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Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, cornet, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 16, 1972, André Previn conducting
The Overture to Les Francs-juges (The Judges of the Secret Court), composed in 1826 by the 23-year-old Berlioz, is from an opera about a political prisoner rescued by his faithful fiancée from the Vehmgericht, a medieval German star chamber of secret judges. Berlioz never finished the opera, and nothing is known about what became of its music other than the Overture, though he almost certainly recycled it in other works.
To conjure up the mystery and terror of the secret court and its dark forest setting, Berlioz augmented the normal orchestra both at the top, with parts for two piccolos, and at the bottom, with a contrabassoon and two ophicleides (contrabass keyed trumpets that were ousted from orchestras in mid-century by tubas), so that the orchestra could scream and growl. He also added a new-fangled valved trumpet to go with the older natural trumpets.
Danger is never far away in the Overture. The foreboding slow introduction in F minor is interrupted by an overpowering summons from the brass that later rears its ugly head in the allegro section. The triumph of the good guys is represented by a song that the violins introduce in the allegro, which comes from a quintet that Berlioz had composed at age 12, and later, he said, burned. The orchestra is handled with Berlioz’ characteristic flair for making sounds that nobody else would even think of. Berlioz would have had many occasions to tinker with the Overture, which he performed throughout his career.
Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.