Berlioz and Spontini
Copyright notice: The texts, photos, images and musical scores on all pages of this site are covered by UK Law and International Law. All rights of publication or reproduction of this material in any form, including Web page use, are reserved. Their use without our explicit permission is illegal.
‘My religion is that of Beethoven, Weber, Gluck, Spontini’ (Memoirs, Post-scriptum of 25 May 1856). But the four gods in Berlioz’s musical Pantheon were not equal in stature and significance. It may be that Spontini ranked ultimately lower in Berlioz’s view than the others, though his lifelong loyalty to Spontini and his music, during the composer’s lifetime and after his death, possibly led Berlioz to play down any reservations he felt. There was also one important difference between Spontini and the others. Gluck belonged to an earlier generation (1714-1787); Weber and Beethoven died in 1826 and 1827 respectively, before Berlioz could meet them (he missed meeting Weber in Paris by a matter of hours); but Spontini lived on for many years till his death in 1851. The two men got to know each other in 1830 and remained in touch thereafter; after his time in Berlin as director of the opera there (1820-1841), Spontini returned to Paris where he stayed till nearly the end of his life, and was thus in frequent contact with Berlioz. The link with Berlioz was maintained after 1851 by Spontini’s widow (1790-1878) – she was the niece of Sébastien Erard, the celebrated piano maker, and Berlioz was friendly with the Erard family.
The Memoirs are not very revealing on Berlioz and Spontini as compared with the three other masters. In the Memoirs Gluck is a powerful presence in Berlioz’s early life, even before he came to Paris in 1821 and heard any of his music (chapter 4), and remains so later. Berlioz tells at length of the impression made on him by his discovery of Weber and Beethoven in late 1824 and 1828 respectively (Memoirs chapters 16 and 20). There is no such account in the Memoirs of Berlioz’s encounter with the music of Spontini. Spontini is assumed to have been one of his idols from the time Berlioz started to frequent the Opéra, and is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Gluck. This remains true throughout the Memoirs, which presuppose Berlioz’s admiration for the composer.
Relations between Berlioz and Spontini
Berlioz will have first heard and seen La Vestale (1807) and Fernand Cortez (1809, revised in 1817) at the Opéra in 1822. In his first published article in Le Corsaire of 12 August 1823 (Critique Musicale I, p. 1-3) La Vestale is presented as a work Berlioz already admired: he attacks the absurd suggestion that the work might be transferred from the Opéra to the Théâtre Italien. The earliest indication in Berlioz’s correspondence of his devotion to Spontini’s music comes only in 1826, in a letter of 15 July (Correspondance générale no. 61, hereafter CG for short) where he relates the impression made by the celebrated Mme Branchu in her last appearance in the title role of Olympie (1819, revised 1821), which he describes as ‘a sublime work, worthy of the author of La Vestale’. Thereafter Berlioz’s enthusiasm for Spontini never wavers, and the addition of Weber and Beethoven to his Pantheon did not cause Berlioz to abandon his older loyalties.
The rising young composer was understandably anxious to meet the older master, a generation his senior, and to seek his approval and support (Berlioz was about to depart to Italy). He boldly approached Spontini in a letter of 15 September 1830 (CG no. 178), the first in a series of exchanges between the two men who soon met (CG nos. 178, 191, 268, 364, 752, 768, 870, 1052 for the letters of Berlioz to Spontini, nos. 862, 866, 1051, 1081 for those from Spontini to Berlioz). After Spontini’s death in 1851 the correspondence continued with Spontini’s widow till at least 1863 (CG nos. 1787, 2202, 2393bis, 2684 for those to Mme Spontini, and nos. 1476, 2787 for her letters to Berlioz). There are also frequent mentions of Spontini and his music in other letters of the composer.
Spontini had a reputation for being a difficult person who easily made enemies (Meyerbeer, his successor in Berlin, was one of them), but Berlioz did not dwell on this and it did not affect his liking for him. As he said shortly after Spontini’s death, ‘He was not a likeable man, but I had come to love him by dint of admiration. The very asperities of his temperament endeared him to me, perhaps because they fitted my own’ (letter of 1st February 1851 to General Lvov, CG no. 1379).
Berlioz champion of Spontini
In his critical writings Berlioz consistently championed Spontini, even though he felt he was often swimming against the tide of public taste, which had turned towards more recent and fashionable composers (Rossini, then Meyerbeer from 1831 onwards). No less than 16 articles, from 1834 till 1863, were devoted in part or in whole to him, and on the death of Spontini in 1851 Berlioz wrote a generous obituary in the Journal des Débats (12 February). The next year, in the first edition of his Soirées de l’orchestre, Spontini is almost the central figure. The 11th evening is devoted to a performance of La Vestale, which is played with religious fervour. The 12th evening tells the story of a devotee of La Vestale, who commits suicide after a performance of the work — life had no further meaning after such an experience. The 13th evening is taken with a biographical sketch of the composer and his work, derived from the obituary notice of 1851 as well as earlier articles. When in London in 1852 Berlioz insisted on conducting at one of his concerts the finale of La Vestale, in the presence of the composer’s widow, and with the composer’s own baton which Mme Spontini had just donated to him (28 April): it was a great disappointment to Berlioz that the reviews were not more enthusiastic (CG nos. 1473, 1476, 1477).
Berlioz freely acknowledged his debt to Spontini – he was one of the ‘three modern masters’ whose scores had helped to teach Berlioz how to write for the orchestra, the other two being Beethoven and Weber (Memoirs chapter 13), and in the Treatise on Orchestration Spontini is one of the composers most frequently mentioned (though the actual citations of his works are few). Various influences of Spontini on Berlioz can be detected. Berlioz himself stated that the "vigorous influence of Spontini’s style could be felt on every page of Les Francs-Juges" (Memoirs, chapter 11). For example, the long crescendo at the end of the overture is reminiscent of the same device in the overture to La Vestale: Berlioz credited Spontini with the invention of the "colossal crescendo". Some of Spontini’s melodic turns have echoes in Berlioz. Les Troyens, in particular, is not merely a homage to Gluck, but to Spontini as well. It has resemblances with Spontini’s operas, for example in the pageantry, the large ensembles and role of the chorus, the use of march music, and spatial effects. When writing the work Berlioz asked his copyist Roquemont to fetch the score of Olympie from the library of the Conservatoire to compare the length of his own Marche troyenne (the finale of Act I) with that of the triumphal march in Spontini’s work: he was relieved to find that his march was shorter than Spontini’s (244 bars as against 347), as well as providing stage action that was absent in Olympie (letter to Toussaint Bennet, 26/7 January 1857; CG no. 2203).
Berlioz’s warm praise for Spontini’s music has often been thought overgenerous. Reading between the lines it seems that Berlioz was in practice more aware of Spontini’s shortcomings than often appears, but his strong loyalty to Spontini perhaps prevented him from expressing them more freely. In his very first published article in 1823, he raises the possibility that Spontini’s operas were overscored and noisy (he may have been thinking of the frequently mechanical use of cymbals and bass drum common to many composers of the period). He thought very highly of Olympie, but found the scoring too brassy, though he goes on to say that ‘Spontini is the genius of the century’ (letter of 15 July 1826, CG no.61). In a letter to his sister Nanci of 29 March 1829 he relates his impressions of Beethoven’s quartet in C sharp minor (CG no. 120) and comments that ‘Weber is nearly in the same sphere [sc. as Beethoven], closely followed by Spontini, but he was unfortunately born in Italy, though he has completely renounced the trivial style’. In an article on classical and romantic music published in Le Correspondant of 22 October 1830, Berlioz notes Spontini’s reliance on stage pageantry and visual splendour, as compared with the more austere world of Gluck (Critique Musicale I, p. 67). The biography included in the 13th Soirée in 1852 is very generous in its praise, but also echoes some of these early doubts. As well as being dismissive of the music written by Spontini before he came to Paris in 1802, it has a critical paragraph on Spontini’s failure to write serious instrumental music — the paragraph was suppressed by Berlioz in the second edition of the work in 1854. In his later years Berlioz did not extend to Spontini the advocacy he displayed for Gluck in the revivals of Orphée in 1859 at the Théâtre Lyrique and Alceste in 1861 and 1866 at the Opéra. It may be significant that in his last concert tour of Russia in winter 1867-8 Berlioz did not include any music by Spontini, but gave a prominent place in his concerts to Gluck and Beethoven, and Weber was also represented. Berlioz may have been mindful of the lukewarm reception given to excerpts from La Vestale in London in 1852.
When Berlioz first approached Spontini in 1830, one of his hopes was to obtain the older man’s approval for his own compositions — he sent him on that occasion the score of the Symphonie Fantastique and the Francs-Juges overture, and Spontini reciprocated with the score of Olympie. Berlioz subsequently sent him other works as well, including a copy of the Treatise on Orchestration late in 1843, for which Spontini wrote an appreciative comment. But later Berlioz expressed a regret — he could only recall two occasions when Spontini had openly praised Berlioz’s music, the Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale after a concert performance in 1843 (his letter to Berlioz is extant: CG no. 866), and the Requiem in 1846 at Saint-Eustache (Memoirs chapter 50, end). While Berlioz promoted Spontini’s own music in his own concerts, Spontini did not reciprocate during his years in charge of the opera in Berlin (1820-1841). As with Berlioz’s teacher Lesueur, one may wonder how far Spontini did (or indeed could) appreciate fully the far greater genius of the younger man. A comparison with Liszt’s relations with Berlioz is suggestive.
Available scores of Spontini
An *asterisk indicates that the score is cited by Berlioz in his Treatise on Orchestration
La Vestale, Overture (duration 7'44")
— Score in large format
(file created on 1.01.2003)
La Vestale, Act I Ballet 1 (duration 3'40")
— Score in large format
La Vestale, Act I Ballet 2 (duration 4'32")
— Score in large format
La Vestale, Act I Ballet 3 (duration 2'22")
— Score in large format
(files created on 11.12.2002)
*La Vestale, Act II Scene 2 (ritornello) (duration 1'33")
— Score in large format
(file created on 13.05.2003)
Notes on the available scores
Orchestral excerpts from La Vestale
It goes without saying that the purely orchestral excerpts of Spontini’s music presented here cannot convey the full stature of the works concerned. The impact of Spontini’s operas is cumulative, and is lost with separate excerpts. As Berlioz put it ‘One might almost say that, taken as a whole, the second act of La Vestale is but one gigantic crescendo’ (Soirées de l’orchestre, 13th evening). He did nevertheless occasionally include excerpts in his concerts – he played the overture to La Vestale at the start of the great concert at the Palais de l’Industrie on 1st August 1844 (Memoirs ch. 53), and at a concert in Baden-Baden on 29 August 1859, but this time at the end (CG no. 2393bis, to Mme Spontini) – the only piece by Spontini he included in his series of annual concerts in Baden-Baden.
There are no metronome marks in the score of La Vestale. The tempi have been set as follows:
Overture: andante sostenuto, quaver = 72, speeding up from bar 12 to reach 80 at bar 20; presto, crotchet = 176
Act I Ballet 1: allegro marziale, minim = 84
Act I Ballet 2: poco grave, crotchet = 72, andante, crotchet = 50, poco animato, crotchet = 56, allegretto con brio, crotchet = 80, un poco piu animato, crotchet = 88
Act I Ballet 3: presto, dotted crotchet = 152, presto, crotchet = 120
Act II Scene 2 (ritornello): largo espressivo, quaver = 100. This passage is cited by Berlioz in the chapter on voices in his Treatise on Orchestration (in this transcription the voice part remains silent).
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997.
The Berlioz and Spontini page was created on 11 December 2002.
© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page. All rights of reproduction reserved.
Back to Berlioz: Predecessors and Contemporaries