Berlioz and Meyerbeer: till 1849
Berlioz and Meyerbeer: 1849 and after
Meyerbeer and Berlioz
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‘M. Meyerbeer, the most fortunate of composers in this vale of tears […] The author of Le Prophète is not only lucky to have talent, but also has a talent for being lucky. He succeeds equally in things small and great, in his flights of inspiration and his ingenious combinations, and in his hobbies.’ (Berlioz, Les Soirées de l’orchestre, 5th Evening)
Few composers have been so successful in their lifetime as Meyerbeer, yet few have also seen their star fade so abruptly afterwards. This stands in contrast to Berlioz, who struggled in his lifetime to establish himself in his own country; for him posthumous recognition has been slow in coming, yet he may now be achieving at last the status he long deserved. Relations between Berlioz and Meyerbeer over a period of more than 35 years were complex, and ambivalence seems the keynote. Berlioz took Meyerbeer seriously and regarded him as one of the leading composers of the time whose works deserved close study. Yet from an early date, and increasingly as time went on, he had fundamental reservations, not only about Meyerbeer’s music, but also about his whole approach to his art, and about the negative effects of his phenomenal success on the taste of the public. On his side Meyerbeer was outwardly respectful of Berlioz and his music, though it is difficult in his case to separate sincerity from calculation.
It so happens that the earliest mention of Meyerbeer in Berlioz’s writings is negative: in a letter of 15 July 1826 Berlioz comments scornfully on the poor taste of the public of the Odéon theatre for being impressed by Meyerbeer’s Marguerite d’Anjou, recently relaunched by the composer in a French version (Correspondance générale no. 61, hereafter CG for short). Yet by 1829 Meyerbeer was paying attention to the rising young composer (see below), and Berlioz was taking note of Meyerbeer. One reason for Berlioz’s impatience with his enforced stay in Italy in 1831-2 was that it made him miss the keenly anticipated première of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable at the Opéra (21 November 1831). The work scored a phenomenal success — it achieved 100 performances in less than 3 years, was in demand all over France and abroad, and drove Rossini to give up composing for the stage. From Italy Berlioz expressed delight at the success of the work and transmitted his congratulations to the composer through his contacts in Paris (CG nos. 250-1; 3 December 1831).
After his return to Paris he acquainted himself with the score and was evidently impressed by what he saw. The first article he wrote on Meyerbeer was devoted not to the opera in general, but specifically to its instrumental writing (‘De l’instrumentation de Robert le Diable’, in Gazette musicale de Paris, 12 July 1835; Critique Musicale II, pp. 209-15). The work, Berlioz argued, owed its success to an important extent to its novel instrumental writing; Berlioz adduced numerous examples and praised in particular Meyerbeer’s use of the horn. He concluded by attributing to Meyerbeer a major role in the development of this art:
Robert le Diable provides the most astonishing example of the power of instrumentation when applied to dramatic music; […] a power of recent introduction which has achieved its fullest development in the hands of M. Meyerbeer; a conquest of modern art which even the Italians will have to acknowledge in order to prop up as best they can their miserable system which is collapsing in ruins.
Berlioz also found time to write approvingly of songs by Meyerbeer (Critique Musicale II, pp. 321-3, 337f.; 18 and 25 October 1835). No wonder he looked forward with keen anticipation to Meyerbeer’s next opera Les Huguenots, another well-prepared event in Parisian musical life (CG no. 429; 15 April 1835). He attended the first performance together with Harriet Smithson – Meyerbeer was keen that she should be there (CG no. 464; 21 February 1836). The success and impact of the new work exceeded all expectations, and Berlioz was even more impressed than by Robert le Diable. He reviewed the work at length in three articles in the Revue et gazette musicale (Critique Musicale II, pp. 419-26, 431-8) and in his covering letter for the first article he sent to the publisher Schlesinger, he exclaimed ‘Tell me about a score like that, it is superb! I would love to see Meyerbeer and shake the hand that wrote such beautiful things’ (CG no. 466; 1-2 March 1836). He had no hesitation in placing Les Huguenots above its predecessor Robert le Diable. Later in the year when the full score was published he devoted two more articles to the work, insisting that it was essential to study the score in order to appreciate the music fully (Journal des Débats, 10 November and 10 December 1836; Critique Musicale II, pp. 587-93 and 607-12). The piece that impressed him most in the whole opera was the scene of the blessing of the daggers in Act IV, a piece he included later in the great concert he gave at the Palais de l’Industrie on 1st August 1844, to electrifying effect, as he wrote to Meyerbeer not long after (Memoirs, chapter 53; CG no. 918). He performed the piece again at concerts in Paris in 1850 and 1855, and in an article of 1853 (Journal des Débats, 6 February, reproduced in À travers chants in 1862) he still described the piece as ‘one of the most shattering inspirations in the whole of art’. It may have been in Berlioz’s mind when he wrote two comparable ensembles, in Benvenuto Cellini and in Romeo and Juliet (see below).
Given Berlioz’s special interest in Meyerbeer’s use of instruments it was appropriate that Meyerbeer should receive particular mention in several places in the Treatise on Orchestration that he published in 1844. Berlioz made a point of sending two copies of the work to Meyerbeer in Berlin, one for the Berlin Academy, the other for Meyerbeer himself: ‘Please accept this copy. I am repaying a debt, as your works have provided me with so many fine examples from which I have benefited in numerous ways’ (CG no. 873; 23 December 1843, cf. no. 877).
Despite his interest in Meyerbeer’s music and his genuine enthusiasm for a number of pieces in his operas, Berlioz was never free from reservations. In his 1835 article on Robert le Diable he criticised the inappropriate use of trombones and ophicleide in a chorus in Act II, judging it unworthy of Meyerbeer (Critique Musicale II, p. 212). While lavishing praise on much of Les Huguenots he also noted tactfully that in the first three Acts the composer ‘had occasionally abandoned the natural severity of his style for one more attuned to certain requirements of the theatre, which the noblest minds might acquiesce in, but which are detrimental to the purity of art’ (Critique Musicale II, p. 607). He was also all too aware of the lavish publicity effort that went into promoting the success of Meyerbeer’s operas: before the first performance of Les Huguenots he refers to the work as ‘a musical encyclopedia, the success of which is bound up with so many artistic and financial interests’ (CG no. 464; 21 February 1836).
It seems that the production of Meyerbeer’s next opera Le Prophète in 1849 was a turning point for Berlioz’s view of Meyerbeer: the doubts he had long felt now emerged more explicitly, as is shown by a letter to his sister Nanci after completing his review of the new work for the Journal des Débats of 20 April 1849 (CG no. 1258; 25 April 1849):
I am even free from my article on Le Prophète, which was far more of a problem. Meyerbeer is sensible enough not to be too upset by the four or five reservations I have introduced in my ten columns of praise. I would have liked to spare him the unpleasantness that these criticisms, expressed with some vigour, have caused him. But there are things that must absolutely be said. I cannot allow people to believe that I approve or even tolerate these compromises of a great master with the bad taste of a certain public. I have spent my life stigmatising such misdeeds and I find them today even worse and more insipid than ever. In practice the success of Le Prophète is a matter of sharp debate. Méry was saying at the first performance: ‘What a fine opera!… if only it was set to music!…’. J. Janin retorted with ‘It is a treatise on theology, minus faith’. There are many other witticisms of this kind, some better, some worse.
The score nevertheless contains some very fine passages, side by side with others that are very weak, and some dreadful pieces. But the incomparable splendour of the spectacle will cover up everything. What a challenge nowadays to make a success of an opera! All the scheming involved! All the flattery needed, all the money, all the dinner parties!… It makes me sick. It is Meyerbeer who has brought this about and in the process has forced Rossini to give up.
[On the negative effect of Meyerbeer on opera in Paris, cf. also Memoirs, chapter 59]
The presentation of Meyerbeer in the Soirées de l’orchestre, first published in 1852, is noteworthy for its ambiguity. Les Huguenots is still thought of as a masterpiece, which the orchestral players perform with respectful silence. But it is kept to the 24th and penultimate evening, and is followed by the account of Euphonia, the ideal musical city where Gluck is the god and Meyerbeer is not mentioned. The tone in the Soirées has been set earlier by the flippant 5th evening, ‘On the S of Robert le Diable’, from which the citation at the top of this page is taken: Meyerbeer’s success rested on a combination of talent and luck. It so happens that Berlioz was absent during the performance of that opera, busy reading instead Shakespeare and Virgil...
Yet Berlioz, objective as ever, continued to give praise where praise was due. In April 1859 Meyerbeer’s latest opera Le Pardon de Ploërmel was produced at the Opéra, and reviewed by Berlioz (Journal des Débats, 10 April 1859). In answer to an enquiry from his friend Humbert Ferrand about operas by Gounod (Faust), David (Herculanum) and Meyerbeer (Ploërmel) recently performed in Paris, Berlioz comments (CG no. 2368; 28 April):
The music of Le Pardon de Ploërmel, unlike those (of the operas by Gounod and David), is written in a masterly way; it is inventive, refined, witty and often poetic. There is a gulf between Meyerbeer and these young men. You can see that he is not a PARISIAN. You can see the opposite for David and Gounod.
Berlioz went on to include the overture to the new opera at the start of the second half of a concert he gave at Baden-Baden on 29 August of the same year. In so doing he displaced the overture to Spontini’s La Vestale to the end of the concert, to the displeasure of Spontini’s widow (Meyerbeer and Spontini had been rivals, and Meyerbeer had taken Spontini’s place in Berlin in 1842). Berlioz was forced to send a letter of explanation to placate Mme Spontini (CG no. 2393bis).
For all Berlioz’s interest in his music and skill as an orchestrator, Meyerbeer can hardly be counted as a major influence on Berlioz. For one thing, Berlioz had encountered all his major formative influences (Gluck, Spontini, Weber, Shakespeare, Beethoven) before 1830, but it was only after his return from Italy late in 1832 that he could develop a closer acquaintance with Meyerbeer’s music. Particular influences might be traced. For example, Meyerbeer introduced the use of the bass clarinet in Les Huguenots, in a trio in the last act, which Berlioz cited in his Treatise on Orchestration. Berlioz had not himself used the instrument before but then introduced it in several of his scores, first in Benvenuto Cellini in 1838. Also in les Huguenots Berlioz singled out for comment the use of three choruses in Act III, at first separately, then joined together to great effect (Critique Musicale II, pp. 433, 591f.): this may have provided the inspiration for the two choruses of soldiers and students at the end of Part II of the Damnation of Faust. It is also very likely that when Berlioz composed Ascanio’s mock heroic aria (Cette somme t’était due – in E major) in Act II of Benvenuto Cellini, and the solemn oath of Friar Lawrence at the end of Romeo and Juliet (Jurez tous par l’auguste symbole – in B major) he had in mind the E major scene of the blessing of the daggers in Act IV of Les Huguenots, which he greatly admired: the similarities are clear enough. It is also probable that the duet in G flat major between Aeneas and Dido in Act IV of Les Troyens (Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie) carries echoes of the celebrated duet between Raoul and Valentine in Act IV of Les Huguenots (Tu l’as dit), also in G flat major (Berlioz cites the duet in his Treatise on Orchestration). Other influences of this kind might be suggested. Yet Berlioz never listed Meyerbeer among the great masters who had shown him the way, unlike Spontini, for whom he showed an affection and deference that are not apparent in the case of Meyerbeer. Meyerbeer’s pursuit of success above everything else could never commend itself to Berlioz.
‘Meyerbeer is the only successful composer who has really shown genuine interest in me’ (letter to Humbert Ferrand, 15 April 1835; CG no. 426). A keen student of talent and of success, Meyerbeer was quick to pay attention to Berlioz and gave him support on a number of occasions. As early as 1829 he wrote to the publisher Schlesinger to ask him for a copy of Berlioz’s recently published Huit Scènes de Faust and later asked Schlesinger to compliment Berlioz on his work (letters of 3 June and 3 October 1829 to Ferrand; CG nos. 126 and 138). In 1830 Meyerbeer was one of several musicians who supported Berlioz’s request to be dispensed from the requirement of travelling to Italy for the Prix de Rome (CG no. 187; 28 October 1830). He was present at the first performance of the Symphonie Fantastique at the Conservatoire on December 1830 and warmly applauded the new work (CG no. 190). Later he gave open encouragement to Berlioz to persevere with the writing of Benvenuto Cellini for the Paris Opéra (CG no. 461; 25 January 1836, to Liszt). At a performance of Harold in Italy at the Conservatoire on 16 December 1838 Meyerbeer together with Cherubini led the applause that greeted the work (cf. CG II p. 318 n. 5). Meyerbeer was very helpful to Berlioz during his trip to Germany in 1843, as attested by several letters between the two men (CG nos. 798, 819D, 823), as well as numerous references in other letters (CG nos. 784, 795, 803, 807, 815, 816, 823ter) and in the Memoirs (First Visit to Germany, Letters VII-IX). Meyerbeer by this time was Generalmusikdirektor in Berlin, a post to which he had been appointed in 1842 in succession to Spontini. In July 1849 Meyerbeer was one of a delegation of artists who presented Berlioz in Paris with a gold medal (CG no. 1272). He continued to show interest in Berlioz’s music to the end: his last preserved letter to Berlioz apologises for having been unable to hear the first performance of Les Troyens through ill-health (CG no. 2782; 5 November 1863), and he did attend subsequently all remaining 12 performances of the work, for which he professed great admiration.
Outwardly relations between the two men were cordial and respectful; in their letters both addressed each other as ‘cher maître’, and Meyerbeer sometimes even wrote ‘cher et illustre maître’. Social contacts at dinner parties in Paris were frequent (cf. CG nos. 730bis, 776, 1633-4, 2171, 2856). Yet Meyerbeer’s cultivation of Berlioz was probably not without ulterior motives, and was part and parcel of his lifelong campaign to ensure the success of his own works. Berlioz comments more than once on this trait of Meyerbeer. In a letter of 10 October 1853 to his sister Adèle, he alludes to a forthcoming dinner party given by Meyerbeer: ‘You can guess that Meyerbeer is about to give a new opera, though this time at the Opéra comique [L’Etoile du nord]. He is more scared than ever. But people say it is a delightful and very novel work. He is a true master!’ (CG no. 1633). In another letter he contrasts Verdi’s proud and uncompromising directness with the ‘snake-like agility’ of Meyerbeer (letter of 13 December 1859; CG no. 2449). What Meyerbeer really thought of Berlioz is not easy to fathom. He must have appreciated Berlioz’s creative genius and artistic integrity, and will have been all too aware of Berlioz’s authority as a music critic; admiration may have been tinged with an element of fear. Letters of his to Berlioz before the première of respectively Les Huguenots (February 1836) and Le Prophète (April 1849) are couched in strikingly similar terms, despite the long interval between them, and provide an interesting self-portrait (CG nos. 464bis and 1253-5). To quote from the last of these:
Dear and illustrious Master […] I thank you with all my heart for having acceded to my great wish [sc. that you should attend the dress rehearsal]. – But I have another great wish: that you should be so good as to acquaint yourself with the overture, which I had to cut because of the length of the work. I am enormously fond of you, as you know. But this evening, my fear of you even exceeds my fondness, so anxious am I that you should be favourably impressed by my score. […] Your devoted and trembling Meyerbeer.
The reference to the overture is suggestive: Berlioz had criticised the lack of a proper overture in both Robert le Diable and Les Huguenots (see below), and it is conceivable that Meyerbeer was trying to meet this point.
Meyerbeer died suddenly on 2 May 1864 while rehearsals for his latest opera, the long-delayed L’Africaine, were in progress. Berlioz’s reaction was one of genuine shock, as shown by a letter to his son a day or two later (CG no. 2855):
I am even sadder than usual, and the death of Meyerbeer has come as the final blow. Such a mind cannot disappear from the world without the survivors being aware of the darkness that descends. I have just come back from seeing his wife who is here with her two daughters and son-in-law. Next Friday we will be taking him to the northern railway which will take him to Berlin. […] (During a dinner) there was much talk about Meyerbeer and Rossini, and things were said about these two men which I believe to be true: the former, though egotistic, was an artist, while the latter was an egotist who was not an artist.
Yet it was not long before Berlioz’s old doubts about Meyerbeer, both the man and his music, surfaced again. In another letter to his son (13 May 1864; CG no. 2858) he remarks:
The Meyerbeer bank is working like one man. He left pensions to writers who have been hired to praise him at a fixed monthly rate and to extol his music. It will thus be far more lucrative to praise it instead of music that is merely beautiful but does not bring any return. How can you compete with means such as these? Heine was right. [on this cf. Memoirs, chapter 59]
L’Africaine was eventually performed at the Opéra on 28 April 1865 (the work was completed by Fétis), and proved to be yet another success. But Berlioz was not impressed any more, and the fate of Les Troyens can only have filled him with bitterness. On 28 June he wrote to Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein (CG no. 3021):
Yes, I have seen the dress rehearsal of L’Africaine, but I did not return. I have read the score. It is no longer just pieces of string [ficelles, i.e. tricks] that you find there, but in truth ropes, and ropes woven from straw and rags. I am fortunate not to be obliged to talk about it.
Over a year later the work was still attracting large crowds. In a letter of 28 September 1866 to his niece Nanci Berlioz writes (CG no. 3165):
I was recently at the Opéra, and L’Africaine was being performed. One of my critic friends detained me after the first Act and forced me to listen to Acts II and III. ‘Listen, I said to him, if you do not let me go, I feel I am going to fly into a rage, and I will bite you.’ What abominable rubbish, what a disgusting pile of notes! All this will have cost a great deal of money – and to think it was being advertised for the last twenty years…
An *asterisk indicates that the score is cited by Berlioz in his Treatise on Orchestration
*Robert le Diable, Act III (excerpt 1) (duration 46")
— Score in large format
(file created on 19.07.2003)
*Robert le Diable, Act III (excerpt 2) duration 19")
— Score in large format
(file created on 19.07.2003)
Overture and introduction: Les Huguenots (duration 4'58")
— Score in large format
(file created on 27.05.2003)
Les Huguenots, Act III Danse Bohémienne (duration 5'29")
— Score in large format
(file created on 13.06.2003)
Les Huguenots, Act V Entr’acte and Ballet (duration 2'46")
— Score in large format
(file created on 30.06.2003)
*Les Huguenots, Act V Trio (excerpt) (duration 1'29")
— Score in large format
(file created on 13.06.2003)
Robert le Diable
Act III, excerpt 1: This passage is cited by Berlioz in his Treatise on Orchestration, in the chapter on the gong. The tempo has been set at crotchet = 63.
Act III, excerpt 2: This passage is cited by Berlioz in his Treatise on Orchestration, in the chapter on the bassoon. The tempo has been set at crotchet = 72.
Overture: In the score the piece bears the title ‘Overture and introduction’, but it is not in fact a full-scale symphonic overture, unlike those in Weber’s Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon, or Berlioz’s own Benvenuto Cellini and Beatrice and Benedict. In any case the piece does not conclude but runs straight into the first scene of the opera. Berlioz’s own comments may be cited here (review of Les Huguenots in Jounral des Débats, 10 November 1836; Critique Musicale II, 588):
I cannot but express the regret that a composer such as Meyerbeer did not write an overture, especially in view of the fine passages that distinguish his introductions. That to Robert le Diable is a model that would be difficult to equal, and that to Les Huguenots, though less striking because of its predominantly religious character, seems to me fully worthy of comparison in another genre. Luther’s celebrated chorale [Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott, used elsewhere in the opera] is treated with ingenuity – not in the dry academic manner that is often to be observed in such cases, but in such a way that every successive transformation enhances its impact, every harmonic shaft of light projected by the composer enriches its colours, and under the precious fabric he weaves around the theme its vigorous shape emerges ever more clearly. The variety of effects which he has been able to create, especially with the wind instruments, and the skill with which the crescendo is prepared leading to the final climax – all these are truly wonderful.
The metronome marks are those of Meyerbeer (poco andante: crotchet = 84; allegro con spirito: minim = 116).
Act III, Danse Bohémienne: All the metronome marks throughout are those of Meyerbeer (allegro moderato, crotchet = 168; allegro con moto, minim = 100; coda, crotchet = 166 and allegro moderato, dotted crotchet = 84).
Act V, Entr’acte and Ballet: The piece was briefly characterised by Berlioz in his detailed discussion of the score of Les Huguenots in the Jounral des Débats of 10 December 1836 (Critique Musicale II, 611): ‘The dance theme which opens the 5th Act, though very short is remarkable for its knightly elegance; the interruptions caused by the distant sound of bells are skilfully placed’. It may be suggested that Meyerbeer’s writing for bells in this opera shows the influence of the last movement of the Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz commented on the effect in his Treatise on Orchestration, in the chapter on bells.
In the opera the piece does not conclude but leads straight into the next scene. In this version a final tonic chord has been added. All the metronome marks throughout are those of Meyerbeer (allegro, dotted crotchet = 126; tempo di minuetto maestoso, crotchet = 88; allegro con spirito, crotchet = 108; animato, crotchet = 120).
Act V, Trio (excerpt): This passage is cited by Berlioz in his Treatise on Orchestration in the chapter on the bass clarinet. The citation of the bass clarinet part as given by Berlioz differs slightly from the printed full score of the opera published by Schlesinger; the latter version has been followed here. In this version the voice parts are silent. The metronome mark is that of Meyerbeer (molto maestoso, crotchet = 63).
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The Berlioz and Meyerbeer page was created on 27 May 2003.
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