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Charles Hallé conducts Berlioz’s Faust in London

A review published in

The Times, 24 May 1880.

    Charles Hallé made the acquaintance of Berlioz  when he went to Paris in 1836; the two men subsequently became lifelong friends. In 1848 Hallé went to England and eventually settled in Manchester. He championed and performed Berlioz’s music in his lifetime and beyond (see Charles Hallé in Berlioz in London: friends and acquaintances). 

    In May 1880 Hallé conducted two performances of La Damnation de Faust on two subsequent evenings, the first of which was reviewed by the music critic of The Times.

    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. 

See also Charles Hallé conducts Berlioz’s Faust in Manchester.

Berlioz’s “Faust”

    When, two months ago, Mr. Charles Hallé for the first time introduced his orchestra to a metropolitan audience, we remarked, “It is difficult to see why Mr. Hallé did not identify his début as a conductor with the introduction of an unfamiliar and important work—such, for example, as Berlioz’s Faust, recently given with enormous success at Manchester.” The performance thus suggested took place on Friday night [21 May] at St. James’s-hall, and the result was such as fully to warrant Mr. Hallé’s confidence in the merits of the work and the taste of the London public. Not only was the hall crowded, but the attention with which everything was listened to and the enthusiasm excited by certain passages tended to show that English amateurs no longer reject music on account of its originality or even eccentricity. Mr. Hallé’s zeal and spirit of enterprise in arranging the performance cannot be commended sufficiently. Orchestra and chorus, consisting together of 300 performers, had been brought to London, and the fire and accuracy with which some of the most difficult music perhaps ever written was rendered testified to the care and the intelligence of the conductor. The services of the chorus master, Mr. E. Hecht, should not be forgotten. As regards freshness of voices and perfect ensemble, the performance on Friday night has indeed seldom been matched in London, where the barbarous custom of rehearsing chorus and orchestra separately still prevails. On the choice of his soloists Mr. Hallé may be congratulated. Miss Mary Davies (Marguerite) has a beautiful soprano voice, and gave a most sympathetic rendering of what is perhaps the finest specimen of genuine melody in the work, Marguerite’s song, “D’amour l’ardente flamme,” the French equivalent of Goethe’s “Meine Ruh’ ist hin.” The ballad of the “King of Thule,” set in many different ways by different composers, and called by Berlioz “chanson gothique,” also was sung with excellent effect. Mr. Lloyd was an admirable Faust, his fine declamation of the so-called “Invocation of Nature” being specially laudable. His duet with Marguerite was among the chief successes of the evening. To Mr. Henschel the very difficult part of Mephistopheles was assigned. It is here that Berlioz gives vent to his love of what he himself calls “Les grotesques dans la musique.” The celebrated “Romance of the Flea” and the “Serenade,” both known from Goethe’s poem, are curiosities of music as effective as they are difficult to render. Gounod’s Mephistopheles is mild and innocent by the side of these strange utterances. Herr Henschel acquitted himself of his task in the manner of an intelligent and gifted singer. To Mr. Hilton the minor part of Brander had been given. He also did his duty creditably. We need not say that, as a whole, the rendering on Friday night was infinitely superior to the only one previously given in London—at Her Majesty’s Theatre in June, 1878. On that occasion the celebrated M. Pasdeloup was the conductor, but he had been unable, in one or two rehearsal, to make the chorus acquainted with more than the rudiments of its task, and, with the exception of Miss Minnie Hauk, an excellent Marguerite, the soloists were equally unsatisfactory. In connexion with that performance we gave an account of the character of the composition, as well as of the merits of its author. We are thus relieved of the task of analyzing so complicated a work within the limited space at present at our disposal. That La Damnation de Faust is the result of rare intellectual power and of a truly astonishing amount of technical skill is a proposition which the most determined adversaries of Berlioz will hesitate to dispute. His orchestration is always masterly, his contrapuntal devices are marvellously ingenious, and his poetic intentions are frequently marked by depth and pathos. Even the element of popularity is not entirely wanting, vide, for example, the spirited instrumentation of a well-known Hungarian march in the first part, the soldiers’ chorus, and the airy and graceful “Dance des Sylphes,” with its quaint basso ostinato sounded by the muted violoncellos. Differences of opinion may arise when the question comes to be asked whether Berlioz possessed that absolute self-control which is synonymous with the sense of beauty so indispensable in all true art. Berlioz’s music is akin to Blake’s poetry and painting. Mysticism, not to say mystification, was one of his chief aims, originality at any price his watchword. To such an attitude of mind if matched with great power much should be forgiven. But there are limits even to the licence of genius, and these, some may think, are transgressed in the wild orgy of the fiends significantly headed “Faust livré aux flammes—Pandemonium.” But even here the cleverness of the writing and some truly astounding orchestral effects must be admitted. On the other hand, there are emanations of purest beauty, such as Marguerite’s song, already referred to, beginning with a gentle andante and rising to a climax of passion. The Easter hymn is full of beauty, and the students’ chorus mingling with the soldiers’ song in the finale of the second part is a noble specimen of choral combination. Again, in the “Ride to the Abyss” rare power of graphic description is evinced, and the instances of true dramatic pathos are too numerous to be referred to in these cursory remarks. La Damnation de Faust, whatever its merits in the highest artistic sense may be, is a monumental effort of individual power. Wild eccentricities and rare beauties are found together side by side, and the result, if not altogether harmonious, is at least highly interesting. It is difficult to define Berlioz’s permanent position in the history of music. During his lifetime he was shamefully neglected ; at present he is all the rage in Paris. When this fit of reaction has passed away it will be possible to determine the hold he has really gained on the heart of his nation. Mr. Hallé and his chorus and orchestra must once more be congratulated on the admirable rendering of so difficult and important of a work. The performance was repeated on Saturday night.

See also on this site:

Charles Hallé conducts Berlioz’s Faust in Manchester (1882)

Charles Hallé conducts Berlioz’s Faust in London (1892)

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 20 September 2011.

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