Composers Datebook®

Berlioz uses his imagination

Composers Datebook - Feb. 18, 2024


Some things are best left to the imagination — at least that’s what French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz came to think regarding opera. Berlioz didn’t have the best of luck getting his operas staged during his lifetime, and, on the few occasions he did, the resulting performance fell far short of his ideal. Increasingly, Berlioz turned to what might be called the “Theater of the Imagination,” composing concert works that were, for all intents and purposes, operas minus the staging and costumes.

One of these, which Berlioz called “a dramatic legend” and premiered in 1846, was The Damnation of Faust. It was based on the famous Faust plays of German poet Goethe. Like many of Berlioz’s works, The Damnation of Faust proved an artistic success — but a box office failure — at its premiere as an unstaged concert piece at the Opera Comique in Paris.

Some five decades later, on today’s date in 1893, The Damnation of Faust was revived as a fully staged opera at the Monte Carlo Opera. It proved such a success that in short order it was staged in Milan, Moscow and Liverpool, and even reached the shores of America, courtesy of the French Opera in New Orleans.

Music Played in Today's Program

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): Dance of the Sylphs, fr La damnation de Faust; Baltimore Symphony; David Zinman, cond. Telarc 80164

On This Day


  • 1632 - Italian composer Giovanni Battista Vitali, in Bologna;

  • 1864 - American music publisher Gustave Schirmer, Jr., in New York City, son of the German-born music publisher Gustave Schirmer, Sr.

  • 1915 - French composer Marcel Landowski in Prêt L'Abbé (Finistère);

  • 1939 - Brazilian composer, conductor and pianist Marlos Nobre, in Recife;


  • 1956 - French composer French composer Gustave Charpentier, age 95, in Paris;


  • 1743 - Handel: oratorio “Samson,” at Covent Garden Theatre in London, and possibly the premiere of Handel’s recently-completed Organ Concerto Op. 7, no. 2 at the same concert (Gregorian date: Mar. 1);

  • 1874 - Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphony No. 3, in St. Petersburg (Gregorian date: Mar. 2);

  • 1893 - Berlioz: "La Damnation de Faust" (as a staged opera), in Monte Carlo with a cast headed by tenor Jean de Reske; Berlioz conducted the first concert performance of this work (as an oratorio) at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on Dec. 6, 1946;

  • 1893 - Brahms: Intermezzo No. 1, for piano, from Op. 117, in Vienna;

  • 1895 - Loeffler: Quintet for three violins, viola and cello, at Boston's Union Hall by the Kneisel Quartet joined by violinist William Kraft;

  • 1916 - Daniel Mason: First Symphony (first version), by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting;

  • 1919 - Deems Taylor: chamber suite "Through The Looking Glass," by the New York Chamber Music Society;

  • 1947 - Menotti: one-act opera "The Telephone," in New York City at the Heckscher Theater;

  • 1952 - Prokofiev: Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 125 (as "Cello Concerto" No. 2), in Moscow, with Sviatoslav Richter conducting and Mstislav Rostropovich the soloist;

  • 1955 - Hanson: Symphony No. 5 ("Sinfonia Sacra"), the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting;

  • 1965 - Ginastera: Harp Concerto, by harpist Nicanor Zabaleta , with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting;

  • 1998 - Thea Musgrave: "Phoenix Rising," at the Royal Festival Hall in London, by the BBC Symphony, Andrew Davis conducting.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®