a work the simpler the plan the better, and that only a large body of wind instruments would be suitable for a symphony which was to be heard — for the first time at any rate — in the open air. I wished, to begin with, to recall the conflicts of the famous Three Days amidst the mourning strains of a bleak but awe-inspiring march, to be played during the procession; to follow this with a kind of funeral oration or farewell address to the illustrious dead, while the bodies were lowered into the cenotaph; and to conclude with a hymn of praise at the moment when, the tomb being sealed, all eyes were fixed on the high column on which Liberty with wings outspread seemed soaring towards heaven like the souls of those who had given their lives for her.

I had almost completed the funeral march when a rumor went round that the July ceremonies would not take place. Ah-ah, I thought, this is the Requiem all over again. This is as far as I go: I know these people. And I stopped. A few days later I was strolling through Paris, when the Minister passed me in his carriage and, catching sight of me, beckoned me over. He wanted to know how far I had got with the symphony. I told him bluntly the reason which had led me to stop work on it, adding that I had not forgotten what I suffered over Marshal Damremont’s funeral and the Requiem.

“But the rumor which has alarmed you is completely false,” he said. “Nothing has changed; the inauguration of the Bastille column, the translation of the July dead — everything stands. I’m counting on you. Hurry up and finish the work.”

Although my mistrust had been all too natural, this assurance set my mind at rest and I resumed work at once. The march and the funeral oration were completed and the theme found for the Apothéose; but I was held up for quite a long time over the fanfare which I wanted to bring gradually up from the depths of the orchestra to the high note on which the song of triumph bursts in. I wrote version after version. None of them satisfied me. The effect was either commonplace, or it was insufficiently spacious or too light-hearted, or it lacked sonority, or the transition was badly managed. I imagined a trumpet-call of archangels, simple but sublime, boundless, glittering, an immense radiance swelling and resounding, proclaiming to earth and heaven the opening of the Empyrean gates. In the end I settled, not without anxiety, on the version which is familiar, and the rest was soon done. Later, after I had made the usual corrections and modifications, I added strings and chorus. Though not absolutely necessary, they greatly enhance the effect.

I engaged for the occasion a military band of two hundred. Habeneck would again have liked to conduct, but I prudently reserved that function for myself…

Happily it occurred to me to invite a large audience to the final rehearsal, for it was impossible to get any idea of the work on the day of the performance. Despite the volume of sound produced by a wind band of this size, very little was heard during the procession. The only exception was the music played as we went along the Boulevard Poissonniere, where the big trees — still standing at that date — acted as reflectors. The rest was lost.

In the open spaces of the Place de la Bastille it was worse. Almost nothing could be made out more than ten yards away. To cap it all, the National Guard, growing tired by standing at the slope in the blazing sun to the very end of the ceremony, began to march off to the accompaniment of some fifty side-drums maintaining a relentless barrage throughout the Apotheosis, not a note of which survived. That is how they regard the role of music on public occasions in France: by all means let it figure as an attraction — for the eye.

A more personal description of this experience is found in the letter Berlioz wrote to his father.

Dear Father,

I feel badly that I have not yet announced to you the success that I had. But the service that I did with this musical army was so difficult that I am still getting over it, and yesterday I had trouble writing as my arm and hand were so sore from conducting.

Everything worked wonderfully. The big success took place at the dress rehearsal before the most intelligent audience in Paris. There were not only women who cried. After this ordeal, decisive as the work itself, remained the fact of playing it on stage. Our stage was Paris itself, its docks, its boulevards. And these old crafty military musicians swore that I would never get them to play the funeral march while marching and that my 210 musicians would never be able to march together during 20 measures. Experience won out over these routine predictions. I placed the trumpets and drums in front so that they would have freedom of movement, and I myself marched backwards (as I planned when I wrote the piece). The first measures were soli, so they could be heard by the rest of the band. Thus not only the funeral march but the Apothéose as well was played six times, while marching, together and with an extraordinary effect. The Minister sent me his division chefs to warmly compliment me, after the second hearing of the triumphal march which impressed all of the people who were around us. Last night, he had Cave send me a letter filled with pompous compliments.

This time I wrote so big that even nearsighted people could read me. Also, extraordinarily, there was no criticism. Even Mainzer, himself, my most intimate enemy of the “Le National,” let himself compliment my last work in his review.

This in itself does not prove in any way his superiority over my former works.

But it is a sign, a colossal feat and everyone saw it. The artists are all so filled with enthusiasm that it takes me aback. (I tell you this, father, in hope that you will not show this letter to anyone but my sisters.) I received congratulations in prose. So far only three journals speak of my music in detail: The “Galignani’s Messenger” (enthusiastic); “Le National” (Mainzer converting himself); and “L’Univers” (enthusiastic). If I can send you these articles, I will be sure to do so.

It seems clear that Berlioz did compose some music for the military band and himself to progress through the streets to this site, but this score is lost and it does not seem possible that the music used in the streets on this occasion could be associated with the first movement of the symphony as we know it today. The musical complexities of the version we know would seem to make it difficult to imagine a military band using it to march to in the streets, not to mentions Berlioz himself conducting it while walking backwards!

In this regard we notice that in his Autobiography Berlioz states, “I thought that the simplest plan would be the best.”1 In fact this early street version did survive until becoming lost during the twentieth century. We are fortunate that it was seen and discussed by two early musicologists, J. G. Prod’homme2 and Louise Pohl.3 They found that the instrumentation of this early score was quite different from the version we know today and that it had a very heavy emphasis on percussion, as we might expect for street use. Most significant is the fact that from the keys of the six natural horn parts it appeared that this score was in a different key than the later version we know! Pohl also mentioned that there were two tam-tam parts used in the street version, an obvious reflection of their popular performances by bands during the early post-Revolutionary civic ceremonies.4

As mentioned above, the long tradition of funeral processions which are reflected in the slow (adagio assai) tempo of the Beethoven Marcia funebre we suspect was responsible for later band conductors to assume that the first movement of the Berlioz Symphony must also be performed very slow. But the musical problem lies in the fact that in the Berlioz the first melodic material consists of notes with long note values, which if then is taken at a very slow tempo results in music which simply dies and is devoid of interest. Indeed the first early recording, made by Désiré Dondeyne, the conductor of a civic band which performed in public parks in Paris, included this very slow tempo and was responsible, in my opinion, for causing an entire following generation of American conductors to lose interest in this Symphony: it simply did not sound musical.


The big mistake involved here lies in assuming that Marche funebre refers to tempo. In fact these Italian words, which began to appear at the top of musical manuscripts in the early Baroque Period, were not used to signify speed of the music, but rather were indications of the character of the music. Johann Mattheson (1681–1764), the most important German authority for Baroque Period performance practice, gave the following definitions:

Andante = hope; Lento = relief and Allegro = comfort.

And this is precisely what Berlioz was thinking when writing these words at the top of the music: character, not tempo. It is entirely possible that the lost version, written for use in the streets, was a slower, dirge-like work, but that version is lost. The one which he left us in the final copy, now in the Paris National Library, is a symphonic work, not street music. In fact, for this surviving score for this movement he wrote not “adagio assai,” like the Beethoven Marcia funebre, but rather “Moderato, un poco lento” and Moderato is a different world from “adagio assai.” We get a clue as to how much faster Moderato was to Berlioz by a marking for one section in the second movement. He wrote here “Andantino poco lente,” and in his own hand the MM marking of 72. Moderato, therefore, would have been faster than 72. I recommend quarter-note = 76 for the beginning of the first movement. It is a faster performance of this Marche funebre which makes the music take flight!


While we are accustomed by Berlioz doing the unexpected, the performance of the ff in the first movement tends today, due to band repertoire in general, to be too extreme, causing a disruption of the musical line. In the case of bands I attribute this tendency to the influence of contests, where the performance of dynamics invites an exercise in capability rather than in musical solutions. In earlier times a ff meant just increased urgency, rather than a measure of volume. One indication of a much more moderate concept of dynamics in this symphony can be seen in the comment by Berlioz that if you lack a trombone for the solo part in the second movement you can substitute a bass clarinet!



In the first two pages of the score we see the very traditional march rhythm found in many early band marches. We suppose Berlioz used this figure here only to establish the march character which is mentioned in the title, since nothing else in the first movement is characteristic of a march. Fortunately it does not continue throughout the first movement, which would create a potential element of boredom, but it does return from time to time for a few bars.

Considering that the ostinuto figure has been used for centuries, we were wondering if there is some genetically “natural” feeling about the relationship of the little note with the following long note in this rhythm, something, perhaps a dance figure, which has come down to us from a very ancient period, long before notation. We suspect there is some genetically natural feeling about the relationship of the little note to the following large note and that, for example, it governs how we would automatically play the beginning of the Second Movement. In such a place we believe we would feel and play this natural relationship regardless of what the composer wrote – in this case a very little note with the value of a sixteenth-note before a half-note with a fermata. If one actually tried to play a very fast little note here, like the written sixteenth-note, it would seem, too strong and would lose the noble quality needed for this representation of the great bells of the church. In addition, we believe that at the very end of the first movement where after the final chord there is a residual soft kind of “amen,” which is represented by this same rhythmic figure. Here again we believe one should perform this figure on the basis of the same genetical feeling, regardless of the written form.

Let us see if we can identify this genetic feeling. Let us imagine one full measure of this rhythmic design, consisting of an initial quarter-note with the left foot; a dotted eighth-note on the right foot on the second beat, followed by the “little note” a sixteenth-note with the left foot; followed by a quarter-note third beat on the right foot and a final quarter-note on the left foot. The first and fourth beat quarter-notes form a sort of support system for the middle three notes, which are the essential expressive rhythmic core. The important question is, taking those three middle notes by themselves, a dotted-eighth on the right foot, a sixteenth-note on the left foot and a following quarter-note on the fight foot, is there some space between the left foot little note and the following right foot quarter-note which feels natural, a natural feeling which might come to us as a genetic memory of some centuries old dance movement?

To see if we can identify this genetic feeling, I should like to ask the reader to try this rhythmic figure with your own feet. As a first example, imagine that the composer had written a thirty-second-note instead of a sixteenth-note for the little note. So you step with your right foot for the now double dotted eighth-note and the left foot for the thirty-second-note, followed immediately by the right foot for the final quarter-note of this figure. You will find you cannot move from left foot to right foot fast enough to represent such a notation, it is physically impossible. For the next example, going the other direction, suppose this was some music in which you wanted a tenuto or pompous feeling on the little note, requiring your left foot to move earlier representing a resultant longer value for the little note, and you will again find this nearly impossible for it results in your entire body being thrown off-balance to the left. Therefore, my assumption follows that there is individually some point here where you will feel a natural physical relationship in the time between the little note and its following quarter-note. The result again perhaps coming genetically from some very ancient dance step, where there was a natural left foot – right foot movement in time.


If you sing the initial first two measures of the melody of this first movement as you incorporate the three note rhythmic core of this ostinato figure in each measure, you will see that this figure becomes more than just an independent rhythm accompaniment; it seems now to be part of the melody. This suggests that in performance this middle part of the figure should correspond with the musical line, and could reflect perhaps a crescendo or a diminuendo. Thus the players who perform this figure could be told to listen to the melody and mirror it.

But I have another reason for discussing this ostinato rhythm and in particular its core three notes. It turns out that this three-note figure corresponds rather closely with the rhythm of our heart beats. I mention this because some time ago I had a dream in which I was discussing this symphony with someone and I asked some question about the purpose of the ostinato figure and the person in my dream answered, “That is Berlioz’ heart beat!” Who can say? Then a week after writing this I was reviewing the writings of Cassiodorus (480–573) and this phrase jumped out at me: “whatever inward effect is caused by the beating of our pulse is joined by musical rhythm.”


I have recommended above that in the opening measures we should play a “pom – pom,” with the same space as one feels in the rhythmic relationship discussed above.

Otherwise the only real problem in the second movement is the solo trombone part, representing the funeral oration. This part looks very simple on paper but is in fact a very difficult problem in endurance. It is always underestimated, and one must warn the soloist in advance. I have performed this with fine professional trombonists who have found themselves barely making it to the end.

There is one eight-measure passage, eight measures before the soloist’s poco forte entrance on a high B, where the soloist is doubled by the upper woodwinds at poco forte. I am confident Berlioz orchestrated this eight measures as he did in order to give the soloist the option of taking a break to get the blood back in his lips before his dramatic and challenging entrance on the high B. I have always pointed this passage out to the soloist in advance and recommended he in fact not play these eight bars in order to rest. My soloists have always ignored this advice and have all been punished for it.


The exciting beginning fanfare we have seen discussed at length by Berlioz in his comments quoted above about composing this symphony.

The one passage which needs discussion is the 26 measure long “vamp” before the dramatic forte entrance of the chorus. If you perform this movement without a chorus, as it was originally composed, then this long vamp has its only purpose a long, gradual anticipation of the great harmonic climax which follows it.

Here I must make an admission of my own failure for years in recognizing the purpose of this long vamp. A few years ago I was invited by a town in Germany, Laupheim, to come and guest conduct this Berlioz Symphony. This town had decided to have a city-wide celebration of the French Revolution, inspired by the fact that this part of Germany had once been occupied by Napoleon. It turned out to be an amazing event, something unimaginable in the US. The chorus, which performed its part in the Symphony was made up of members of the local church choirs. Immediately after the evening concert the entire audience moved to an adjacent hall for a great dinner, the preparation of which was done by the chefs of the local little cafes.

My rehearsals, like the concert itself, were all held in the evening, leaving my mornings and afternoons free [for golf!]. It was while walking on the golf course one day, reflecting on the previous evening’s rehearsal, that it suddenly occurred to me the most obvious fact that the long vamp was for the purpose of bringing the chorus into the hall to sing the final bars of the Symphony! So we did this, the vamp being just enough time to bring the chorus in on two aisles while we were playing the vamp music, itself creating amazement on the part of the audience having the singers pass among them, and with just enough time to turn and face the audience for their entrance on the great “Glory!”

A final feature of this third movement is often overlooked but is very dramatic. Berlioz had become acquainted with Mendelssohn when they were both young and living in Rome. Because their styles of composition were so very different, they did not become very close. It was for this reason that Berlioz after his tour of Germany to introduce his new compositions in concerts there he found himself bound for Leipzig where he would encounter Mendelssohn. Berlioz was concerned and anxious about this meeting, but he received a very warm letter of welcome from Mendelssohn and he later reflected that Mendelssohn treated him like a brother. It was after his return to Paris that Berlioz made the final score of this Symphony, the one now in the National Library. It was at this moment that Berlioz added as a tribute to Mendelssohn at the very end of the Symphony a quotation of the familiar “Dresden Amen,” which had been a basic motive in Mendelsohn’s Fifth Symphony, and later in Wagner’s Parsifal. Here, at the end of this long composition, where the listener expects a B-flat Major cadence, Berlioz abruptly shifts [modulation is not the word] to A Major to make sure no listener can miss this quotation. It results in the most heart lifting and thrilling four bars of the entire Symphony. In rehearsal one must balance things to make sure this unison tune is clearly heard.


My edition of this great band masterpiece required some fundamental changes in instrumentation.

First, this composition came just a bit too early for the invention of the modern tuba, which replaced a host of poor bass line instruments of the past. As it stands the bass part is scored for only bassoons and bass clarinet. Since that was obviously inadequate, Berlioz lists a number of “non-obligated” other bass instruments: contrabassoon, celli, contrabass, bass trombone, and Ophicleides in C and in B-flat! Obviously, I added euphonium and tuba as being sufficient for this role.

Secondly, since early large instrumental works lacked an adequate bass, it was sometimes a solution of in effect raising the entire instrumentation an octave higher, using the small flutes and clarinets as the uppermost part. Hence in this score by Berlioz we find on top the piccolo flute in D-flat, the piccolo flute in E-flat and the clarinet in E-flat. I did not use any of these.

Finally, the saxophone was only invented in the decade after this score, but since it has become a basic part of the band instrumentation I added saxophone parts in my edition. However, I have added them in such a way that you don’t hear them! That is, I do not allow them to create a band sound more modern than the original. At the same time I wanted the students of a band today to have the experience of participating in the performance of this historic masterpiece for band.

As a final observation, my edition remains, so I am told, the only one available without errors. You can pass out the parts and play!

For more information you can also refer to my book, Berlioz on Bands (available from amazon.com).

  1. Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, Dover, 1966, 232 ↩︎
  2. Hector Berlioz, Paris, 1927, 138 ↩︎
  3. Hector Berlioz’ Leben und Werke, Leipzig, 1900, 140 ↩︎
  4. Described in detail in my book, Band Music of the French Revolution. ↩︎