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The Hamburg Theatre

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    Hamburg was on Berlioz’s projected itinerary at the start of his first trip to Germany in December 1842 (Correspondance Générale no. 791; hereafter CG for short), though it was not till a few months later, in the middle of March 1843, that he arrived there. The visit came after a series of successful concerts in Weimar, Leipzig, Dresden and Brunswick which compensated for the rather tentative start of the trip. Berlioz soon reckoned Hamburg, together with Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin and Hanover, among the ‘great musical cities of the north’ (CG no. 841), by contrast with the south of the country which in his experience was ‘poverty-stricken: everywhere empty and inert cities where people are asleep day and night’ (CG no. 823ter [in vol. VIII], 30 March 1843).

    The story of the visit to Hamburg is told in Letter 6 of the Travels to Germany I which together with the other letters was later incorporated in the Memoirs. It was addressed to Berlioz’s friend the poet Heinrich Heine, himself a native of Hamburg. The account is rather brief and comes at the end of a chapter which is mainly devoted to Brunswick. At the time, and after the intoxicating reception given to Berlioz in Brunswick, Hamburg was only a stop on the way to his real target Berlin, the capital of Prussia and with Vienna one of the two major musical centres of the German world (cf. CG no. 820, to his father, 14 March, from Brunswick, the day before his departure for Hamburg).

    Berlioz stayed less than two weeks in Hamburg until about 25-28 March, and gave only one concert there in the theatre. The extant letters give no information on the arrangements made before Berlioz arrived, and no letters survive from during the stay in Hamburg. But Berlioz had prepared the ground in advance by insisting on the enlargement of the rather modest forces of the theatre’s orchestra. Once in Hamburg he was able to assess the theatre’s resources and capabilities in advance of his concert, and heard there performances of Mozart’s Magic Flute, Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto and Donizetti’s Linda di Chamouni. The theatre was unusually large, the orchestra small but capable, and its musical director (Kapellmeister) Karl August Krebs a competent conductor who proved helpful to Berlioz during rehearsals. Among the singers the most striking was the bass Joseph Reichel. The fullest account of the concert Berlioz gave (on 22 March) comes from a letter to his friend Auguste Morel, written from Berlin on 30 March, which adds to the narrative of the Memoirs (CG no. 824):

[…] I have just arrived from Hamburg where I did not know a soul. I gave there a large concert with enormous success; I was called back twice at the end of the evening. The performance was superb, and had uncommon polish and aplomb; the programme included Harold in Italy, the cantata Le Cinq Mai sung in German, the overture Les Francs-Juges, Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, the Romance for violin which I composed for Artôt and which was played with grace and elegance, if not with outstanding talent by M. Lindena, the Offertorium and Quaerens me of the Requiem, and two Romances including Absence which I orchestrated in the key of F sharp, both of which are thus ten times more effective than in their version with piano accompaniment. Mme Cornet, the wife of the theatre director sang the cavatina; for Le Cinq Mai I had Reichel, a prodigious bass singer who can reach a low B natural

B natural

M. [Marie Recio] sang both Romances and very well the one in F sharp. This letter is of course for your eyes only. If you say anything about the Hamburg concert please be very brief, because I fear that the Parisian public is beginning to have enough of my ‘Bulletins de la Grande armée’ [Reports from the Grand Army]. […]

    To Morel Berlioz was prepared to confide the truth about Marie Recio’s part on the trip which he would not reproduce in his official letters about his German travels; Absence had been orchestrated by Berlioz specifically for Marie during their stay in Dresden in February. The ‘Bulletins de la Grande Armée’ are the reports Berlioz sent back to his friends in Paris to try to impress the Parisian public with the success of his German tour (for the phrase cf. also CG nos. 820, 823ter [in vol. VIII]). As for the bass Reichel, Berlioz was so impressed by him that he invited him to sing again Le Cinq mai at the concert he gave in Darmstadt later in his tour, and remembered him subsequently.

    Berlioz felt that he had won over the musicians in the Hamburg orchestra, though he also mentions the negative compliment expressed after the concert by the Kapellmeister Krebs:

[…] After this piece [the cantata Le Cinq Mai], two players close to my desk spoke to me in a low voice in French these simple words, which touched me greatly:

« Ah! sir! our respect! our respect!…  » They could not say any more. In short, the Hamburg orchestra has remained very good friends with me, and this gives me considerable pride, I promise you. Krebs was alone in showing singular reticence in his appreciation: « My dear friend, he told me, in a few years your music will travel all around Germany; it will become popular, and this will be a great misfortune! What imitations it will provoke, what style, what eccentricities! For the sake of art it would be better if you had never been born! »

    Despite this Berlioz retained a favourable impression of Hamburg and thought of returning there on several occasions. On his way back from Russia in 1847 he mentions the possibility of a concert there, though nothing came of this (CG nos. 1100, 1101, 1114, 1115). In 1853 and again in 1854 Berlioz considered returning to Hamburg to conduct once more concerts and he set out his conditions, though the plans eventually fell through (CG nos. 1651, 1652D, 1746-7, 1749). In 1854 he was to meet again Krebs, who had now moved from Hamburg to Dresden where Berlioz was to give a series of concerts. Mindful of Krebs’ critical attitude a decade earlier Berlioz tried to placate him. In a letter to him from Hanover Berlioz recalls the visit of 1843 (CG no. 1721, 1 April):

Do you still remember me, and my concert in Hamburg, and the long rehearsals during which you gave me so much warm support?… In Dresden I will soon be calling again on your good offices. M. von Lüttichau has kindly authorised me to come and give two concerts in your great theatre; among other pieces I will perform my Romeo and Juliet symphony which includes a solo for contralto. I would be very happy if Mme Krebs could accept this vocal part which needs to be performed with some lyrical feeling and which requires a true artist. Be good enough to help me obtain this favour. […]

    But Krebs was not to be won over. In a letter to his uncle Félix Marmion Berlioz stated what he believed the true situation was: Krebs would not forgive Berlioz his superiority as a conductor (CG no. 1726, 4 April), and his hostility to Berlioz, a foreigner, is confirmed by the contemporary testimony of Hans von Bülow (quoted in David Cairns, Berlioz vol. II [1999], p. 539). Krebs pointedly absented himself from a dinner given in Berlioz’s honour after the second performance of Faust (CG no. 1750, 27 April). The critical remarks of Krebs in Hamburg in 1843 thus gave an accurate foretaste of the prejudices and obstacles that Berlioz was to encounter in certain circles in Germany in the 1850s.

The Hamburg Theatre

The Hamburg Theatre around 1899

(Large view)

This 1899 postcard is in our own collection.

The Berlioz in Hamburg page was created on 1 November 2006.

© Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb

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