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Stanford University 1

Department of Music: Musicology

Henry Spencer
Dr. Brooks Toliver
Music History Survey: Classical/Romantic
April 28, 2017

The Guitar: Berlioz’s “Miniature Orchestra”

In this paper I will discuss how Hector Berlioz’s (1803-69) knowledge of the Romantic

Period guitar affected his compositional style. Given that Berlioz’s primary harmonic instrument

was guitar, rather than keyboard, the common instrument for many orchestral composers, in what

ways could the instrument’s idioms and playing techniques, alongside a unique musical educa-

tion, have informed his compositional choices? Contentions exist between Berliozian scholars as

to the degree of influence the guitar exerted upon the composer’s orchestral writing, as we will

see. But since it is obvious that the piano left its mark on the works of other composers, it would

be interesting to learn whether the same is true of Berlioz and the guitar 1.

Berlioz’s introduction to music began outside parlors, salons, and concert halls, in the

rustic southern France. Prior to entering Parisian academic circles, his musical education cen-

tered upon what musical resources were available: flageolet, a drum, and guitar. With the latter

instrument by his side Berlioz would “teach himself the various chords, resolution of discords…

[so] set forth in [Charles-Simon] Catel’s [(1773-1830)] treatise [on harmony]” 2. The guitar was

an alternative to the keyboard and provided Berlioz’s fingers and ears with unorthodox harmonic

solutions 3.

1 Rushton, J. The Musical Language of Berlioz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963, p. 57.
2 Wotton, T.S. Hector Berlioz. London, 1935; repr. 1970, p. 59.
3Dallman, Paul. Influence and Use of the Guitar in the Music of Hector Berlioz, Thesis: The University
of Maryland, 1972, pg. i.
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Department of Music: Musicology
Furthermore, growing up in the town of La Côte-Saint-André near Grenoble in southern

France did not afford Berlioz visits to the opera houses, or to hear an orchestra play, let alone a

piano. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47), on the other hand, wrote his Overture to a Midsummer

Night’s Dream at the same age as when Berlioz heard his first symphony 4. Berlioz introduction

to the instrument was through a man referred to as Dorant who came from Paris in 1819. He

brought the excitement for guitar that swept over the city in the preceding decades 5. Throughout

Europe’s concert halls, salons, and all the way to the hillsides, the region’s musical climate was

experiencing a “guitaromanie”. Virtuosi such as Fernando Sor (1778-1839), Mauro Giuliani

(1781-1829), Zani de Ferranti (1801-1879), dubbed the “Paganini of the guitar” by critics, and

even Niccolò Paganini himself (1782-1840), whom considered “giving up the violin” for a gui-

tar-driven career, were each taking the main stage, and writing music 6. Paris had found herself

as the epicenter for guitar activity, thus offering the perfect cultural atmosphere for Berlioz to

discover and compose at the guitar 7.

Let us first next consider how guitar-technique might have impacted Berlioz’s composi-

tional style. What technical conventions or limitations of the instrument could have affected

Berlioz’s sense for chord progressions and harmonic sonority? By “ignoring the piano and what

it dictates in its fingering…” Paul Dallman suggests that “[Berlioz’s] ear was trained by the dic-

tates of a different ‘keyboard’… perhaps more legitimate in adhering to true intervals and avoid-

4 Ibid. p. 7.
5Berlioz, H. Mémoires d’Hector Berlioz. Paris, 1870; P. Citron, Paris, 1969; English trans., ed. D. Cairns,
London, 1969, p. 11.
6 Dallman, P, UIGMHB, p. 13.
7 Ibid, pp. 10-15.
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ing the piano’s asymmetrical distribution of accidentals”. It is not clear how the piano could have

an “asymmetrical distribution of accidentals” throughout different keys. Perhaps he is referring

to the fact that subtle chromatic alterations tend to take place in the higher registers to avoid

muddiness; but wouldn’t this be the case with the guitar as well? Nevertheless, as a string in-

strument, the guitar is certainly capable of having “true intervals”. Tuning was, and still is, often

done on the instrument to facilitate the playing of a specific mode. The guitar’s strings are often

adjusted to provide the most in tune harmonies, e.g. flattening notes to create a more in-tune ma-

jor-third interval of a major-chord. The remaining guitar scores from Berlioz consist of “accom-

paniments to romances and original pieces …. [in] the category of theatrical effects — serenades

or songs which would be sung in a play…” and were written in either the key of E-major or G-

major 8. From a technical perspective, both these keys are easy for an amateur to play simple

chord progressions in. Additionally, each key allows the opportunity for all six-strings to be

played using root position chords in the first position thus providing increased sonic possibilities.

Perhaps this is why Berlioz’s overall harmonic style has a “partiality for chords in root position

[ — as a result of]… the greater resonance of the three lower strings of the guitar” 9.

Example 1 shows this tendency in a wedding hymn of the Opéra-comique, Béatrice et

Bénédict (1858). The guitar breaks from its unison with the voices only to provide lower sonori-

ties 10. Choosing to play root position chords instead offered a larger sonority from an already

quiet instrument. Knowing this brought Berlioz to his realization that “in good guitar-writing the

8Berlioz, H. Berlioz’s Orchestration Treatise: A Translation and Commentary . Cambridge University

Press: 2002, p. 87.
9 Rushton, J. MLB, p. 57.
10 Ibid, p. 59.
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Department of Music: Musicology
best sonority of the individual chord may be more important than the linear direction of the bass;

hence sonority rather than line might dictate the choice of inversions or root positions…” 11. As

we will see, without a traditional academic environment, like the one many of his contemporaries

utilized, Berlioz was left to his own devices and the creation of as much sound as possible on


! Example 1

Let us take a look at the cultural contexts Berlioz that affected his compositions. The gui-

tar accompanied him throughout travels of the Italian countryside as the 1830 Prix de Rome

champion 12. Traveling and meeting the country folk, was surely a joy for the composer because

“[his] guitar prowess…brought many requests for his playing [of] ‘improvised saltarelli…as an

accompaniment to [the Abruzzian villagers’ dancing]”. In return for his playing Berlioz the com-

poser was given “the delight of real folk music… which he would recapture in his works to be”

13. Despite the anecdotes of his playing, there are unfortunately no direct indications as to how

11 Ibid, p. 58.
12 Berlioz, H, MHB, pp. 113-115.
13 Ibid., pp. 40-41.
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Department of Music: Musicology
advanced Berlioz might have been as a player 14. However, it’s perhaps true that “from the be-

ginning of his interest in music he never had any inclination to become a performing instrumen-

talist. His sole desire was to compose” 15. This we can see in his general lack of virtuosic music

that is commonly found in the Romantic era’s repertoire. Instead, Berlioz chose to develop his

compositional style by integrating experiences with of the bucolic folk music and that style’s ap-

preciation for guitar.

How could a guitarist’s technique could have informed the composer’s tendencies for

bass movement? Plucking the bottom three strings (e, a, d’) was a common technique in

Berlioz’s era 16. Because the tonal range is limited from the guitar’s three bass strings and that

thumb’s functional mobility, Wotton asserted that this resulted in a “stiffness in his bass lines” 17.

In voice leading situations, the thumb’s plucking technique may have informed his compositional

process rather than the ear, resulting in less than conventionally accepted solutions. Example 2

features this in Mephistopheles’ Serenade from The Eight Scenes of Faust (1828). The work was

originally written for solo guitar, marked ‘B’, and voice, marked ‘A’. In this example the guitar’s

chord progression has a bass line with little movement and incorrectly resolved inversions by

Classical and Romantic voice leading standards 18. By contrast, when the orchestration of this

music was made by Berlioz in Damnation of Faust (1846), marked by the letter ‘B’, there was

significantly more linear bass line. In the orchestration, the wind section plays alongside a notat-

14 Dallman, P, UIGMHB, p. 47.

15 Seroff, Victor. Hector Berlioz, New York: MacMillan, 1967, p. 13.
16 Berlioz, H, BOT, p. 80.
17 Wotton, T.S., HB, p. 59.
18 Rushton, J, MLB, pp. 58-59.
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Department of Music: Musicology
ed “pizzicato arpeggio” used to evoke “a large guitar which balances the expanded vocal re-

sources” 19. This example supports the notion that Berlioz did understand proper voice leading

principles, contrary to what some of his contemporaries thought, and that, given the context of

writing for guitar and voice, Berlioz would often allow the fingers rather than the ears to guide

his compositional process 20. Furthermore, from including the guitar in his score the composer

purposefully sought to “establish local color in the Italian settings”. In this type of simple folk

progression the guitar’s presence would have been common 21 . This example captures an essence

of what Berlioz was about as a composer. His “[playing of] both academic and folk music with-

out compromising classic technique” helped integrate the folk music he enjoyed into unique

compositions 22.

Example 2

Berlioz’s “fondness” for the use of parallel motion in diminished-seventh and first-inver-

sion chords may have grown out of the guitar’s capability for movable chord formations 23. A

harmonic education on a keyboard instrument may have offered an alternative perception;

19 Dallman, P, UIGMBH, p. 123.

20 Ibid, pp. 58-59.
21 Dallman, IUGMHB, p. 49.
22 Ibid, p. 49
23 Rushton, J, MLB, pp. 57-58.
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Department of Music: Musicology
wherein, the player would be continuously alternating between the black and white keys in

chromatic chord changes. Furthermore, “the guitar is also more conducive than the piano to

modal mixture”, Rushton identified; “as it is easier to relate E-major, for instance, to E-minor,

than to the relative C#-minor” 24. Berlioz music provides instances of these sorts of “guitaris -

tique parallelism and mode-change[s]” that resulted from the techniques idiomatic to the guitar

25. The fact that they arise in Berlioz guitar music as well as in orchestration gives further weight

to the argument their ease of execution and their influence on his compositions.

In what ways could the melodies from Berlioz have been influenced by guitar? Dallman

is doubtful. After his study of the surviving repertoire, he concludes that “there is no melodic

writing…[and that] he used the instrument strictly for accompaniment” 26. Indeed, in every re-

maining work the guitar serves the purpose of supporting the voice using accompaniment fig-

ures. Furthermore, Dallman also noted that just as Berlioz began composing he was “composing

melodies which exhibit characteristics of his mature writing”, as evidenced by “the theme of the

largo introduction to the first movement [of Symphonie Fantastique (1830)]”, which was written

at age twelve 27.

In what ways could Berlioz’s orchestration been affected by his skills as a guitarist? In

the previously mentioned work, Mephistopheles’ Serenade, Rushton displayed there were cor-

rectly resolved voices and inversions in the orchestral revision that were not present in the solo

guitar and voice edition. This revealed that Berlioz did understand proper voice leading rules, but

24 Ibid, pp. 57-58.

25 Ibid, p. 58.
26 Dallman, p. 128.
27 Ibid, pp. 129-130.
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Department of Music: Musicology
chose to write in a more idiomatic and perhaps folkloric way to increase sonority. A separate au-

thor, Wotton, presumed that “beyond a fondness for pizzicato”, for which he attempted “to create

a class at the Conservatoire, in order that violinists might be taught to use fingers other than the

first one”, the guitar had practically no relevance on Berlioz’s orchestral style 28. Berlioz did after

all write a, if not the, first foremost treatise on orchestration, the Grand traité d’instrumentation

et d’orchestration modernes (1844) of his time 29. However, “Berlioz’s harmony is purely or-

chestral” Wotton concedes in his acknowledgment that “his choice of chords and possibly their

occasional resolution … [he] would find a subtle connexion with the fact of part of his ear-train-

ing [was] derived from the guitar” 30. Rushton also concludes that Berlioz’s “early study of the

guitar was certainly productive of singularity of utterance and probably did have a permanent if

limited effect on his musical thought” 31 . To support this claim, Rushton accounts for occurrences

in the music that are “natural to the guitar but not to nineteenth-century norms [which] appear in

Berlioz’s characteristic polyphony" 32. Finally, Dallman also agreed that “the instrument’s influ-

ence manifested itself unconsciously” in his orchestral style 33. All of these scholars summarized

their perception of the problem with a respective agreement that the subconscious manifestation

of guitaristic idiosyncrasies appear in the composer’s art.

28 Wotton, T.S., HB, p. 57.

29 Berlioz, H, BOT.
30 Wotton, T,S., HB, p. 57.
31 Rushton, MLHB, p. 60.
32 Ibid, p. 60.
33 Dallman, P, UIGMHB, p. 121.
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Berlioz only wrote accompaniment music for the guitar and could the mastery of this

style have affected Berlioz’s the styles used in his orchestral writing? The accompaniment music

appears in three distinguishable styles: agitated, trochaic, and arpeggio 34. Each respective style

does appear in an orchestral context and because these three styles are “seemingly idiomatic to

the guitar” it is logical to presume that the subconscious mastery of each accompaniment style

found its way naturally into the orchestral writing of Berlioz 35. Agitated music, as the name sug-

gests, produces music which is “a rhythmically animated, chordal type of accompaniment in

which the chords are broken into rhythmic patterns”. Trochaic accompaniment is derived from

the “trochee foot in poetry” where stressed pules are followed by unstressed ones 36. Finally,

arpeggio style, as seen and heard in the Mephistopheles’ Serenade from Example 1, simply pro-

vides a continues stream of broken chord figures. The arpeggio accompaniment was most fre-

quently used by Berlioz. It allows the guitar, a naturally volume tapering instrument, to retain its

dynamic level from the perpetually played notes 37. Of course, Berlioz was not the only compos -

er to utilize these techniques. They are often seen in the Romantic and Classical Era’s respective

guitar literatures.

In conclusion, Berlioz had a uniquely tuned ear from the sounds and harmonies outside of

academic circles as a result from his time spent with the guitar. Practicing on the instrument pro-

duced idiomatic musical solutions that helped form the basic of his musical education. Moreover,

34 Ibid, p. 131.
35Shreiber, Joseph, “Melodic Style in the Instrumental Works of Hector Berlioz”, Master’s Thesis, Uni-
versity of Maryland, 1968, pp. 2-5.
36 Dallman, P, UIGMHB, p. 131.
37 Ibid, p. 137.
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this would lead to what Berlioz is now predominantly remembered for — his innovations to the

art of orchestration. Is it any coincidence that the guitar of Fernando Sor was thought to produce

“a complete orchestra enclosed in a small compass” 38? Berlioz would even refer to his own gui-

tar, owned by Nicolo Paganini for a time, as a “miniature orchestra” 39 .

Grunfield, Frederic, The Art and Times of the Guitar: An Illustrated History of Guitars and Guitarists,
MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc: New York, 1974, p. 179.
39 Berlioz, H, MHB, p. 556.
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Department of Music: Musicology

Berlioz, H. Berlioz’s Orchestration Treatise: A Translation and Commentary . Cambridge: Cam-

bridge University Press, 2002.

Berlioz, H. Mémoires d’Hector Berlioz. Paris, 1870; P. Citron, Paris, 1969; English trans., ed. D.

Cairns, London, 1969.

Dallman, Paul. Influence and Use of the Guitar in the Music of Hector Berlioz, Thesis: The Uni-

versity of Maryland, 1972.

Grunfield, Frederic, The Art and Times of the Guitar: An Illustrated History of Guitars and Gui-

tarists, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc: New York, 1974,

Rushton, J. The Musical Language of Berlioz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

Seroff, Victor. Hector Berlioz, New York: MacMillan, 1967.

Shreiber, Joseph, “Melodic Style in the Instrumental Works of Hector Berlioz”, Master’s Thesis,

University of Maryland, 1968.

Wotton, T.S. Hector Berlioz. London, 1935; repr. 1970.