Al Summers

Boulez, Berlioz and blame

8:00, 6th December 2017

Al Summers discusses the composing techniques of Berlioz, and the blame often laid on the guitar

A piano tuner once told me: ‘Guitarists don’t know how to tune the notes on their instruments properly.’ Sweeping generalisations are usually a permeable premise but a chance to consider a concept is always worth grabbing. The guitar is impossible to tune, the instrument and its fixed frets being the reason. A piano tuner has the luxury of being able to tune each note, the guitarist just six notes of the approximately 120 (considerably more on electric guitars) available. The bugbears and compromises of musical instruments are often inextricably bound together with the joys.

The guitar, by no means a faultless machine, sometimes finds itself on the receiving end of undeserved blame. A trivial example may raise a wry smile from those interested in electrical miracles. Booked to provide background music at a private party, my duet partner prepared to begin our performance, in a room with no mains supply. In the instant darkness triggered by a power failure, a voice called out ‘it’s the musicians’ fault – guitars always cause these problems’. This was followed by comments such as the only thing you could rely on a guitar to do was to cut the power, thanks, supposedly, to the massive amount of electricity amplifiers use. (My two gigging amplifiers – 8 and 30 watts respectively – drew perhaps a tenth or twentieth of the power of a small kettle.)

After the power cut we used the two acoustic guitars we’d brought. Being the only form of entertainment that cold night, we were encouraged to perform until past midnight and generally thanked profusely for saving an otherwise doomed evening. One person told us we’d ‘redeemed ourselves’. Querying how an instrument – the only wire component of which is its strings, can cause a blackout – I received only a blank stare.

Boulez vs Berlioz
In Conversations with Célestin Deliège (published by Eulenburg in 1976), Pierre Boulez was neither the first nor the only musician to accuse Berlioz of testing chords on the guitar (which he did not), giving this as a reason to doubt the sense of harmony and ear skills of his 19th-century predecessor and compatriot.

Berlioz: composed in silence Photo: NADAR
Berlioz: composed in silence
Photo: NADAR

It is a ridiculous assertion considering the prophetic ability of Berlioz to conjure untested sonorities in his head and predict with extraordinary exactness their effect, some of which were not heard in real sound until almost 100 years after his death. Berlioz composed ‘in silence’, free from ‘the tyranny of fingering habits’. In his Memoirs, entertaining and beautifully written although not fully reliable as an emotional document, Berlioz remains factual and accurate at least in principle when talking about musical process and his (increasingly aloof) relationships with instruments such as the flute, guitar and piano. As a composer who also plays guitar, I can testify to this, preferring pencil and manuscript paper only. Other composers like an instrument on-hand.

Similarly, I am flummoxed by critics who call the harmonies of Berlioz ‘wrong’, when what they probably mean is that they don’t like them. Listeners do not have to like the music they hear; we should all be careful about the language we use to evaluate our preferences. The ‘awkward harmonies’ that Boulez perceived sounded fine to the extraordinarily influential Berlioz – otherwise he would not have written them into his scores. The voice-leading in works such as ‘Harold in Italy’ makes sense of the harmony that Berlioz wished us to perceive, sometimes gentle and winding, sometimes jolting, and always expressive and dramatic. Berlioz is not alone. Listen to the Telemann E minor flute concerto’s five-bar fourth movement, with its opening flattened-5th minor-7th chord – which sounds distinctly like a jazz sequence now.

Berlioz being such an innovative figure because he played guitar is a romantic notion; it seems unlikely that this little wooden box with six strings caused his genius, and more likely that his love and striving for sonority attracted him to the guitar’s harmonic richness.

Further resources
New string technology developed by Jonathan Kemp at the University of St Andrews provides consistent tuning when bending strings. Until now, strings tended to move inconsistently, causing increasingly off-key harmony as the strings became looser or tighter. An article explaining the background and reasoning is available at www.tinyurl.com/mt-dec-journal
I also recommend this demonstration from experienced masterly guitarist Phil Hilborne: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgelQCFonN8

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