A review published in
The Times, 4 June 1878.
Jules Étienne Pasdeloup (1819-1887) founded the Concerts Populaires in Paris in 1861, the first of which was given on 27th October. The concerts, which he also conducted, were given at the Cirque Napoléon (later to be renamed Cirque d’hiver), and lasted until the mid-1880s. For full details on the life and career of Pasdeloup, his relations with Berlioz, and his promotion of his music, see the page on this site that is devoted to him.
On 1 June 1878 Pasdeloup gave a concert at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London which featured a performance of La Damnation de Faust; the work had suddenly become famous in Paris the previous year and became for years to come by far Berlioz’s most popular work, especially under the baton of Édouard Colonne. A review of this concert was published three days later in The Times. The review was unsigned, as was customary in the London press at the time.
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.
M. PASDELOUP’S FIRST CONCERT.
In choosing so strange a work as Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust for production at his first concert M. Pasdeloup has sacrificed his personal interests to his love of art or for a particular phase in art. Many amateurs would have been interested in seeing the celebrated chef d’orchestre conduct one of Beethoven’s or Schumann’s symphonies and in comparing his readings of those familiar works with those of Mr. Manns or Mr. Cusins. The works of Berlioz being, on the other hand, all but unknown in this country, the attention of the—we are very sorry to say—extremely scanty audience was directed towards the composition rather than towards the conductor. Another drawback was the all but inevitably imperfect nature of the performance. Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust was written more than 30 years ago, but it remains unsurpassed by anything that has followed as regards mere mechanical difficulties, not to speak of the hidden, and frequently very deeply hidden, poetical intentions of the composer. The time which the overworked chorus at Her Majesty’s Theatre could give to the rehearsal of such a work was naturally wholly inadequate, and under the circumstances it is a matter of surprise that an actual catastrophe was at least avoided. As to the solo parts, we are bound to say that a more unfortunate choice than that of Signor Marini for the part of Faust could not well have been made. He sang the intervals as they were written in the score tolerably correctly. But that was all, and that, in Berlioz’s music, is almost nothing. Berlioz, whatever else may be said of his style, is a master of declamation. He attends in his setting to the minutest subtleties of the spoken dialogue, and it is exactly in that respect that our Italian singers are most lamentably deficient. Even such parts of the French text as became audible in Signor Marini’s enunciation were marred by the Italian accent of the singer. Signor Rota laboured under the same difficulty : in other respects, however, his rendering of the part of Mephistopheles betrayed the intelligent singer. Infinitely superior, and, indeed, in most respects excellent, was Mdlle. Minnie Hauk as Marguerite. Her rendering of the quaint “Chanson gothique”—as Berlioz describes his setting of the “King of Thule”—was full of simple pathos, and in Marguerite’s song, “D’amour l’ardente flamme,” she reached a climax of subdued, and, for that reason, all the more intense passion. These words, in which readers of Goethe’s Faust will recognize the well-known “Meine Ruh’ ist hin,” Berlioz has wedded to a slow melody (andante un poco lento in F), which strangely differs from Schubert’s rapid flow of impassioned song.
To write a detailed criticism of Berlioz’s music in general or of this work in particular this is not the place. It would be easy to point out beauties of the highest order, such as the splendid piece of declamatory music entitled Faust’s “Invocation to Nature,” or that marvellous specimen of fanciful writing known as the Ballet des Sylphes, with its quaint harp effects and the low D obstinately intoned by the cello con sordina. It would be still easier to draw into ridicule a finale which professes to illustrate “Faust livré aux flammes—Pandæmonium,” and winds up with a chorus of evil spirits singing a kind of mock canto fermo to such gibberish as—
“Tradioun marexil, Trudinxé burrudixé,”
said to be a specimen of the demon language, according to Swedenborg. Neither kind of criticism would be just to the composer. Berlioz music must be taken as a whole. He is what Blake is in poetry and painting—a curious outgrowth of that romantic spirit which pervaded the literature and art of Europe during the first half of the present century ; and in none of his works has this spirit found a more uncompromising expression than in the Damnation de Faust. That here the border-line between the artistic and the purely whimsical is frequently reached the author himself was probably aware, and one of the most amusing anecdotes in his book, “Des Grotesques dans la Musique (sic),” has reference to a scene (that in Auerbach’s cellar) from the present work, wisely omitted last Saturday. As to the extent to which the indulgence of such idiosyncrasies is pardonable Berlioz and his audiences were naturally apt to differ, and the small success of his compositions, in spite of their undeniable merits, is upon the whole but too fully accounted for. We for our part fully endorse the remark in Mr. Groves’s “Musical Dictionary” by a writer entirely free of any suspicion of narrow minded conservatism in matters artistic. “One must draw the line somewhere,” Mr. Danreuther says, “and the writer would draw it on the hitherside of such movements as the Orgies which form the finales of La Symphonie Fantastique and Harold en Italie, or the chorus of devils in the Damnation de Faust. Bloodthirsty, delirious passion such as is here depicted may have been excited by the gladiators and wild beast shows in Roman arenas ; but its rites, whether reflected through the medium of poetry, painting, or music, are assuredly more honoured in the breach than in the observance.”
After what has been said, it will be sufficiently clear that the choice of work under discussion from among Berlioz’s numerous compositions was anything but judicious on M. Pasdeloup’s part. A selection from, say, the Enfance du Christ, Harold, together with the overtures to the Francs Juges, or King Lear, and the magnificent duet between Dido and Æneas from Les Troyens and other vocal pieces would have illustrated Berlioz’s versatile power to infinitely greater advantage than these fragments of what, after all, is itself but a fragment of Goethe drama. Such a programme would at the same time have given M. Pasdeloup a better opportunity of displaying those admirable qualities as a conductor which all visitors of the Concerts Populaires know him to be possessed of.
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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