Berlioz in London

Berlioz conducts the New Philharmonic Society

The Times, 25 March 1852

Berlioz’s first concert on his third visit to London took place on 24 March 1852, with the New Philharmonic Society at Exeter Hall. The Times published a review of this concert the next day. 

We have transcribed the text of this review from a print-out of an image of the article in a database accessed at the British Library in London (Colindale site); the syntax and spelling of the original have been preserved, but we have corrected obvious typesetting errors.

NEW PHILHARMONIC SOCIETY.

    The first concert of this new society, the constitution and profession of which have already been described, took place last night at Exeter-hall in the presence of nearly 1,500 persons. It is seldom that great promises end in great doings ; but in the present instance the ordinary routine of things has been reversed, The projectors of the New Philharmonic Society, like the projectors of the Royal Italian Opera, invite attention to something unprecedented,—to something, in short, which should be in consonance with the advancing state of public taste in reference to the musical art, and which, discarding the ancient regime, should open a new field of enterprise and a new source of enjoyment. As the promise has been kept by the Royal Italian Opera, so, if last night’s performance may be accepted as a criterion, is it likely to be redeemed by the New Philharmonic Society. It is worth recalling that the New Philharmonic Society, as in the Royal Italian Opera, the prime mover, if not absolutely the originator, has been Mr. T. F. Beale, to whose enthusiasm and courageous speculation the lovers of music in this country are largely indebted.

    Having already presented the substance of the prospectus circulated by the managers of the New Philharmonic Society, it is unnecessary to enter into further details. It is enough to say that all that was laid down in that document with respect to the executive force, vocal and instrumental, has been fulfilled to the letter, and that a band so numerous and efficient was never before heard in an English concert-room. M. Jarrett, to whom the task of enlisting this formidable assemblage of executants was intrusted, has fulfilled his mission in a manner which justifies the confidence that was placed in him. The programme was as follows:—

PART I.

Symphony in C. (“Jupiter”)

Mozart.

Selection from “Iphigenia in Tauride”

Gluck.

Triple Concerto (pianoforte, violin, and violoncello), M. Silas, Signor Sivori, and Signor Piatti

Beethoven.

Overture (“Oberon”)

Weber.

PART II.

“Romeo and Juliet,” Part I.—Dramatic Symphony, with solos and chorus

Hector Berlioz.

Fantasia, contrabasso, Signor Bottesini

Bottesini.

Overture (“Guillaume Tell”)

Rossini.

Conductor.—M. Hector Berlioz.

    It was wise to inaugurate the first concert with a well-known masterpiece like the Jupiter symphony, but it was unwise to present it in any other form than that which Mozart himself has authorized. The omission of the repeats was a double mistake,—a mistake of taste and a mistake of policy. Those who set up as teachers should be thoroughly acquainted with their profession ; those who condemn faults in others should be careful to leave as little as possible for others to reprehend. The New Philharmonic Society stands in the position of a Reformer ; it represents free trade in art, and aims at abolishing monopoly. The more difficult its office the greater pains should it bestow on attaining, as nearly as possible, the desired perfection. Instead of reading a lesson to the old Philharmonic, it has left itself open, in the present instance, to a fair and unanswerable rebuke from the partisans of that society. Beyond this, however, criticism has nothing to object. A more perfect execution of Mozart’s magnificent symphony was probably never heard. M. Berlioz, whose reception on appearing in the orchestra, was highly flattering, seems to be deeply versed in the “traditions” of this kind of music, and his indication of the times of each movement was as correct as his manner of beating was clear, decided, and emphatic. The members of the band played together as though there was but one instrument, in lieu of upwards of a hundred, and at the termination of the symphony opinion was unanimous about their remarkable efficiency. The selection from Gluck’s opera—consisting of the great recitative and air of Thoas, choruses of Scythians, and ballet music—created a furore. Here, however, recitative and air, instead of being confided to a single voice, as in the score of Gluck, were sung by a number of male voices in unison—a manifest and unjustifiable violation of the composer’s intention. Surely, in this great metropolis some singer, foreign or native, might have been found both able and willing to execute the recitative and air of the Scythian. If not, we must confess that it is a bad look-out for the New Philharmonic Society. The spirit and animation of the performance, however, almost swamped animadversion ; and so vivid was the impression produced by the graphic music of the old dramatic composer—the predecessor, and in some respects the model of Mozart—that the whole selection was repeated, in obedience to an unanimous demand from the audience. Although, in fact, but a revival, this selection was quite as good as a novelty for which we might have vainly looked elsewhere, with equal means of doing it justice. Beethoven’s triple concerto in C, for pianoforte, violin, violoncello, and full orchestra, was another new feature. A long and elaborate work, in which the three obligato instruments have plenty to do, it is, nevertheless, by no means one of the real inspirations of its composer. The allegro commences boldly, but the lengthiness of the details is not atoned for by a proportionate degree of interest. There are some beautiful phrases in the largo in A flat, and the rondo, a well spun-out polacca, is vigorous, and in many places brilliant. Nevertheless, throughout the entire work we miss the richness of invention which usually characterizes the more ambitious essays of the author. The simple fact of its being a composition of Beethoven, however, was a sufficient apology for producing it, and the masterly execution of the solo parts by MM. Silas, Sivori, and Piatti gave it the best chance of appreciation. It was loudly applauded. The overture to Oberon, performed with a fire, impetuosity, and finesse which we have never heard surpassed by any body of instrumentalists, brought the first part to a conclusion amidst a veritable uproar of applause, which terminated in a general recall for M. Hector Berlioz.

    The grand novelty of the concert was the selection from the dramatic symphony of Romeo and Juliet—one of the most extraordinary compositions of one of the most extraordinary composers the art has known. It is scarcely necessary to say that M. Berlioz, by a variety of compositions on a scale of unprecedented vastness, has long engaged the attention of the musical world throughout Europe. It is, moreover, pretty well known that his admirers and his detractors form two contending parties, obstinately opposed to each other. While one set of critics hail him as the great living exponent of the art, the prophet of its future millennium, and consequently in advance of his time, others go so far as to declare that his compositions, setting at defiance the ordinary forms and appliances, are not, strictly speaking, entitled to be designated music at all. The eminent position enjoyed by M. Berlioz himself as a critic in Paris, and the severity and independence with which he delivers his opinions, have naturally created him a host of enemies ; and these swell out the list of his depreciators, whose opposition has nevertheless only succeeded in fanning the zeal of his adherents into a flame. We shall not pretend to settle the question at issue about the merits of M. Berlioz, but be satisfied to judge him by what we heard last night—the first part of his symphony of Romeo and Juliet, for orchestra and voices. The mere attempt to compose a work of such immense proportions argues enthusiasm of no common kind ; and enthusiasm is already one great link in the chain of qualifications requisite to form a great artist. That M. Berlioz has a poetical mind, that he has in him much of the quality of a painter, that he is wholly independent of mere conventionalities, that he disdains commonplace, that he aspires to raise himself up to his subject, and that he tries to invent, if he does not positively succeed in finding, something entirely new on his own account, we cannot suppose any unprejudiced person who, capable of judging, listened attentively to last night’s performance will be prepared to deny. There is an earnestness in the whole of the work which shows the composer to have been full to the brim of his subject. From the quarrels of the Montagues and Capulets, with which the symphony opens, to the illustration of Queen Mab, with which the first part concludes, there is continued evidence of aspiration, if not of absolute creative genius. This last, as a piece of instrumentation, defies description. The orchestral combinations, as unprecedented as they are often singularly happy, are all exclusively the property of Berlioz who discovered them, and to whose wild and wayward imagination they are as tints to give variety to his pictures. A more gorgeous example of instrumental colouring than the long movement in A major, which follows the joyous chorus of the Capulet youths reeling home from their orgie, was never written ; such an endless change of tone, such ever-shifting gradations, and so nicely balanced and contrasted, could alone render a morceau of such unusual length endurable. Berlioz, however, has rendered it not merely endurable but interesting from first to last, and we must venture an opinion that this scene d’amour, as it is entitled in the score, is not only the most beautiful passage in the symphony of Romeo and Juliet, but the most gorgeous piece of musical colouring by a musical colourist, whose most vivid scenes must recall to the ardent observer the later pictures that came from the golden brush of Turner. We are aware that the scherzo of Queen Mab, an inexplicable world of fantasy, will be preferred by many for its gaiety, its verve, and its new devices of instrumentation, surpassing at times the extremest verge of fancy, and bordering on a sphere for which our commonplace language does not apply a name. But, carried away as we are by many passages in this, we own that, as a whole, we have not yet been able to apprehend its entire signification. Two other capital points in the first part of Romeo and Juliet are the description of the fête at the mansion of Capulet, and the chorus, already alluded to, of the young Capulets in the streets. These are full of reality, and highly characteristic of the scenes to be described.

    Only musicians can wholly understand the almost insuperable difficulties which this extraordinary symphony presents to the executants. An instant’s inattention from a single performer and he is inevitably lost, without a possibility of regaining his place—so complex, divided, and subdivided are the rhythms, the passages so odd, and the progressions so unanticipated, and so utterly out of the reach of ordinary calculation. Nevertheless, M. Berlioz has the secret of conciliating the members of orchestras, and enchaining their attention. This was proved incontestably last night by the marvellous precision with which his work was played by the band. The chorus, too, with a task of no common difficulty, acquitted themselves most satisfactorily, while Miss Dolby and Mr. Lockey sang two vocal solos with great decision and correctness. The morceau assigned to the latter, a scherzetto in F on the subject of Mab (with chorus), becomes the less easily manageable from an orchestral accompaniment of strange and intricate character. The attention with which the whole performance was listened to demonstrated the sincere desire of the audience to value the merits of M. Berlioz to the very extent of their capacity, and the frequent and flattering applause bestowed upon the several movements was a sign that the impression produced was favourable to the work and its composer, with whom, doubtless, a more familiar acquaintance would conduce to a still more genuine appreciation.

    A word must suffice to state that Signor Bottesini’s solo on the double-bass, though very brief, was not the less wonderful ; and that the brilliant overture of Rossini, enlevée, as the French critics term it, by the band, brought the concert to a close with the utmost eclat. So auspicious a beginning should be followed by remitting exertions on the part of the managers, who now have it in their power to establish the New Philharmonic Society on a firm and permanent basis.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 1 October 2010.

© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.

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