Hector Berlioz (1803-69)

Les Francs-Juges, excerpts

H. 23

Grande Ouverture des Francs-Juges (H. 23D)

from act I:
1 Chœur du peuple ("Arnold, entends nos fers")
2 Duo (Christiern, Olmerik: "Conrad s'arma pour nous")

from act II
6 Chœur des bergers ("L'ombre descend dans la vallée")
7 Trio pastoral (Nise, Méry, Arnold: "Vois-tu le soleil s'enfuir")

from act III:
12 Hymne des Francs-Juges ("Des célestes décrets")

For Nise (Sopr.), Méry (Sopr.), Arnold/Lenor (Tén. I), Christiern (Tén. II), Conrad (Bar.), Olmerik (Basse), Chœur (Bohémiens et Bohémiennes, Héraults, Peuple, Soldats, Bergers, Francs-Juges: Dessus, Hautes-contres, Tailles, Basses-tailles); Fl. I-II (P. fl. I-II), Hb. I-II, Cl. I-II, Bns I-II, C-bn, Cors I-IV, Tromp. I-II, Tromp. à pistons, Tromb. I-III, Oph. I-II, Timb., G. C., Cymb., Cordes (15-15-10-12-9).

Libretto by the composer's friend Humbert Ferrrand (1805-68) after a play by J.-H.-F. de Lamartelière (1761-1830), Les Francs-Juges, ou les tems de barbarie: Mélodrame historique.

Composed 1825-October 1826, revised 1829.

First performed in concert (ov., no. 7): 26 May 1828 (Salle du Conservatoire; Mme Lebrun, Sopr.; Duprez, Tén., Prévost, Basse; Nathan Bloc, conducting).

Overture published by S. Richault (Paris, 1836). Dedicated à mon ami Girard [Narcisse Girard, the conductor].

Duration: about 25 minutes.

The story of Les Francs-Juges, Berlioz's "lost" opera of 1826, is among the most complex and contorted in all Berlioz study. His own account, in the Mémoires (ch. 11), is as follows:

... je venais de me lier avec un jeune homme de cœur et d'esprit, que je suis heureux de compter parmi mes amis les plus chers, Humbert Ferrand; il avait écrit pour moi un poème de grand opéra, Les Francs-Juges, et j'en composais la musique avec un entraînement sans égal. Ce poème fut plus tard refusé par le comité de l'Académie Royale de musique, et ma partition fut du même coup condamnée à l'obscurité, d'où elle n'est jamais sortie. L'ouverture seule a pu se faire jour. J'ai employé çà et là les meilleures idées de cet opéra, en les développant, dans mes compositions postérieures, le reste subira probablement le même sort, si l'occasion s'en présente, ou sera brûlé.


Musicologists studying the sources for Les Francs-Juges in the 1970s and '80s have been able to construct a more complete historical account and to reconstruct score and parts for the excerpts you will hear tonight. The orchestration of the Mélodie pastorale (no. 7), preserved only in a piano-vocal score, is the work of René Koering.

Berlioz and Ferrand decided in 1825 or early 1826 to collaborate on an opera about the secret vigilante, or Vehmic, courts of medieval Germany. Ferrand set to work on the libretto, modeled on the play by Lamartelière. Meanwhile, Berlioz attempted to persuade the directors of the Odéon to accept newly-composed operas. By the end of June Berlioz had finished the first act and was hard at work on the second; in July he showed his music to his teacher: "M. Le Sueur is quite happy with the first two acts. I shall do my best for the third." In September 1826 he reported to a correspondent: "I've just finished my opera; I have nothing but the overture left to do." The overture was done by the end of the month.

In 1827 he mentions copying parts for a planned performance of several excerpts, but neither the concert performance nor the Odéon production of the complete work every materialized. Of the version completed in 1826, only an aria, a trio, and the overture-which became Berlioz's's first well-known work--were ever performed.

The decision to revise Les Francs-Juges for submitting to the Opéra was madein1828. Upon receiving a revised libretto from Ferrand in April 1829, he began to compose the new numbers needed to transform the work into a grand opera. The project came to an abrupt halt in June 1829, when a jury at the Opéra rejected the libretto. Within a year he had decided on possibly his first significant self-borrowing, the use of the Marche des gardes from act III of the opera as the fourth movements of the Symphonie fantastique, the "Marche au supplice."

He did not immediately give up on the idea of having Les Francs-Juges performed. In May 1830 he mentions the possibility of a German version for Karlsruhe, a project soon forgotten. Upon returning from Rome, he devised a further plan, to have Les Francs-Juges translated into Italian; this project too, was abandoned. Eventually Berlioz became convinced that he would never see the entire opera produced and so began to dismantle it, finding new uses for the completed music In 1833 he prepared the libretto for an intermezzo of one act, Le Cri de guerre du Brisgaw (H. 23C), salvaging several numbers from the full opera. He composed new passages intermittently over a period of two years, but never finished the scene. Beginning with Benvenuto Cellini, composed 1834-38, he began to incorporate appropriate passages into new works.

Three references in letters of 1859 to Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein refer to a last attempt to produce an opera about the Vehmic tribunals, in this case a story of the Thirty Years' War to a libretto by Édouard Plouvier, fulfilling a commission from Édouard Bénazet for his new opera house in Baden-Baden. This project was abandoned in favor of Béatrice et Bénédict, Berlioz's last major work.

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It was because of self-borrowing, we may reasonably conclude, that Berlioz came to rip out two of the movements from the autograph manuscript of Les Francs-Juges, leaving just enough notation in the margins for us to identify some of the music. He destroyed six other movements altogether. Of Les Francs-Juges, only the overture, five of the original movements, and the revised libretto of 1829 remain. The Francs-Juges fragments are nevertheless the most detailed primary evidence of Berlioz's style before he discovered Beethoven and while he was still a student of Le Sueur. If the opera shows artistic dependence, it is on the world of Der Freischütz, where similarly dark characters lurk in the forest and similarly naive peasants cavort about. Berlioz is at his best in such contrasts of bright and lugubrious, and in the juxtaposition of pastoral and diabolical. In that sense the step in dramatic conceit from Les Francs-Juges to the world of the Symphonie fantastique is small indeed.

The story concerns the usurped throne of Breisgau and the tyranny of a band of vigilantes (Francs-Juges: roughly, "self-appointed judges") over a simple folk, the bohémiens et bohémiennes, bergers et bergères. The pretender Olmerik (bass) has seized power by murdering his brother the king, yet can perpetuate his authority only by eliminating the true heir, his nephew Lenor (tenor). (In 1826, this character had the name Arnold, changed owing to the like-named character in Rossini's Guillaume Tell of the same year.) Lenor loves the princess Amelie, betrothed to Olmerik; she returns the sentiments. The first two acts set forth the problem, the love interest, Lenor's role as hero, and the villainy of Olmerik's horde; in the third act Lenor is led to the cave where the black-hooded judges, in mystic ceremony, prepare to decide his fate.

"Où sont tes ennemis, insensé?" asks Olmerik of Lenor, in a passage symptomatic of the libretto as a whole. "Dans vos rangs." "Tes complices?" "Le Ciel!" "Tes armes?" "L'espérance, l'infortune du peuple et l'horreur des tyrans!" In the nick of time, the citizens raid the castle. Olmerik, refusing to be taken alive, leaps into the arms of a colossal bronze statue and is engulfed in flames.

The principal setting is a town square dominated by an ancient fortified castle and encircled by a dense wood; among the parapets is a bell tower of great significance. The cavern of the Francs-Juges is sinister, lit by reflections of a distant moon, and furnished with a circle of twelve stone chairs and an immense table covered in black fabric. The blackness is in studied contrast to the colorful song and dance of the rustics elsewhere in the opera.

The best numbers seem to have been the successive peasant scenes at the close of act I (sc. viii: "Melons à la voix des trompettes") and at the opening curtain of act II ("L'ombre descend dans la vallee"), an aria by Lenor's liegeman Conrad, of which Berlioz thought highly enough to include it in a public concert ("Noble amitié"); an orchestral interlude representing Lenor's troubled slumber; and the hymn of the Francs-Juges ("Des célestes décrets").

The preserved music is competently set out and, like the libretto, displays a sensitivity to good theatrics and a fertility of novel ideas. The orchestral melody writing is in the mold of Spontini from the very first. Pastoral elements dominate the texture of the first two acts, and Berlioz flirts willingly with sounds of herdsmen's pipes and their echoes, what was called the ranz des vaches. Berlioz thought the charming though primitive Mélodie pastorale worthy of programming on his concert of 26 May 1828. He prepared the piano reduction, probably for rehearsal use, that serves as the sole surviving source.

What little has been preserved of the hymn of the Francs-Juges suggests a lugubrious slow march. This important scene, incidentally, includes a melody later found greatly augmented in speed at the beginning of (and elsewhere in) the Roman carnival in Benvenuto Cellini. But the most intriguing movement is one of those for which the music has been nearly destroyed: the first scene of act III. Lenor appears by dark of night to keep his fatal rendezvous with the Frencs-Juges; after a brief invocation he stretches out on a bank and falls asleep. Here the libretto reads as follows:

Son sommeil est agité et pénible. Les principales scenes des actes précedents lui apparaissent confusément en songe, et se mêlent dans son imagination. L'orchestre rappelle tour-à-tour et sans suite les motifs de la scène pastorale, la marche des gardes d'Olmerik, la fin du final du premier acte, l'anathème du Franc-Juge.
Among these reminiscences are a tune used for the trombone solo in the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale and four notes from the descending scale used at the start of the Marche au supplice--a tiny but convincing detail that supports the contention that the Marche des Gardes and the Marche au supplice are one and the same.

The overture was doubtless the last movement of the opera to be composed; indeed the opening Adagio may have been revised with Beethovenian harmonic strategies in mind. In formal procedure it heralds Berlioz's habitual first-movement technique: a slow introduction, two contrastive sections but a single main theme (in this case, as in many others, the one in the second position), an intervening section related to but by no means the same as a sonata development, the return of the major sections in a new context, and a drive to peroration, followed by a grand coda.

It begins in F minor with a sinister, interrupted figure, which grows into the solemn brass theme we know to be associated with Olmerik The cadence is in the flamboyant brassy style of which Berlioz was so fond. This point of arrival (note the Freischütz-like exclamation of the piccolo, which occurs again in Faust) is immediately deflected by chromatic meandering, building to climax through insistent, Gluckian throbs of trombones and bassoons.

The Allegro opens with a busy, scalar figure in eighths-- one could not call it a theme, for it never achieves much by way of identity--in first violins. These are joined by canonic entries from the other string sections. A passagework transition leads to the Savoyard second theme, taken (according to the Mémoires) from the quintet composed in La Côte-St.-André, is underscored by a bright, syncopated accompaniment in the Mediterranean fashion. Its clear-cut symmetricality at the beginning strikes the ear as naive in squareness, but Berlioz deflects opportunities for closure, extending the melody. This setting-forth is repeated in the winds, with a counterpoint in the strings constructed of the opening figure; the following, very long passage, treats a long, sustained melody in a rather successful setting for paired flutes and clarinets. This melody is an augmentation in whole notes of Lenor's invocation ("Descends et viens rendre a mes songes / Le calme qui fuit mes douleurs").

Berlioz's figuration of the long pedal point in the development is representative of his quite primitive notion, in the mid-1820s, of fleshing out a texture. With the bass drum solo in the distance-- Berlioz added it to have something to play for himself--and a timpani solo in juxtaposed 3/4, the passage begins to grow toward resolution; at the point of arrival, though, it is harshly thrust into a full, though false, recapitulation of the second theme. When the "true'' recapitulation occurs, it is scarcely perceived, being hidden pianissimo under a new decoration in upper winds. The recapitulation of the second theme is in F major, where the overture stays to the end. What actually transpires, though, is more than anything else an operatic crescendo. The melody creeps in after a full strophe of accompaniment alone, then rolls headlong into triplet fanfares, a stretto, Olmerik's big theme, and a rather traditional charge to final cadence.

Despite hints of adolescence, there is much in the overture, as elsewhere in Les Francs-Juges, to suggest movement toward the mature style. In any event, it is a dubious undertaking to judge the overture without known just how it relates to the opera that followed. As a free-standing concert work, which in fact it amounted to by the time of publication, it can be considered a success in both promise and intensity. The seeming allusions to the concert overtures of Beethoven, Schubert's Great C-major, and the early Mendelssohn, thought tempting to infer, are false. Berlioz discovered these effects quite independently of a repertoire with which he had so far had virtually no experience.