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Berlioz in Grenoble

Berlioz’s visit in 1868

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    Berlioz’s short trip to Grenoble in August 1868 is of some interest, if only because it was the last trip he made outside Paris and it gives a glimpse of his rather poor condition in the last months of his life. But the trip is notable in that there is little reliable information about it and important uncertainties remain, starting with the question, as pointed out by David Cairns (Berlioz, vol. 2 [1999], p. 770), Why did Berlioz make the trip in the first instance, at the height of summer and when he was in poor health?

    For much of Berlioz’s career, such as his numerous travels abroad, the composer’s correspondence normally provides detailed and reliable evidence. But at this late stage of his life, his letters become increasingly rare and brief. Up to March 1868 they are relatively numerous and detailed, up to the time of his two falls in Monaco and Nice and the accounts he gave of those incidents. But after April 1868 the supply of letters dwindles abruptly and they become briefer, as he had increasing difficulty in writing. Additional information is provided by contemporary sources, which include persons who were close to Berlioz, but their information is not necessarily reliable and they may embellish the story of what happened.

    There were two official functions in mid-August to which Berlioz was invited: a festival organised by a local choral society, and the inauguration of a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte. Both functions were planned earlier in the year. Berlioz seems to have been invited in April to be the honorary president of a competition for the Orphéon Choral Society, which was itself to be held around the time of the inauguration of the statue of Napoleon Bonaparte on 15 August. The judges in the competition were Ambroise Thomas, Gounod, Bazin, Besozzi, Louis Boïeldieu, Ernest Boulanger, de Raillé, Massé, de Monter and Jules Simon (from Correspondance Générale VII, p. 706 n. 1, hereafter CG).

    Separately, Camille Pal, Berlioz’s brother-in-law, invited him in April to attend the ceremony of the inauguration of Napoleon’s statue. According to CG (VII, p. 689 n. 1), it is possible that Pal did so knowing that Berlioz had already accepted the Orphéons’ invitation. When Berlioz received Pal’s letter he was very ill with his intestinal ailment, and had also recently suffered two consecutive serious accidental falls in Monaco and Nice (see above). He was anxious to refuse the invitation, as a letter dated 8 April 1868 to his niece Mathilde Masclet in Grenoble attests (CG no. 3353):

Thank you for your letter, which you did well to send me. I am still ailing and afflicted with sleepless nights. Sometimes I sleep, but this is rare. At last I am beginning to feel better, but so slowly that I do not know when I will be able to see you. That is why I am urging your father, and with great insistence, to steer away from me the invitation he mentions in his letter in connection with the statue of Emperor Napoleon. I will not have recovered and in any case this ceremony will involve making a speech. But I am not capable of putting one sentence together. Be very careful, I am not able to carry out this function. Anything they want but not that. But what they want is not what I would want. Write to me or ask your father to write about this to reassure me. I need rest and can no longer make even the slightest effort.
Farewell, I hope this will not be held against me. […]

    All the same Berlioz did eventually decide to make the trip, and seems to have accepted, though reluctantly, the invitation for the inauguration of the statue. He was still very ill when he went to Grenoble, as he mentions in a short letter to Mathilde’s husband, Jules Masclet, on 7 August (CG no. 3370): ‘I still have diarrhoea at ten o’clock, but do not worry about me, I will be in Grenoble on August 15 at eleven o’clock’. Berlioz left Paris on Friday evening 14 August in order to attend the ceremonies on the 15th, having signed, as he regularly did, the attendance book at the Institut de France on the same day (CG VII p. 707 n. 1). Berlioz did not travel alone, but was accompanied, as he wrote to Prosper Sain d’Arod, a friend in Grenoble (CG no. 3371; 13 August according to CG VII p. 707, though the letter bears the date 11 August):

I am still in more or less the same condition, but I will be leaving for Grenoble tomorrow evening and will stay at Charéar’s with a friend who is accompanying me without whose help I cannot stand up. I cannot do without him. I do not know where the town hall is and I imagine Charéar will let me know […] Farewell, I am leaving tomorrow evening.

    The anonymous ‘friend’ mentioned by Berlioz is in all probability Pierre-Guillaume Schumann, the husband of Berlioz’s servant Caroline Scheuer.

    Berlioz returned to Paris on the evening of the 16th, exhausted. In a letter of 21 August to one of his closest Russian friends, Vladimir Vasilievitch Stasov, he tells him about the trip in what is the only account from his pen of his trip to Grenoble (CG no. 3373):

I am back from Grenoble where I was more or less dragged by force to preside over a sort of choral festival and attend the inauguration of a statue of the Emperor Napoleon I. There was drinking, eating and merry-making and I was still ill, they came to fetch me in a carriage, toasts were made to which I did not know what to reply. The mayor of Grenoble lavished gifts on me and presented me with a crown, but I had to stay for a whole hour at the start of the banquet. The day after I left; I arrived exhausted at 11 o’clock at night. I am at the end of my tether. […]

    Evidence from other contemporary sources provide additional details. An excerpt of a report signed by Mathieu de Monter, published in the Revue et Gazette musicale of 23 August 1868, describes the same event thus:

Hector Berlioz had agreed to be honorary president. His appearance at the banquet stirred deep emotion and enthusiastic applause. A gold crown was placed by the mayor of Grenoble on the head of the master, who nowadays no longer has any detractors and though still alive belongs already to the immortals. A violent storm, which broke out suddenly and swept through the flowers and lights of the banqueting hall, gave a somewhat fantastic character to this truly imposing episode of the festival, which takes its rightful place in the annals of contemporary artistic history.
(Quoted in Julien Tiersot, Hector Berlioz et la Société de son Temps, 1904, p. 328)

    It will be noted that the letter Berlioz to Stasov cited above makes no mention of the storm, though it is attested by other sources reproduced below.

    It is at this point that other accounts start to embellish the story. First, Daniel Bernard. Bernard published in 1879 the first collection of Berlioz’s correspondence, just ten years after his death, and prefaced his collection of texts with a detailed and rather effusive biographical sketch of the composer (pp. 1-61), much of which was a paraphrase of the Mémoires (which had been published in 1870), but which also drew on the testimony of friends of Berlioz whom he occasionally cites. He himself had known Berlioz, though he does not go into details about himself and his relationship with the composer. Towards the end of his preface he recalls the events of August 1868 in Grenoble:

Some time after his fall on the rocks [in Monaco], he was invited to a choral festival which was given in his native province, in Grenoble. This last episode does recall the ending of Shakespeare’s plays, and the man who had best understood the genius of the English poet was to have an end rather similar to that of King Lear, Macbeth or Othello. To do justice to this final scene history would need to borrow the colours of drama. Imagine a hall glittering with lights, decorated with official wall coverings, a table loaded with delicate dishes, a gathering of joyful guests awaiting the arrival of one of them who was slow to come. Suddenly a curtain is drawn and a ghost appears: not the spectre of Banquo, but a skeletal Berlioz, his face pale and thin, with a blank look in his eyes, his head shaking, and his lips tight with a bitter smile. People gather around him and shake his hands – those trembling hands which guided armies of musicians to victory. An assistant places a crown on the old man’s white hair, who contemplates in astonishment the friends and compatriots who are lavishing their belated yet sincere tributes on him. He is congratulated but does not seem aware of anything. He rises mechanically to reply to words he has not understood. At that moment a furious gust of wind rushing from the Alps into the hall lifts the curtains and extinguishes the candles. Outside the wind rages and lightning tears through the sky, illuminating the silent and terrified bystanders with an eerie light. In the middle of the storm Berlioz has remained standing. Enveloped in a glow he is like the genius of symphony, for whom the powers of nature are providing an apotheosis, in a setting of mountains and assisted by gigantic music of thunder.
(Daniel Bernard, Correspondance Inédite de Hector Berlioz 1819-1868, 1879, pp. 59-60)

    Next Julien Tiersot. Tiersot, a great admirer of Berlioz and a prolific writer on the composer, writing 35 years after the event, confuses the dates and sequence of events somewhat – he was a young boy at the time of Berlioz’s 1868 visit to Grenoble and on his own admission did not witness the ceremony itself, though he was present in Grenoble at the time. Rather, he cites published sources, the first of which is Daniel Bernard (cited above) and the second Ernest Reyer, a close friend of Berlioz who knew him well and wrote extensively about him. Tiersot is drawing here on Reyer’s article in Notes de Musique (no date, p. 268) which is itself based on Reyer’s earlier obituary of the composer in the Journal des Débats of 31 March 1869 (p. 3):

The time was August 1868. Berlioz was invited to preside over a musical competition in Grenoble; he was beginning to receive at last the tributes of his compatriots which could be mistaken for enthusiasm. But the old fighter, broken by physical as much as moral pain, was no more than a shadow of himself.

   Quantum mutatus ab illo

By a rather strange coincidence, I had for the first time in my life come to Grenoble the day when Berlioz was there for the last time. I could have seen him. The last page of Berlioz’s Mémoires has the following words: « I have to console myself for not having known Virgil, whom I would have loved so much, or Gluck, or Beethoven, or Shakespeare… who perhaps would have loved me… The truth is that I cannot console myself… » Should I make this confession? At my age I had not yet heard the mention of Berlioz’s name; I was deeply ignorant of his existence. I therefore did not try to be on his way, and I never saw him. The truth is that I cannot console myself… But one notable feature of that day has remained very vivid in my mind: the terrible hurricane which fell on the city in the evening, one of these powerful mountain storms which come down from the upper valleys and sweep everything on their way. On the squares decorated for the festival the hangings were overturned, the poles uprooted, the flags that decorated the houses, torn by the violence of the wind, blazed with the lightning and hovered in the air above the crowds with their dark flashes.
It was the time of the banquet. The master had dragged himself there with great effort. Toasts were made in his honour and a gold crown placed on his head; he was standing up and muttering some words of thanks. Suddenly the windows were thrown open by the violence of the wind; the lights quivered and went out. He remained standing, his crown on his head, like a Shakespearean apparition, resembling King Lear on the moor… « He was like the genius of symphony, writes a biographer [Daniel Bernard], for whom the power of nature is providing an apotheosis, in a setting of mountains and with the help of the gigantic music of thunder. »
The next day, August 15, Napoleon’s statue was inaugurated on one of the city’s squares. But he was anxious to escape from the crowds: he took the way of the village where the Stella montis lived, and made a final visit to her. « This last visit and this last meeting were also his last emotion », according to Ernest Reyer, his confidant in his final days. […]
These were the circumstances in which the child of Dauphiné, who had once been damned through fear of the discredit he would bring on the name of Berlioz, returned to his native land, in an apotheosis which neither he nor any of his friends had ever dared to hope for.
(Julien Tiersot, 1904, pp. 41-42)

    As Berlioz writes in the letter to Stasov quoted above, he did attend the choral competition and the inauguration of Napoleon’s statue but, as his silence implies, it seems that he did not go to see Madame Estelle Fornier, who at the time no longer lived in Meylan but at St Symphorien, a considerable distance from Grenoble (some 70 miles). It is true that Ernest Reyer, who knew Berlioz well and was Tiersot’s source for this information, stated in his 1869 obituary notice on the composer that Berlioz did make a quick visit to see Estelle Fornier on his way back from Grenoble to Paris. Though not completely impossible, this statement raises practical and chronological problems, and whether such a visit did take place must probably remain very doubtful (see note below).

Statue of Napoleon

    The bronze statue of Napoleon was made by Emmanuel Frémiet, commissioned by Napoleon III, and was erected in Grenoble on the Place d’Armes (later renamed Place de Verdun). But the statue was dismantled during the war of 1870 [on 4 September*], at the time of the fall of the Second Empire, and placed in storage, first in Grenoble, later in Paris. World War I revived the cult of Napoleon I, and the Isère Department and Paris started to argue about the statue, both wanting to own it. Grenoble eventually won the argument and in 1929 was given permission to set up the statue at Laffrey in the so-called ‘Prairie de la Rencontre’ or ‘Field of the Encounter’ on the shore of the lake. The new location had historical connections with Napoleon, involving his encounter with Louis XVIII’s soldiers on 7 March 1815 in the village of Laffrey; the encounter ended by the soldiers amicably laying down their arms and joining him. The restored statue was officially inaugurated for the second time on 31 August 1930 (source: Mairie de Laffrey).

* We are grateful to M. Eric Lombard for the exact date of the removal of the statue of Napoleon.

    The following two postcards, posted in July 1959, are from our collection. © Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.

Statue of Napoleon on the shore of the lake in Laffrey
Statue of Napoleon

(Large view)

    The text on the back of the postcard reads: Monument élevé à Laffrey, pour commémorer la rencontre, le 7 mars 1815, de l’Empereur retour de l’Ile d’Elbe et des troupes royales envoyées pour l’arrêter et qui firent leur jonction avec les soldats de Napoléon [Monument set up at Laffrey to commemorate the meeting on 7 March 1815 of the Emperor returning from the island of Elba with the royal troops that had been sent to arrest him but joined up with the soldiers of Napoleon]

Statue of Napoleon on the shore of the lake in Laffrey
Statue of Napoleon

(Large view)

    The text on the front of this card is a quotation from Napoleon when he encountered the soldiers: Soldats, Je suis votre empereur, ne me reconnaissez-vous pas ? S’il en est un parmi vous qui veuille tuer son général, Me voilà ! [Soldiers, I am your Emperor, do you not recognise me? If there is anyone among you who wishes to kill his general, Here I am!]

* Note: Although Ernest Reyer stated as a fact that Berlioz made a visit to Estelle Fornier after leaving Grenoble and before returning to Paris, this statement, though not impossible, raises chronological and practical difficulties.

1. According to CG no. 3370 (dated 7 August) Berlioz intended to be in Grenoble on the morning of the 15th. According to CG no. 3371 (of 13 August according to CG VII p. 707, though the letter bears the date 11 August) he was planning to leave in the evening the day after. In any case he was still in Paris on the 14th, since he signed the book of attendance at the Institut on that day. It seems very doubtful that he could have arrived that same evening in Grenoble; more probably he arrived the next day after an overnight journey.

2. Tiersot dates the banquet attended by Berlioz to the 14th and the inauguration of the statue to the following day, 15 August. This is incorrect: both events took place on the same day, 15 August. In any case, it seems unlikely Berlioz could have travelled from Paris on the 14th and arrived in time for a banquet in Grenoble in the evening.

3. The letter to Stasov (CG no. 3373) implies that Berlioz did attend both the inauguration of the statue and the banquet which celebrated the choral competition, and nothing proves that he did not attend the inauguration of the statue. A letter to his old friend Albert Du Boys written in Grenoble during his stay (CG no. 3372) refers to the ‘roars of these military bands’ which ‘aggravate his discomfort’, and this reads like an allusion to the military music which will have accompanied the inauguration of the statue. This was therefore a busy and stressful day for an old man in poor health, who said he was unable to travel without the help of a friend (probably his faithful companion Schumann), and who in Grenoble refused the invitation from an old friend, Albert Du Boys (CG no. 3372). A trip from Grenoble to St Symphorien on the 15th seems out of the question.

4. Since Berlioz left the day after for Paris (16 August) and arrived late in the evening of the same day (CG no. 3373) a rapid visit on the way to St Symphorien followed by a very short meeting with Estelle Fornier, though not impossible, seems very implausible in the circumstances (presumably the friend who accompanied him on his journey would have gone there as well).

5. In his last two known letters to Estelle Fornier (CG nos. 3363, 14 June; 3369, 31 July) Berlioz does not mention any plans to go and see her, though the possibility of a visit to Grenoble was known to Berlioz as early as April (CG no. 3353). It seems very unlikely that Berlioz would have ventured to make an impromptu visit to Estelle Fornier without asking her permission in advance, and no evidence survives of such an approach. One may also wonder whether Berlioz would have wanted to confront Estelle Fornier with the spectacle of his own pitiful condition.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997;
Berlioz in Grenoble page created on 11 December 2008; this page updated on 6 December 2009. Revised on 1 July 2023.

© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin for all the pictures and information on this page.

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