We will never know what Hector Berlioz’s opera Les Francs-juges could have sounded like. While the overture survives, all other material was either destroyed or reworked by Berlioz into other pieces.

If you put music lovers on the spot and ask them to name the big ‘Bs’ of the classical cannon, they will likely respond with the names Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach and Johannes Brahms.

A fourth ‘B’ who has been both lauded and dismissed by critics over the past two centuries is Hector Berlioz. Berlioz’s most famous piece is his vivid and dramatically charged Symphonie Fantastique. This symphonic poem stands apart from many other famous large-scale orchestral works as it follows a colourful story of unrequited love (and a ghoulish opium-induced nightmare) written by the composer.

During their three-state tour in July, the Australian Youth Orchestra will be performing the exciting overture to Berlioz’s opera Les Francs-juges – an opera which was never completed or staged. Berlioz began working on Les Francs-juges soon after enrolling at the Paris Conservatoire with a libretto supplied by his close friend Humbert Ferrand. Sadly, the Paris Opéra rejected the libretto and the project was discarded.

The story of the opera was inspired by the mysterious existence of the Vehmic Courts of Westphalia (a region in north-west Germany) during the Middle Ages. Les Francs-juges translates as the ‘The Free Judges’, referring to the secretive fraternity behind these courts with the authority to deliver death sentences. According to the legend of these courts, they not only had the power to grant death sentences but would rarely give any other kind of verdict.

Medieval era illustration of a Vehmic Court depicting 14 men assembled around a balcony.
Medieval era illustration of a Vehmic Court, featured in one of Germany’s first recorded law books, the Herforder Rechtsbuch, dated 1375.

The overture has become a popular piece in the orchestral canon. It was first performed for the public on May 26, 1828, after Berlioz secured the hall at the Paris Conservatoire for a concert of his own works. Over the course of fifteen minutes, the overture moves through bright and lyrical themes and thundering crescendos harnessing the full might of the orchestra. The manuscript includes a part written for an ophicleide (pronounced off-il-clyde) an instrument considered to be the predecessor to the modern-day tuba.

This concert was attended by François-Joseph Fétis, one of the most famous musicologists and music critics of the day. His verdict on the night proved accurate: ‘Now that is a debut that will lead somewhere.’