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Composers Datebook: Berlioz for Winds

For those of you who are in the band camp spirit, today's Composers Datebook featured another piece for winds: Hector Berlioz's Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale.

Berlioz gets hot

Playing in a marching band isn't always as easy as it looks, musically speaking. Imagine the predicament in which Berlioz found himself on today's date in 1840, conducting 210 musicians under a broiling noontime sun as they slowly progressed to the Place de Bastille, all the while performing his latest symphony.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the French Revolution of 1830, a memorial column had been erected on the spot where the Bastille once stood, and the remains of the fallen heroes of 1830 were being transferred to a cenotaph at the foot of the column, accompanied by Berlioz's specially-commissioned Funeral and Triumphal Symphony, composed for massed military bands. Berlioz himself, in full military uniform and conducting with a saber, led the solemn procession, which took several hours that hot July day.

In a letter to his father, Berlioz wrote: "The old know-it-alls of military music were claiming that I'd never manage to have my symphony performed on the march and that my 210 musicians wouldn't stay together for even 20 bars. So I placed the trumpets and drums in front so that I could give them the beat while walking backwards. I planned it so that in the opening bars these instruments play by themselves, so they could be heard by the rest of the band. The symphony's march and finale were played six times, on the march, with an ensemble and effect that were truly extraordinary."

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