ANNIVERSARIES: Charles Munch Records Symphonie fantastique on November 14-15, 1954


Charles Munch was born in Strasbourg in 1891, the son of organist/choral conductor Ernst Münch. It was a musical family; Charles's brothers Fritz and Hans also became conductors. Charles studied violin with Lucien Capet and Carl Flesch and conducting with Wilhelm Furtwängler and Alfred Sendrey. World War I interrupted his musical progress; a sergeant of artillery in the German army, he was gassed at Peronne and wounded at Verdun. After the war ended, he became a French citizen.

Munch first pursued violin professionally; he didn't begin his conducting career until 1932, at age 41. He founded the Orchestra de la Société Philharmonique in 1935 in Paris, was named conductor of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris in 1938, and stayed in France during the German occupation of World War II. His conduct during this difficult period included French Resistance activities; he was awarded the French Légoon d'Honneur in 1945.

Munch's American debut came with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1946; in 1949 he succeeded Serge Koussevitzky as the BSO's permanent conductor. He led the BSO on its first European tour in 1952, and remained its conductor until 1962, when he returned to Paris at the age of 70. He died in 1968 while on tour in the U.S. (Erich Leinsdorf succeeded Munch at the BSO's helm.)

Though Munch was quite adept in the core Germanic repertoire, he was considered a specialist in French music, and RCA's tendency to pigeonhole its artists led to many classic Munch recordings of French repertoire. Their sonic splendor and idiomatic, stirring performances have perpetuated them in the catalog.

Symphonie fantastique was the first psychedelic music, depicting (in Berlioz's words) "a young musician of abnormal sensitivity and perfervid imagination" on an opium trip, to which he has been driven by romantic frustration. It's innovative in construction, attaining thematic unity by using what the composer called an idée fixe, or a motto theme, in each of its five movements, the theme representing the way the musician keeps thinking of his love across or within each context: "Reveries and Passions," "A Ball," "Scene in the Country," "March to the Scaffold," and "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath," as the movements are titled.

At the time of this November 1954 recording of the Symphonie Fantastique, long considered an audiophile classic, RCA had been experimenting with stereo recordings for barely over a year (they would not be released on stereo-encoded vinyl until years later -- in this case, many years) and was still using a two-microphone set-up rather than the three-mike arrangement it later became famous for. Far from sounding primitive, the veracity of orchestral image this offers is ravishingly beautiful -- thanks to the gorgeous tone, suave phrasing, and superbly calculated balances that Munch achieved with the BSO in its home hall, all captured with complete accuracy by those two microphones and an RCA RT-11 dual track, 30 ips, 1/4" tape recorder. Sixty years later, it's still one of the very best recordings of the work. (The SACD edition adds Munch's recording of the Love Scene from Roméo et Juliette.) - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.