Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – #38 – Schönberg Les Misérables
It’s a rather odd thing that the musical Les Misérables is so well known that if you just say Les Mis, everyone knows what you’re talking about, but unlike Andrew Lloyd Webber, no one really speaks about the composer of Les Mis, Claude-Michel Schönberg, a French composer who, with librettist/lyricist Alain Boublil, gave us one of the most spectacular and enduring musical creations of all time, Les Misérables. Coming in at number 38 on my list of the Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical is Schönberg’s awesome creation.
Schönberg originally composed this as a concept album in the early 80s in French, basing on the general themes of Victor Hugo’s enormous tome. It’s honestly shocking how well the music from the original concept album to the full fledged musical we all know, works at conveying so much of the emotional impact of Victor Hugo’s epic tale. Still, distilling 1500 pages into a 2 hour musical will always skip over what makes the book so amazing. It is definitely a book every should have to read. Hugo starts the book with 50 pages about the priest that helps Valjean; yes, a minor character gets 50 pages of backstory! There are pages and pages of emotion dripping over the loss at Waterloo and the untold thousands dead or wounded. Hugo succeeds in making us feel what the miserable people of the world went through in their personal lives, so that we may better understand who they are, and how they are not that different from anyone else.
Schönberg succeeds with the music to convey these emotions from start to finish. For instance, “I Dreamed A Dream” masterfully weaves the boundaries between the happy solace of the wonderful summer Fantine spent with her rich friends, to the depravity she had to endure in her fall from grace. Each song fits with the characters, their emotions and desires, their dreams and their despair. My favorite is Red and Black. That song touched me in 1994 when I first got into Les Mis. It spoke to my revolutionary heart of wanting change, of something better while at the same time asking what are we fighting for? The contrapuntal ideas of the lyrics with Marius’s friends calling people to arms to go to the opera, and Marius’s own operatic tale of love unfulfilled! Yes, “Red, the blood of angry men! Black, the dark of ages past! Red, a world about to dawn! Black, the night that ends at last” versus “Red, I feel my soul on fire! Black, my world if she’s not there! Red, the color of desire! Black, is the color of despair!”
I recommend watching the 10th anniversary concert, which I’ve got linked below to the start of the Red and Black song. Enjoy the whole concert, though.