Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique - Aurora Orchestra

Ping. An email notification from the Aurora Orchestra: “Hi Russell, Is there a chance you might be available and willing to play 1st natural trumpet for this memorised Berlioz project, including at the BBC Proms? You’d just be needed for Symphonie Fantastique.” 

There followed a moment of hesitance and doubt, quickly overridden by a feeling of ‘if others can do it, I can do it’. Four consecutive thoughts reassured me: I’ve performed from memory on stage at the Globe Theatre with very little preparation time, I’ve memorised concertos and arias in the past (including familiar yet complex pieces like The Trumpet Shall Sound), I am usually good at picking up folk tunes aurally (I played two 45-minute sets without sheet music with my trumpet and organ duo Chronicles last December), and between the ages of five and about twelve I think I played most things (much to the frustration of my brass teacher) without reading from the sheet music. For me, it seems that learning a piece of music involves some degree of memorising (or at least internalising) even if I will eventually perform it using the sheet music. In my case, the printed part is generally there for reassurance and as a guide for when (not so much what) to play, as it’s often just as difficult to memorise the overall structure (especially entries after irregular rests) as it is to memorise the played passages.

I committed to this incredible project, which would include rehearsals at LSO St Lukes, Cecil Sharp House, Henry Wood Hall and Blackheath Halls, with performances at: Snape Maltings (part of the Snape Proms), the Kurhaus in Wiesbaden (part of the Rheingau Musik Festival), Saffron Hall, the Royal Albert Hall (with two consecutive performances: Prom 72 [broadcast on radio and television] & 73 of the BBC Proms season) and at Die Glocke in Bremen.

In the 40 days between being invited and the Aurora Orchestra’s first rehearsal, I had to juggle memorising Symphonie Fantastique [Op.14] over an unusually busy summer, including: BBC Radio 3’s In Tune, the Ryedale Festival, Brandenburg 2 at Castle Ashby, Solomon’s Knot’s Purcell Pageant in Cambridge, playing at a friend’s wedding, recording Brandenburg 2 in Ansbach, a few days in and around Nuremberg (to buy sheet brass), the Solomon’s Knot Bach Cantatas Prom, Ode for St. Cecelia with Vox Luminis in Vézelay and and Israel in Egypt in Southwell.

I knew that I would only have a few clear days to practise Symphonie Fantastique with each of the required trumpets and crooks in front of me. With two performances of Brandenburg Concerto No.2, and a demanding all-Bach Prom to contend with, I decided not to play the Berlioz until those were out of the way. Instead of playing Symphonie Fantastique repeatedly, I decided to listen to it on the train, in the car, on flights, at the gym and also on my noise cancelling headphones instead of using ear defenders while hammering brass, making tubes or engraving in the workshop. I had reduced the four pages of the first trumpet part onto two sides of one piece of A4 paper and I printed five copies: one lived on my music stand, another at my desk, one in my headphones case, another in the bag I take to the gym and a final copy on a wall-mounted clipboard by the vice in the workshop. I chose to listen to only one recording (Sir Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra - LSO Live, 2001), and I purposefully chose a modern orchestra as I wanted to be sure that the recording was at A=440Hz. There was no difference between the sound of the cornet à pistons and the sound of the trumpets in the LSO recording, as they were not using natural trumpets (as we would be), so it was quite difficult to work out by just listening which high brass sounds were in the cornet part and which were in the trumpet part - so I generally kept a copy of the score close at hand. The fourth movement of Symphonie Fantastique had been one of our set works for our AS Level Music course (fifteen years ago), so I knew that movement quite well. The trumpets did not play in the second and third movements, so I focused on listening to the end of the first movement (starting from the oboe solo cue, about 12 minutes in), the fourth movement and the whole fifth movement (which I did not know at all). - Chapeau to those string players, wind, percussion and horn players in the orchestra who would have to memorise every movement.

The Aurora Orchestra’s impressive final schedule arrived. I completed my memorisation work before the first rehearsal with a few days of playing it through and along with the recording. I was quite amazed by how quickly I seemed to retain the information I learned from playing it through. I clearly work well to real (i.e. not self-imposed) deadlines! As I had listened to the recording plenty of times, I knew what I knew, but I also knew where the gaps were. Although it took a few days to fully cement it in my mind, I was working with a determination that I have rarely seen in myself before, and I was enjoying the process. Fortunately I absolutely loved listening to Symphonie Fantastique, so there was never a time where my motivation to listen to, practise, or perform it was lacking. I also viewed memorising the Berlioz as part of this orchestra’s etiquette; I did not want to let my colleagues or myself down. I had rehearsed and performed with the Aurora Orchestra before (Mendelssohn) but I had not previously been involved in any of their memorised projects, so I felt like I had to prove it to them and to myself that I could memorise it. This was a very welcome challenge. I was also looking forward to playing in a large orchestra, I craved a certain safety in numbers after playing in Prom 38 - the demanding Bach Cantata programme with only 25 musicians in total. The orchestra for the Berlioz was almost three times that size.

The first rehearsal took place at LSO St Luke’s on Monday 26th August 2019. I had not met any of the other trumpet, trombone or tuba players before, and I only vaguely knew a couple of the horn players. I met Imogen Hancock (second trumpet), Simon Cox (first cornet) and Bill Cooper (second cornet). [I actually met Simon only a couple of days before in Southwell]. Lots of people remarked that they had seen Bill (alias ‘Billy the trumpet’) on television the day before. I assumed that he had been playing in the massive brass section for Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast at the Proms, but I guessed incorrectly. Bill had actually been playing the trumpet at Headingley Stadium for the Third Test Match of the Ashes 2019, which he described as the most incredible Test Match he had ever seen. I know absolutely nothing about cricket, so I took his word for it!

Approaches varied in the first rehearsal. Nicholas Collon, the conductor, told us to feel free to play with or without the music, as we wished. I decided it was best to start as I meant to go on, and most of the brass section started without the music in the first rehearsal. Elsewhere, some players had their music stands set up in the conventional way, and others (particularly in the strings) had their desks set off to the side with music there for reference rather than constant observance. Nicholas Collon played passages on the piano (he seemed to have the whole score memorised) so that we could identify where exactly to play from.

The first rehearsal, incredibly, sounded at least as polished as the live recording I had been listening to. I suppose everybody had spent at least the amount of rehearsal time that would normally be available for this kind of orchestral project working at home before arriving at the first ensemble rehearsal. I was seriously impressed with the sound of the Aurora Orchestra from the outset. It sounded fluent from day one. Nicholas Collon asked the strings to play, generally, with as little vibrato as possible. This made it sound wonderfully rhythmic and intense. It also made it sound more historically informed; Berlioz as the natural next step after Beethoven. The prominence of modern (often continuous) vibrato is thought to have come about at around the turn of the 20th century, as a strategy to improve the success of early recordings. Before that, it is thought that vibrato was used selectively and more subtly and it was amazing to hear a modern orchestra playing in this way.

Apart from some inevitable self doubt, I was very pleased with the progress of my memorisation in the first rehearsal. It was much better than I thought it would be. Imogen, who played second trumpet, laid down a firm foundation. She had securely memorised the piece, interestingly utilising a very different technique to me. As an auditory learner I relied mostly on listening and, strangely, I gained mental reassurance from recalling where the notation had been located on the page. Imogen told me about her technique, which involved using different colours for different sections and, I presume, she learned it in these chunks. Our simultaneous use of two different memorisation concepts meant that, between us, we had a fairly failsafe trumpet section. We invested a collective trust in each other’s memory recall and I have to admit that I probably relied on Imogen more than she relied on me!

Rehearsals continued on 27th and 28th of August 2019. The trumpets and cornets rehearsed sitting (but performed standing) in front of the trombone players Matt Gee, Matt Knight and Josh Cirtina (the same trombone section as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), and also in front of two brilliant tuba players (playing the serpent and ophicleide parts) Sasha Koushk-Jalali and Michael Levis. Standing in front of one of the best low brass sections in the UK was quite a privilege.


As well as the memorised Symphonie Fantastique, the programme for the first two concerts (Snape [29th August 2019] and Wiesbaden [30th August 2019]) also featured (un-memorised performances of) Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 [Op.26] in G Minor. The latter played by the wonderful Nicola Benedetti CBE. Nicola Benedetti played the Bruch with a seemingly effortless ease, and she played a soloist’s encore at the Rheingau Musik Festival, a double-stopped rendition of Auld Lang Syne which captivated the audience. We had a great time in both Snape and Wiesbaden, with wonderful concerts in the Maltings and the Kurhaus.


For the encore in Wiesbaden, all easily mobile players were sent out into the audience (brass spread out upstairs) to play a reprise of the final part of the fifth movement from all around the hall. The trombones moved to the front of the stage, and the more immobile instruments stayed on stage for this memorable encore.


There followed a week off in the schedule, so my wife and I went to the Isle of Man for a holiday and to see my parents. Unfortunately after the Wiesbaden performance, Bill Cooper was temporarily out of action for the next phase of the project, so Gwyn Owen stepped in to play the second cornet part, coolly memorising it in just a few days.


With two memorised performances under our belts, and then a week off in-between, the next phase of the project began with a slightly unconventional rehearsal at Blackheath Halls on Saturday 7th September 2019. I say unconventional because the rehearsal did not feature much playing or refinement of what we had already musically rehearsed; instead it introduced a number of other aspects to the performance to make an already-remarkable project truly extraordinary.

The Guardian newspaper’s review of Prom 72 described, ‘Berlioz as vivid to the eye as the ear‘:
'There were many memorable visual moments: the four glittering harps in the ballroom movement, which ended in a whirl of lights reflected from half a dozen glitterballs; then the musicians were fireflies beneath a glowing moon, lights illuminating from their wrists; and the Witches’ Sabbath had them in sinister paper masks, the stage lit blood red. Yet nothing upstaged the music, with Collon driving the tempos and encouraging characterful playing from wind and brass.' - ★★★★ The Guardian
The main difference between the first two performances (Snape and Wiesbaden), and the subsequent performances at Saffron Hall and the Royal Albert Hall was the addition of the presentation - a spoken introduction with impeccably-timed musical examples. Choreographed groups of players moved in formation to play selected musical examples, particularly of Berlioz’s idée fixe - which is dotted around Symphonie Fantastique in various guises. Other scenes featured the actor Mathew Baynton as Berlioz, reading excerpts from Berlioz’s own memoirs, and players from the orchestra depicted a Parisian scene, complete with illuminated model houses.

An article, "No-score draw: Aurora Orchestra to play an hour of Berlioz by memory" printed in The Times on 11th September 2019 asked:
'Do they feel self-conscious about all this moving about? After all, they are musicians, not dancers. "Yes, at first" [Jamie] Campbell, says. "And it is annoying when you rehearse the same move ten times. On the other hand it has to be slick and we are always assured that it looks good from the front."
"And you realise very early on," Harman adds, "that if you are so self-conscious that you do the moves half-heartedly, you look even sillier."'

The street scene led naturally into the presentation which, in turn, segued into the performance of the whole work - each movement interspersed with more from Berlioz. Assistants operated radios to synchronise a whole backstage team, and a cue-caller brought each of the pre-rehearsed aspects together with perfect timing. The absence of music stands enabled a fluid stagecraft; four harps surrounded the conductor in the second movement, four bassoons took that place in the fourth, and a more conventional string line-up occupied the space at other times. In the fifth movement the players turned their masked faces to look in choreographed directions at the sound of the offstage bells played by Catherine Ring (incidentally the bells were cast at the Whitechapel Foundry in 1993, for the Liverpool Philharmonic Society).

These extra features, although adding to what we had to remember, strangely helped to divert my attention away from the fact that we were playing the music from memory. The attention to detail of the staging and presentation was remarkable, the orchestra had even provided every player with a matching collarless shirt or blouse. The visual elements (there were more that haven’t been mentioned yet: a huge moon was positioned in front of the organ, revealed from behind an enormous French flag, and so it goes on!) were coordinated by directors Jane Mitchell (principal flute) and James Bonas, and movement director Cyd Uffindell-Phillips, with all three working in close harmony with the conductor Nicholas Collon. The staging rehearsals took place on 7th and 8th of September, with some final refinements before the Saffron Hall concert on 10th September 2019 and the two performances at the BBC Proms at 19:00 and 22:15 on Thursday 12th September 2019.

Fast-forward to the end of Prom 72, with a standing ovation from a capacity audience (of an estimated 5,500 people). The performance was filmed by the BBC for a deferred television broadcast and the audio was recorded and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 - they do a fantastic job of recording unobtrusively. The cameras were a slight distraction, something moving in your peripheral vision is always something of a distraction - but they also practiced filming our rehearsals, which gave me time to learn not to react to noticeable movements in my peripheral vision.

As well as engaging in staging rehearsals to get the presentation as slick as possible, the players of the Aurora Orchestra have great discipline when it comes to other aesthetic movements as well. The stage-left brass section made a collective decision not to move, empty water, or change crooks etc. until Matthew Baynton (Berlioz) had walked past us during his soliloquy between the fourth and the fifth movements (this was a good idea as we were in the background of the camera shots). We also raised and lowered our instruments at the same time, where it was practical, and we lifted our bells up for the final note of the climactic fifth movement, marked ‘tenu’.

The 22:15 show (Prom 73) was also very well-attended and it felt to me to be a relieved performance with just as much precision but with more uninhibited joy than before. I’m almost definitely splitting hairs when I say that - as they were both unbelievably excellent.

Even with one day to recover after the Proms performances, we arrived at Heathrow with adrenaline still pumping on Saturday 14th September 2019. We travelled (via Hamburg) for a final concert in Die Glocke in Bremen. This performance was more like those in Snape and Wiesbaden as it was without masks, glitterballs, the French flag, the moon, matching shirts or a spoken introductory presentation. Symphonie Fantastique was still performed from memory though. The soloist Leonidas Kavakos played the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D Major (Op.61) in the first half of the concert. The second half of the performance culminated with another encore where the players spread themselves out around the hall to play a reprise of part of the last movement of Symphonie Fantastique, after which the trumpet and cornet players managed to get themselves stuck upstairs, front of house. We were almost unable to return to the stage to bow with the rest of the orchestra, but fortunately somebody opened the door for us to get back!

Since the broadcast on Friday 13th September 2019 I have been asked by several people why there were both natural trumpets and cornets in the orchestra for Symphonie Fantastique (which was written in 1830). Berlioz wrote parts for the relatively new invention of the cornet à pistons (cornet with valves) but he retained the established (natural) trumpets as: “…the trumpet’s timbre is noble and brilliant. It is equally suitable for martial ideas, for cries of fury and vengeance, and for songs of triumph”. We are fortunate that Berlioz wrote so many of his thoughts both in his memoirs and also in his Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes, which was published 13-14 years after he wrote Symphonie Fantastique (and revised in 1855). Berlioz wrote, rather scathingly, of the cornet:
'Joyful melodies must always fear from this instrument some loss of whatever nobility they may have, and if they have none, an enhancement of their triviality. A phrase that would appear tolerable, when performed by violins or the woodwind, becomes flat and intolerably vulgar when emphasised by the incisive, brash and impudent sound of the cornet. This danger disappears if the phrase can suitably be played at the same time by one or more trombones, whose mighty voice will then cover up and ennoble that of the cornet. When used harmonically, it blends very well with the mass of brass instruments. It serves then to complete trumpet chords, and to contribute to the orchestra groups of notes, whether diatonic or chromatic, which because of their speed would be unsuitable for trombones or horns. The normal practice is to write two parts for cornets, often in two different keys.'
It is interesting to read that Berlioz intended for the cornet à pistons parts to harmonically 'complete trumpet chords' and to serve an increasingly diatonic and chromatic function, especially when paired with the ennobling sound of one or more trombones or within a brass section. Evidently, the natural trumpets are restricted to the harmonic series, and some of the notes of the harmonic series are naturally out of tune. It is interesting to note, for instance, that the main tune in the fourth movement is given to the first cornet, not the first trumpet. The tune is technically playable on the natural trumpet, but it would encounter both the out of tune 11th and 13th partials in the process, so instead the first trumpet plays notes to complete the chords. Despite an evident distaste towards the cornet à pistons, as above, Berlioz knew not to write these naturally out of tune notes in the trumpet parts.

With Berlioz’s aforementioned prejudice against the cornet, it makes you wonder why he would write a distinctive passage in the second movement, specifically added for the celebrated cornet soloist Jean-Baptiste Arban. I suspect that this was added to show off the latest Parisian fashion, or perhaps Berlioz only decided to be scathing about the cornet later in life when he wrote the treatise (perhaps somewhat idealistically). This distinctive cornet part is often omitted in modern performances - but it was played brilliantly by Simon Cox (first cornet) in the Aurora Orchestra performances.

It was fantastic to be involved in this project with the Aurora Orchestra. The incredible Nicholas Collon, nothing short of a genius, led the orchestra with infectious confidence (much needed in a memorised performance) and he was helpful, charismatic, clear and faultless. Nicholas and Jane Mitchell (husband and wife) and the co-director James Bonas brought all aspects of their complex artistic vision together into this scintillating piece of orchestral theatre in Hector Berlioz’s 150th anniversary year. The effort that went into the planning, memorisation and (pardon the pun) execution of this incredible show was remarkable - outrageously so - from all concerned. I had a great time and I enjoyed meeting so many new people. Huge thanks to the team at the Aurora Orchestra for nurturing this exceptional project and overseeing every aspect of it with such care and dedication.

The Aurora Orchestra has published it’s own write-up about the performances of Symphonie Fantastique at the BBC Proms. and the performance is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days, likewise on BBC Radio 3.

Russell Gilmour
Russell Gilmour Blog
writing on music, photography, engraving, travel and life as a freelance professional musician.