Berlioz in Meylan

The house of Madame Gautier, Estelle Fornier’s grandmother

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    Much higher up in Meylan than either Nicolas Marmion’s house or the church of Saint-Victor lay the house of Madame Gautier. Berlioz describes it in his account of his first meeting with Estelle Dubœuf, later Estelle Fornier (Memoirs, Chapter 3): 

In the upper reaches of Meylan, close to the slope of the mountain, there was a small white cottage, surrounded with vineyards and gardens, from where there is a plunging view on the Isère valley. Behind are a few rocky hills, a crumbling old tower, woods, and the imposing mass of a huge rock, the Saint-Eynard: the place is evidently meant to provide the setting of a novel. That was the country house of Madame Gautier, who stayed there in summer with her two nieces, the youngest of whom was called Estelle. This name would have been enough to catch my attention; it was already dear to me because of the pastoral idyll of Florian (Estelle et Némorin) which I had found in my father’s library and read in secret over and over again. The real Estelle was eighteen, tall and elegant, with great eyes that smiled provocatively, hair that was worthy of adorning the helmet of Achilles, and feet, I will not say of an Andalusian but of a thoroughbred Parisian, and – pink boots! … I had never seen any before… You will laugh!… I must admit I have forgotten the colour of her hair (I believe they were black) and I cannot think of her without recalling the glitter of her great eyes and at the same time the little pink boots.

Her sight gave me an electric shock; in a word, I was in love with her. I lived in a trance. I hoped for nothing… I knew nothing… but I felt a deep anguish in my heart. Entire nights I would spend in despair. During the days I would hide in the maize fields, in the secret corners of my grandfather’s orchard, like a wounded bird, suffering in silence. Jealousy, that pale companion of even the purest love, would torment me at the merest word spoken by any man to my idol. I still shudder when I think of the sound of my uncle’s spurs as he danced with her! Everyone at home and in the neighbourhood would make fun of this poor twelve-year old broken by a love beyond his strength. She was the first to have guessed it all, and I am sure she must have greatly enjoyed it. [...]

No, time cannot change anything… other loves cannot obliterate the trace of the first one… I was thirteen when I ceased to see her…

    The next time he briefly saw her, Berlioz was thirty years old and had just come back from his trip to Italy (1832). On that occasion, his mother had mischievously asked him to deliver a letter to a Madame Fornier passing through the coach station en route from Vienne. He did not know that the recipient was in fact  Estelle Dubœuf (Memoirs, Chapter 3):

When the coach arrived, I went forward with the letter in my hand, and asked for Mme F*******. « It is I, sir! » said a voice. It is her! said a dull thud in my chest. Estelle!… still beautiful!… Estelle!… the nymph of the Saint-Eynard, of the green hills of Meylan! It was the same demeanour, the same glorious hair, the dazzling smile!… But alas, where were the little pink boots?… She took the letter. Did she recognise me? I cannot say. The coach left. I returned home, still shaken by the event. [...]

    Berlioz went back again to Meylan in 1848, on a visit to La Côte Saint-André after his father’s death « to mourn with [his] sisters in the paternal home ». Before returning to Paris he also wanted to see again Grenoble and the house of his maternal grandfather in Meylan. The story is told at length in the Memoirs (chapter 58):

What a strange thirst for pain – I wanted to salute the setting of my earliest emotional upheavals. I wanted at long last to embrace my entire past, to intoxicate myself with memories, whatever grief and sadness it might cause me. My sisters stayed back at La Côte: they understood that I wanted to be on my own for this sacred pilgrimage, which was going to stir in me so many intimate impressions which shun the company of even the most sympathetic witnesses…

On arriving at Meylan, in front of my grandfather’s house, recently sold to one of his tenants, I open the door and walk in; there was no one inside. The new owner had moved into a recently built annex at the other end of the garden.
I then enter the sitting-room, where the family used to gather, in the days when we would come to spend a few weeks with our grandfather. It was still in the same condition, with its grotesque paintings and its extravagant multicoloured paper birds stuck on the wall.

Here is the chair where my grandfather would take a nap in the afternoons, here is his backgammon board. On the old sideboard I notice a small wicker cage which I built when I was a child. This is where I saw my uncle waltzing with the beautiful Estelle… I hurry to go outside.

Half of the orchard has been ploughed up… I look for a bench on which my father would spend hours in the evening lost in his dreams, his eyes fixed on the Saint-Eynard, this huge limestone rock, the outcome of the last prehistoric cataclysm. The bench has been broken, all that is left are two worm-eaten legs.
There was the field of barley where I would go and hide my grief, at the time of my first love sickness. It was at the foot of this tree that I started to read Cervantes.

And now to the mountain.

Thirty three years have elapsed since I last visited it. I am like a man dead since that time who is now coming back to life. In the process I am rediscovering all the emotions of my earlier life, as young and intense as ever…
I climb the rocky and deserted paths and make for the white house which I had only glimpsed from a distance, sixteen years earlier on my return from Italy – the house where Stella used to shine.

[…]

After crossing a field next to the farm I find at last the right way. Soon I can hear the murmur of the little spring… I am there… Here is the path, the row of trees resembling the one which misled me a moment ago… I feel it is there… that I am going to see… Heavens!… I am intoxicated with the air… my head is swimming… I stop for a moment and restrain my throbbing heart… I reach the avenue’s gate… A man wearing a jacket, presumably the prosaic landlord of my sanctuary, stands on the threshold, lighting a cigar… He looks at me with an air of surprise. I pass on without saying anything and continue to follow the path up… I must reach an old tower which used to stand on the top of the hill, from which I will be able to grasp the whole vista in a single glance.

I ascend without turning back, without a backward glance, I want first to reach the top… But the tower! the tower! I cannot see it… has it perhaps been demolished… No, here it is… the top has been demolished, and the neighbouring trees which have grown were hiding it from my sight.
At last I reach it. 

Nearby, close to the greenery of the young beeches, my father and I sat down, and I played for him on the flute the air of Nina’s Musette. Estelle must have come here… I may be occupying in the air the space her delightful shape once occupied… Let us see now… I turn back and my eye grasps the entire scene… the hallowed house, the garden, the trees, and below the valley, the meandering Isère, the Alps in the distance, the snow, the glaciers, everything she saw, everything she admired, I take in the blue air she breathed… Ah!… A cry, a cry that no human language can convey, re-echoes from the Saint-Eynard… Yes, I see, I see again, I adore… the past is present before me, I am young, I am twelve years old! life, beauty, the first love, the infinite poem! I fall on my knees and I shout to the valley, to the mountains and to the sky: «Estelle! Estelle! Estelle! » and I grasp the earth in a convulsive embrace, I bite the moss… I have a fit of isolation sickness… indescribable… furious…

Here is the edge of a slope where I was walking when she cried: « Take care! don’t go so near the edge!… »
This is the bush of brambles over which she leaned to pick wild berries… Ah! over there, on this platform, there was a rock on which her beautiful feet stepped, where I saw her standing in all her glory, contemplating the valley…
That day I said to myself in the sentimental and silly manner of children: « When I grow up, when I have become a famous composer, I will write an opera on Florian’s Estelle, I will dedicate it to her… I will deposit the score on this rock, and one morning she will find it, when she comes to admire the rising sun. »

Madame Gautier’s house and the fountain on the way

Unless otherwise stated all the photographs  on this page were taken by Michel Austin in 2009 and  2011. © Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved. 
We are most grateful to Pepijn van Doesburg for the 2003 photos for which he holds the copyright.

1. Madame Gautier’s house

The house is located on the Chemin du Bruchet and at the time of Berlioz was surrounded by vineyards. At present there is a small vineyard attached to it. The house is now a gîte and offers Chambres d’hôte to holiday makers; it has undergone some changes since 2003 as a comparison between the two sets of photos displayed below demonstrates.

Madame Gautier’s house in 2009

(Large view)

Madame Gautier’s house in 2009

(Large view)

Madame Gautier’s house in 2009

(Large view)

Madame Gautier’s house in 2009

(Large view)

The Isère valley and the Alps (Belledonne range) are in the distance.

Madame Gautier’s house in 2009

(Large view)

The ‘plunging view’ on the Isère Valley
– from the Chemin du Bruchet in 2009

(Large view)

The small vineyard is in the foreground, with Madame Gautier’s house in the distance.

The ‘plunging view’ on the Isère Valley
– from the Chemin du Bruchet in 2009

(Large view)

The ‘plunging view’ on the Isère Valley
– from the Chemin du Bruchet in 2009

(Large view)

The Saint-Eynard – view from the Chemin du Bruchet in 2009

(Large view)

The Saint-Eynard – view from the Chemin du Bruchet in 2009

(Large view)

The Saint-Eynard lies out of sight above the road in the next picture.

The Chemin du Bruchet in 2009

(Large view)

The photo shows the Chemin du Bruchet, going down the valley away from Madame Gautier's house. The way down continues in the next photo below.

2. The fountain on the road leading to Madame Gautier’s house

Berlioz describes in chapter 58 of his Mémoires his 1848 visit to Meylan and how at some point he lost his way to Madame Gautier’s house, having missed a landmark fountain on his climb up the hill:

I go up, and up, and as I climb the path I feel my pulse quickening. I think I can recognise on the left of the path a row of trees, and I follow it for a while; but as it leads to an unknown farm it was not the one I was looking for.

I return to the path; it leads nowhere and disappears among vineyards. I had obviously lost my way. I could still see in my mind the true path as though I had been there the day before; there used to be a small fountain at that point which I had not found… where am I?… where is the fountain?… This error only increased my anxiety.

I then decided to enquire at the farm I had seen a moment ago… I enter the barn where I interrupt the work of the threshers. They pause for a moment on seeing me; trembling like a thief pursued by policemen I ask them whether they can point me to the road which leads to the house where Mme Gautier used to live.

One of the threshers scratched his head:

« — Mme Gautier? he said; there is nobody of that name in the area…
— Yes, an old lady…, she had two young nieces [grand-daughters] who would come to visit her every year in the autumn…
— I do remember, said the wife of the thresher stepping forward; don’t you remember?… Mam’zelle Estelle, she was so pretty that on Sundays everybody stopped at the door of the church to watch her passing by?
— Ah! it is all coming back now… yes, yes, Mme Gautier… It was a long time ago, you see…; her house now belongs to a merchant from Grenoble… It is up there; you must follow the path next to the fountain, here behind our vineyard, then turn to the left.
— The fountain is here?… Well, now I will find my way… Thank you, thank you. I am sure I will not get lost any more… »

After crossing a field next to the farm I stumble at last on the right way.

Soon I can hear the murmuring of the fountain… I am there… Here is the path, and the row of trees similar to the one which confused me a moment ago… I feel it is here… that I am going to see… God!… the fresh air intoxicates me… I feel dizzy… I pause for a moment and press my beating heart… I reach the entrance to the avenue…

The fountain in 2009

(Large view)

The Chemin du Bruchet, out of sight further up to the right of this photo, joins one of the main roads which turns right and runs down the valley (this photo).

The fountain in 2009

(Large view)

The fountain in 2011

(Large view)

The fountain in 2011

(Large view)

3. Madame Gautier’s house in 2003

(Large view)

(Large view)

View from the Chemin du Bruchet

(Large view)

See also related pages:

The house of Nicolas Marmion, Berlioz’s grandfather  
The Saint-Eynard  
The Berlioz Monument

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997;
The Berlioz in Meylan pages were created on 15 April 2004, and enlarged on 1 October 2009 and 15 November 2011.

© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights reserved.

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