Report by the journalist Louis Bassette
Published in Grenoble-Revue of 15 October 1890
Translated by Michel Austin
© Michel Austin
For a number of years bronze and marble statues have been so to speak sprouting spontaneously out of French soil; it is said that we are afflicted with statue-mania. There are some who laugh and deride this craze for erecting monuments in honour of all our great men of the first and second rank. Let us admit that it may be a trifle ridiculous, but at least it saves us from being ungrateful.
The fact is that statues built in public squares are a permanent source of instruction for the public. They tell us about the cult of our French celebrities and our local glories. They make us proud of our country – a worthy sentiment, as M. Jules Simon has written somewhere, which encourages us to wish that the country in its turn should be proud of us.
Berlioz for his part has amply earned his statue. It was erected on the Esplanade of La Côte-Saint-André, last Sunday 28 September. Admittedly it will not add anything to the fame of the composer, a fame which is above all consecrations, but it pays a debt of gratitude to the author of Les Troyens, and a small part of this glory is reflected back on this country.
The ceremony was magnificent.
From early morning there were trainloads of people happy to be on the move. Visitors were arriving in large numbers at the station of La Côte-Saint-André; after a brief wait at the small square they then got into the carriages provided free by the organisers of the ceremony to take them to the town.
« As the name indicates, La Côte-Saint-André is built on the slope of a hill, and dominates a fairly wide plain – a rich, golden and lush expanse of land, whose silence conveys a sense of dreamy grandeur, further enhanced by the surrounding chain of mountains to the south and east, behind which rise in the distance, laden with glaciers, the gigantic peaks of the Alps. »
Such is the description of La Côte-Saint-André given by Berlioz himself; we could do no better than to borrow his own words.
A straight but rather bumpy road leads to the town. We walk around the streets in the fresh morning air, bathed in the cool light of the rising sun. The town is already filled with sounds; house fronts are festooned with decorations amidst the green trees. Flags are fluttering in the wind. There is an air of excitement in the air. From the whole town a confused hubbub rises, above which fanfares ring out from the brass bands which are arriving and going around the streets. Above our heads triumphal arches soar aloft and display their inscriptions: TO HECTOR BERLIOZ – TO OUR FOREIGN GUESTS – TO THE MUSICAL SOCIETIES…
The Esplanade on which Berlioz’s statue rises, still draped in its veils, is a large rectangular square surrounded by green plane trees, with at one end, near the road, a water fountain which rains its drops into a tiny pond.
On the opposite side, to the right and left of the bronze statue by M. Lenoir, two platforms have been constructed, one for the notables, and the other for the Philharmonic Society from Vienna. Policemen can barely hold back the crowd gathering around the frail barriers which fence off the space for the musical societies and the platforms.
Around nine o’clock the brass bands, one after another, take up their position around the statue. It is certainly going to be a fine day. The sun is shining. There is a breath of warm air around. The medals on the banners surrounding Berlioz’s pedestal catch rays of the sun…
Eventually the excitement subsides a little. People are waiting. The ministerial train is late…
Around half past ten suddenly two explosions go off; the official cortège is near. Yes, it soon enters the reserved precinct. Its members include MM. Bourgeois, Minister for Education, Robert, Prefect of the Isère, Ronjat, President of the General Council, Paret, Mayor of La Côte-Saint-André, Reyer, the well-known composer of Sigurd and Salammbô, General Vincendon, deputies and senators, etc., etc.
The cortège made its way along the road which leads from the station to the Esplanade; in the course of the journey one can admire the picturesque terracing of the town, over which tower the lofty snow-clad peaks of Belledone. It was escorted by a cohort of gendarmes and a squadron of hussars. Leading the procession was the Vienna Philharmonic Society…!
M. Bourgeois was the first to rise and speak. Today a task of justice and rehabilitation is being performed, he said; through all ages men of genius have been ignored and denigrated in their lifetime. Berlioz especially was a victim of his countrymen’s ingratitude…
M. Bourgeois recalled in a few words the musician’s tribulations, his arguments with his parents, his frequent trips from Paris to La Côte-Saint-André.
Berlioz, he continued, was great among the greatest… What Victor Hugo did for poetry, Delacroix for painting, Rude and Barye for statuary, he wanted to do for music. His work is energetic and tormented… He was the boldest and most original of musicians. On one side he expressed passions in all their force, turned the dreams and inspirations of the soul into song that was disturbing in its seductive and painful directness. On the other he shattered antiquated moulds, discarded old rhythms, looked for new formulas that would be truer to nature and to life, revolutionised instrumental writing and invented orchestral combinations of the most majestic effect… He continued Beethoven and foreshadowed Wagner… His idols were Shakespeare, the Bible, Virgil, and Byron, and he always remembered them in his works, from the Symphonie Fantastique to his last musical compositions…
M. Bourgeois surveys very quickly Berlioz’s principal works: Harold, where in the wake of Byron Berlioz shows romantic dreams dwelling on the great memories of Roman Italy; Benvenuto Cellini, overflowing with enthusiasm for art and Florentine energy, where fantasy and the picturesque are given free scope; Roméo et Juliette, incandescent with Shakespearean passion, and the sublime Damnation de Faust where Goethe’s immense poem takes its place complete in French music; then the graceful Enfance du Christ and the exquisite idyll of Béatrice et Bénédict, and finally Les Troyens à Carthage, perhaps the peak of his genius, infused with the broad inspiration of Virgil’s poetry.
But, he continues, there is someone here to whom I am anxious to hand over and who will speak better about all this than I can. He concludes by saying that Berlioz is and will remain the leader of the French musical school, and by thanking the organisers, the inhabitants of La Côte and the visitors who have come, for the homage paid to one of the great geniuses of this century.
After this speech the veil which was concealing the statue is lifted. While the Philharmonic Society performs the Trojan March, M. Lenoir’s work stands out against the greenery of the trees.
Berlioz is represented in a reflective pose, his head inclined a little over his breast, his elbow leaning on a desk on which scores are laid out; the pages have been frequently thumbed through and the corners protrude a little. Under his dense hair, with his proud and eagle-like nose, as says M. Jean Celle, the author of a poem which was read out by M. Salomon from the Opéra, his head conveys a sense of energy and will-power; his brow looks thoughtful. The famous composer is probably listening to the sound of music singing in his ear.
Applause greets the unveiling of the statue.
M. Reyer, a Member of the Institut and one of Berlioz’s favourite pupils, then speaks. His speech was heard with the greatest attention. We are sorry we are unable to reproduce it in full and to be restricted, through lack of space, to a brief and cold summary. M. Reyer recalled that four years earlier, he was officially entrusted with the task of honouring Berlioz on the occasion of the setting up of his statue in Paris. « One of the recollections that are most vividly etched on my mind is that of the masterly performances which Berlioz conducted himself in the concerts he was forced to give to make a living with difficulty. The sense of effortless lyricism which he conveyed was superb; he was transfigured and I have seen him, at the end of a performance where he was applauded – abroad, alas, in a country where his dignity and patriotism prevented him from going now – I have seen him with his limbs trembling with nervous tension and his face bathed in tears. »
M. Reyer then went on to give a brief sketch of Berlioz’s life. From his earliest works, he related, he demonstrated his characteristic skill in orchestral writing, his search for orchestral effects and musical surprises. He was Wagner’s predecessor, and none of the most famous of contemporary composers could claim not to have learnt from his example.
M. Reyer ended with these words: Berlioz was great in everything he did. I cannot but conclude with the same words I was speaking four years ago during the inauguration at Vintimille Square: « Honour to Berlioz, the translator of Virgil and Shakespeare, the continuator of Gluck and Beethoven, one of the greatest composers of all time, and perhaps the most extraordinary of them all. »
After this speech, M. Salomon, from the Opéra and he too a native of La Côte-Saint-André, read a poem, simple and moving in its charm, and dedicated to Berlioz by M. Jean Celle. The Vienna Philharmonic Society performed with rare mastery the overture Les Francs-Juges.
M. Marcel Paret, in his turn, spoke. He thanked M. Bourgeois for attending the celebration and congratulated all the members of the audience and the subscribers for demonstrating their attachment to the composer.
Decorations of Officer of the Academy were then handed out: to M. Lenoir, the author of Berlioz’s statue, to M. Jean Celle, teacher and poet, and to others as well…
A choral piece, Gaule et France, by Saintis, concluded the inauguration, while the Ministers and the audience made their way to the Halle, magnificently decorated, where the banquet took place.
The banquet was very much like any other banquet, accompanied by political toasts. I say no more…
After M. Bourgeois had gone to the station to travel to Grenoble, where the following day he visited the Beaux-Arts Exhibition, the ceremony reached a happy conclusion. During the afternoon the musical societies were to be heard everywhere. In the evening the town was illuminated; lights were hung up everywhere in the trees; La Côte-Saint-André looked like the setting of an enchanted fairytale.
* Our warm thanks to our friend M. Jean Michel DESAI for sending us the original French text of this article.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 1 February 2004.
© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.
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