Berlioz and Wagner
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To the dear and great author of Romeo and Juliet the grateful author of Tristan und Isolde
Wagner, inscription on the score of Tristan presented to Berlioz in 1860 (CG no. 2468)
A reader of the autobiographies of Berlioz (Mémoires) and Wagner (Mein Leben) may be struck by the different treatment each gives to the other. Wagner makes frequent reference to Berlioz, from his first contacts with him and his music in 1839-1842 till the last encounters mentioned by him in 1860 when Wagner was giving concerts in Paris. As early as May 1841 he published in the Dresdner Abendzeitung an article on Berlioz (reproduced on this site in French and English translations). The main passages from Mein Leben that deal with Berlioz are collected below in English translation (by Michel Austin); a separate page provides the original German text of these excerpts as well as of a number of letters exchanged between Liszt and Wagner on the subject of Berlioz between 1852 and 1860; the latter are available below in English translation (again by Michel Austin). However self-conscious and ambivalent Wagner may seem at times in his references to Berlioz from his article of 1841 onwards, he did acknowledge the older man’s genius and the influence he had on his own work. The inscription cited above, written on the score of Tristan und Isolde which Wagner sent to Berlioz early in 1860 together with a covering letter (CG no. 2468) is an open recognition of this (see also the article on Berlioz and Wagner published by Georges de Massougnes in 1900).
By comparison the reticence of Berlioz’s Memoirs on the subject of Wagner is very striking: there is in fact only one extended mention of him, in relation to Berlioz’s visit to Dresden in February 1843. Apart from this there is just one passing allusion to Wagner’s selling the libretto of his Flying Dutchman, which was then given to Dietsch, the chorus-master of the Opéra; Berlioz adds the ironical comment that the director of the Opéra ‘placed far more trust in Dietsch for setting it to music than he did in Wagner’ (chapter 57). Berlioz’s reticence is in fact deliberate, as he made clear in 1865 to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein: in the Postface of the Memoirs, which covered the critical period in his relations with Wagner, there ‘was nothing bearing on either Liszt, or Wagner, or the music of the future’ (CG no. 3008). While Wagner did acknowledge in his way Berlioz’s genius and his debt to him, Berlioz on his side withheld from Wagner the recognition that the latter craved. The subject of Wagner had become a sensitive one for him, and he reacted by omitting it from the record altogether. The story can however be reconstructed from Berlioz’s other writings – his critical works and especially his letters – as well as by the correspondence of Wagner, Liszt and others.
11 December: Berlioz born at La Côte Saint-André
22 May: Wagner born in Leipzig
15 December: Wagner, recently arrived in Paris, is present at the 3rd performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Conservatoire, conducted by Berlioz; the concert included also the first two movements of Harold in Italy, a movement from the Requiem, and Ascanio’s aria from Benvenuto Cellini
14 August: Wagner present at the 3rd performance of the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale at the Salle Vivienne, conducted by Berlioz
5 May: article by Wagner on Berlioz in the Dresdner Abendzeitung
23 and 30 May: articles by Wagner on Der Freischütz in the Gazette Musicale
6 to 18/19 February: Berlioz in Dresden, where he meets Wagner, hears Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman
12 September: publication in the Journal des Débats of the 5th Letter (Dresden) of the Voyage musical en Allemagne [Musical Travels in Germany]
16 February: Liszt conducts the first performance in Weimar of Wagner’s Tannhäuser
28 August: Liszt conducts the first performance in Weimar of Wagner’s Lohengrin
10 October: Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner meet at Liszt’s hotel in Paris
11 October: Berlioz entertains Liszt and Wagner at breakfast; Berlioz sings and Liszt plays excerpts from Benvenuto Cellini
8 June: Berlioz and Marie Recio depart from Paris for London
11 June: a rehearsal prevents Berlioz from attending a concert conducted by Wagner where he performs the overture to Tannhäuser
13 June: concert at Exeter Hall conducted by Berlioz and attended by Wagner
ca. 20 June: Berlioz and Wagner dine together at Sainton’s flat where they have a long conversation
25 June: Berlioz dines with Wagner before a concert conducted by Wagner and has drinks with him afterwards
ca. 18 February: Liszt conducts a performance of Lohengrin in Weimar; Berlioz and Marie Recio walk out during the 2nd act
24 February: second performance of Lohengrin under Liszt, attended by Berlioz and Marie Recio
20 January: Berlioz in Paris receives a visit from Wagner and reads to him the libretto of les Troyens
23 January: Berlioz visits Wagner at his hotel in Paris
15 September: Wagner arrives in Paris for a 19-month stay
23 October: Berlioz and Wagner meet in the street
25 January: first concert by Wagner in Paris, attended by Berlioz
1 February: second concert by Wagner: Berlioz is not present
8 February: third concert by Wagner
9 February: publication of Berlioz’s review in the Journal des Débats
22 February: open letter by Wagner to Berlioz in the Journal des Débats
22 and 23 May: exchange of letters between Wagner and Berlioz over Berlioz’s articles on Beethoven’s Fidelio
July: meeting at Mme Viardot’s where Act II of Tristan und Isolde is performed by Viardot, Wagner and Klindworth in the presence of Berlioz and Mme Kalergis
13 March: first performance of Tannhäuser at the Opéra, in the presence of Berlioz
18 March: second performance of Tannhäuser
24 March: third and final performance of Tannhäuser
May: Wagner leaves Paris, never to return
6 April: Berlioz hears a performance of Tannhäuser in Weimar
Berlioz and Wagner: 1839-1843
The early relations between Berlioz and Wagner, at the time of Wagner’s first visit to Paris in 1839-1842 and Berlioz’s first visit to Dresden in February 1843, have been outlined elsewhere on this site and will not be repeated here. Suffice it to note that after the publication of his letter on his visit to Dresden, Berlioz seems to have given no further thought to Wagner for years to come, as may be inferred from the apparently complete absence of references to him in Berlioz’s preserved correspondence. Berlioz, it may be suggested, knew that Wagner was a composer out of the ordinary and a name to be reckoned with, but from the start he did not feel a natural sympathy for his musical style, and did not give any further thought to the subject.
Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz: 1849-1855
The matter could have rested there and the careers of Berlioz and Wagner might have proceeded separately on independent lines, but for the intervention of Liszt. When Liszt decided to settle permanently in Weimar in 1848 his first objective was to promote Wagner’s music, to which he had become a recent convert: he performed Tannhäuser in 1849 and the following year gave the first performance of Lohengrin. Berlioz was alerted early to Liszt’s intentions, as is known from a letter of early 1849 in which Liszt outlines his plans to Berlioz, draws his attention to Tannhäuser and suggests – perhaps naively – that Berlioz would be delighted to see that Wagner had borrowed from Romeo and Juliet… (CG no. 1242bis). Berlioz’s response, if any, is not known; there is no mention of Wagner in his letters for several more years, and it seems that Berlioz simply did not pick up the hint.
What Berlioz probably did not know is that since April 1852 Liszt had been involved in an argument with Wagner himself over his decision to champion Berlioz, and not just Wagner, in Weimar. The point of contention was initially the revival of Benvenuto Cellini in 1852: Wagner tried to put Liszt off the whole idea, and with this in mind he was quite prepared to pass negative judgement on a work he had not actually heard (WL nos. 70, 71, 78). A few months later he widened his criticism to include Berlioz’s shortcomings in general: what Berlioz needed, according to Wagner, was a poet, and Wagner at the same time dismissed The Damnation of Faust, a work which, like Cellini, he had not heard and thought was a ‘symphony’. Nevertheless Wagner professed to be willing to help Berlioz: he could offer him a libretto of his own which he was no longer intending to set to music and which Liszt had already turned down (WL no. 79). Liszt, though taken aback, conceded some of Wagner’s points, but in the end maintained his conviction that Benvenuto Cellini was a masterpiece that deserved to be revived (WL nos. 81, 82, 135, 145). There is no indication that any of this ever reached Berlioz’s ears, and it may be remarked that Berlioz on his side never tried to discourage Liszt from championing composers other than Berlioz himself.
It was evidently Liszt’s wish to try to reconcile the two contemporary composers he admired most: it was part of his grand design to lead a movement of progressive music of which Weimar would be the centre. Liszt for his part had no difficulty in being on the friendliest terms with both, and one obvious advantage he enjoyed was that of being equally fluent in French (with Berlioz) and German (with Wagner). Berlioz on the other hand spoke no German and never made any attempt to learn the language, while Wagner, though he knew some French as his letters and autobiography show, was conscious of his limitations (WL nos. 124, 187, 301a; Mein Leben II pp. 616-18). He also repeatedly stated that Berlioz could never understand him fully because of his lack of German (WL no. 192; CG no. 2481), a point Berlioz was prepared to concede (CG no. 2014). Language was indeed a serious difficulty: it is no accident that the correspondence between Berlioz and Wagner appears to have been very limited, as compared with the correspondence of both men with Liszt (for Berlioz and Liszt see the page dealing with their relations). But language, though an important consideration, was not by itself the whole problem: Berlioz was on the friendliest terms with German musicians whose French was approximate, such as Robert Griepenkerl in Brunswick (cf. CG no. 1542). More important were fundamental differences of temperament. Age was also a consideration, and Wagner at least was conscious of this (cf. Mein Leben I pp. 229-31 and II pp. 616-18) though it had never prevented Liszt and Berlioz from regarding each other as equals. Another problem was simply practical: the opportunities for Berlioz and Wagner to meet and talk face to face were restricted throughout the 1850s, since Wagner was an exile from Germany throughout those years. Hence the few meetings that took place were either in Paris or in London on the rare occasions when they both happened to be there simultaneously.
By the summer of 1853, if not earlier, Liszt was clearly urging Berlioz to become closer to Wagner; Berlioz expressed his willingness and was prepared to overlook some critical comments Wagner had made in print (CG no. 1620). In October of the same year Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz all happened to be together in Paris for a few days (cf. WL no. 124), and they met twice (10 and 11 October), just before Berlioz departed again for Germany. There is no record of Berlioz’s reactions to that meeting (cf. CG no. 1633), though to judge from the reference in Wagner’s Mein Leben (II p. 597) the results were inconclusive.
The next opportunity arose nearly two years later, in June 1855, when both Wagner and Berlioz found themselves coincidentally on conducting engagements in London (cf. CG nos. 1972, 1975). Despite commitments they both managed to attend a concert conducted by the other; around 20 June they had a long dinner together at Sainton’s flat in London, and met again on 25 June before and after Wagner’s last concert. Both men wrote accounts of their meetings to Liszt which have survived (CG no. 1987, cf. 1991; WL no. 187) and Wagner also devoted a passage to the episode in his autobiography (Mein Leben II pp. 616-18). The accounts of both men agree that the meetings had gone well and had brought them closer together than before; after their return from London they exchanged friendly letters as well as copies of some of their works (CG nos. 1986, 2012, 2014; cf. WL no. 192 and Mein Leben II p. 625). Liszt was overjoyed: his dreams of harmony in the camp of progressive music seemed to be coming true, and in his letter to Wagner he transcribed part of the letter Berlioz had sent him (WL no. 188). (Visitors to this site may wish to read an imaginative reconstruction of the meeting of Berlioz and Wagner in London, written by Olivier Teitgen in his play L’Entente cordiale.)
The ‘music of the future’: 1855-1858
Yet appearances were deceptive, and potential sources of disagreement were not lacking. The comments each made on the other’s conducting revealed their differences of approach and musical temperament (Wagner on Berlioz: WL no. 187 and Mein Leben II pp. 616-18; Berlioz on Wagner: CG no. 1991). There were other points of disagreement. Berlioz was critical of Wagner’s dismissal of Mendelssohn (CG no. 1987) and suspected the sincerity of his professions of devotion (CG no. 1991). Wagner’s later account in his autobiography (Mein Leben II pp. 616-18) is more reserved towards Berlioz than his contemporary letters to Liszt, in which he may have suppressed his doubts. Above all, whatever the temporary warmth of their personal relations, the reservations that Berlioz had conceived about Wagner’s musical style as far back as 1843 now came back to the surface. The first indication of this comes in a letter of Berlioz to his young protégé Théodore Ritter (CG no. 2059), in which Berlioz uses for the first time the expression ‘the music of the future’ and in a pejorative sense, though without at this stage linking it explicitly to Wagner. This unfortunate phrase, the source of so much unnecessary prejudice and aggravation, was not Wagner’s invention, as he later pointed out to Berlioz (CG no. 2481, February 1860), but it was already in wide circulation and often linked specifically to Wagner’s music. Berlioz himself was getting to know Wagner’s music better, but this did not change his unfavourable reaction to it. It may be conjectured that he perused the score of Lohengrin which he possessed (CG no. 2014) in advance of the performances in Weimar in February 1856. Berlioz walked out of the first but attended the second, and this brought about into the open the disagreement between Liszt and Berlioz over Wagner. Writing to Wagner the following month Liszt did not say anything about Berlioz’s reactions to Lohengrin, a silence that Wagner did not fail to notice (WL nos. 207-8).
‘The New-Weimarians […] form a club of young artists referred to as progressive, whose standard-bearer I am supposed to be’ was Berlioz’s non-committal comment on the celebrations in his honour at Weimar the previous year (CG no. 1899). By June of 1856 his position had hardened, as is made clear in his comments on his election to the Institut to Henri Litolff, who had been on his side in the argument over Wagner in Weimar the previous February: he rejected labels and did not want to be associated with the ‘music of the future’ (CG no. 2143). Yet a few days later Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein openly insisted to Berlioz that his election was a victory for all the ‘musicians of the future’ (CG no. 2148ter)! In August, writing to the Princess about his work in progress on Les Troyens, Berlioz included a striking paragraph in which he outlined his conception of the role of music, and contrasted it with ‘Wagner’s crime’ in ‘wishing to reduce music to a series of expressive accents’ (CG no. 2163). Again, Berlioz seems anxious here to distance himself from any confusion with Wagner.
Early in 1858 Wagner was back in Paris and met Berlioz, who read to him the libretto of Les Troyens. A letter of Berlioz to his son shortly after is strikingly silent about his meetings with Wagner, but characterises Hans von Bülow with whom he had just exchanged letters (CG no. 2273) as ‘one of the most fervent disciples’ of ‘the crazy school which in Germany is called the school of the future’, and in which Berlioz will have no part (CG no. 2274). Bülow was evidently still hoping to reconcile the two giants of contemporary music. Another letter of Berlioz to the Princess alludes to meetings with Wagner, but only in general terms and with no mention of the reading of the libretto of Les Troyens (CG no. 2279). Wagner’s evidence gives a different slant: he reacted very unfavourably to the new opera – or at least its libretto, since he did not know the music – in a letter to Hans von Bülow and also later in his autobiography (Mein Leben II p. 663; cf. also WL no. 251 to Liszt and SB XI no. 117). His negative view of the work may have been influenced precisely by the fact that he knew that the Princess had encouraged its composition. Within a few weeks further fuel was added to the fire when Berlioz’s friend Joseph d’Ortigue published an article in the Journal des Débats (2 June 1858) in which he was anxious to dissociate Berlioz (and Litolff) from any connection with ‘the music of the future’ which he described in pejorative terms. Hans von Bülow believed that Berlioz may have been behind the article and was incensed.
The ‘school of mayhem’: 1859-1868
Berlioz did not invent the expression ‘the music of the future’ nor its application to the music of Wagner; but another phrase, the ‘school of mayhem’ (l’école du charivari) enters his vocabulary in 1860 and becomes synonymous for him with the ‘music of the future’. The word ‘charivari’ denoted noise and confusion, and was commonly used by Berlioz himself (for example CG nos. 2100, 2192, 2202, 2219). It was also the title of a satirical paper published in Paris, and Berlioz himself had often been at the receiving end of its attacks. It seems that the phrase ‘the school of mayhem’ was Berlioz’s own invention and was associated in his mind with the music of Wagner.
Wagner’s first contacts with Paris in 1839-1842, as a young and little-known composer, were one of the unhappiest episodes of his life. His return to Paris in September 1859 for an extended stay till May 1861 can be seen as the counterpart to this: now an established figure with major works to his credit, Wagner aimed at promoting performances of his music and securing his position in Paris, still widely regarded as the capital of the musical world of the time. It was also during his first visit to Paris that he had met Berlioz, whose music made such an impression on him at the time. Twenty years later he still regarded Berlioz as one of the three outstanding composers of the age, in the same company as Liszt and Wagner himself (WL no. 301a). It seems that one of his hopes was to build bridges with Berlioz and engage him musically, and not just on the personal level as in London in June 1855 – hence among other things the inscription on the score of Tristan und Isolde which he presented to Berlioz early in 1860 (CG no. 2468).
This is what Liszt had for years been urging Berlioz to do with Wagner, but Berlioz was not won over. According to a letter of Hans von Bülow, who may have obtained his information from Wagner himself, Berlioz was slow in acknowledging the gift of the score from Wagner, and Bülow took this very badly. It so happens that Berlioz’s copy of Tristan is extant; it shows that Berlioz did read the score carefully, as can be seen from the numerous critical comments he pencilled in his copy (see Le Ménestrel 28 September 1884, p. 348-9 and a series of articles in the same journal in October 1884). In retrospect it was probably already too late to bring about the meeting of minds that Liszt had hoped for. The result was a dialogue of the deaf, and in the process Berlioz and Liszt were driven further apart.
During the autumn of 1859 Wagner and Berlioz had occasion to meet several times (CG nos. 2425, 2428, 2431, 2433, 2451). Wagner was busy preparing a series of concerts of his own music. He relates in his autobiography how he attempted to secure the support of Berlioz; according to him Berlioz was initially helpful but was then checked by the intervention of Marie Recio (Mein Leben II pp. 706-8) who may conceivably have played a part in complicating the relations between the two men (cf. also WL no. 301a). Whatever the truth, Berlioz found the concerts an unwelcome imposition: not for the first time he was obliged to review music which he found uncongenial, but Wagner was a proposition altogether different from the countless mediocrities he had been forced to endure over his career as a music critic, and Wagner could not be ignored. Berlioz’s letters tell an eloquent story (CG nos. 2464, 2471, 2472, 2473; cf. 2480).
The review of the first concert, which was published in the Journal des Débats on 9 February, cost Berlioz much trouble (cf. CG nos. 2476, 2477); it appeared under the title ‘Concerts of Richard Wagner’ but with the ominous subtitle ‘The Music of the Future’. After some introductory remarks the article reviewed in detail the pieces performed, mingling praise with some criticisms. Berlioz, it may be noted, never even hinted, whether in this review or in his other writings, that there were echoes of his own music in Wagner, though they will have been obvious to him. Years earlier Liszt had drawn his attention to similarities between Romeo and Juliet and the Tannhäuser overture (CG no. 1242bis), and Wagner’s inscription on the score of Tristan and Isolde was clearly meant to acknowledge such a debt (CG no. 2468). The influence of Berlioz on Wagner was in fact talked about by contemporaries, as the posthumous comments of Berlioz’s friend Ernest Reyer show. On the other hand Berlioz could not of course have known that the libretto of Wagner’s Mastersingers would adapt important elements from Benvenuto Cellini: just as Tristan und Isolde was Wagner’s answer to Romeo and Juliet, so too the Mastersingers can be seen as the Wagnerian counterpart to Benvenuto Cellini.
After discussing the individual pieces the review summed up Wagner’s musical personality: ‘It must be concluded, I believe, that he possesses that rare intensity of feeling, inner fire, will-power, and conviction which overwhelm, move and sweep the listener along. But those qualities would have far greater impact if they were combined with more inventiveness, less calculation and a juster appreciation of some of the fundamental elements of the art of music’. There was nothing in the review so far to which Wagner could have taken serious exception, and parts of the review he would have appreciated. But Berlioz went further: he felt obliged to deal with the question of ‘the music of the future’ and his own stance towards the supposed tenets of a ‘school’ with which Wagner’s name had become inextricably linked. He felt obliged to do this because his own name had sometimes been associated with that school, and he wanted once more to keep his distance. The review thus ends on an ambiguous and polemical note.
The importance that Berlioz attached to the review is shown by its inclusion two years later (1862) as chapter 24 of À Travers Chants, his last published volume of collected articles which was intended as a statement of his musical creed. The placing of the chapter was deliberate and damning: it follows a short chapter on the decline of serious music-making in contemporary Paris and is soon followed (chapter 26) by an article in praise of the symphonies of Henri Reber (both derived from articles in the Journal des Débats, of 3 January and 23 July 1861). Reber’s musical style is characterised in the following terms:
His harmonic writing is bolder than that of Haydn and Mozart, though without betraying the slightest taste for the savage dissonances and the chaotic style (style charivarique) that has been systematically adopted these last four or five years by some German musicians of unsound mind, and which is nowadays a source of alarm and horror to the civilised musical world.
The reference to Wagner’s harmonic writing is unmistakable and links up with the review of his concerts: each of the last three paragraphs of that review uses words related to ‘charivari’ to describe some of the alleged characteristics of ‘the music of the future’. The word was used again by Berlioz in one of his last feuilletons (20 March 1863) with an oblique allusion to Wagner, though without naming him.
Wagner felt provoked and obliged to answer, and in a long open letter to Berlioz published in the Journal des Débats on 22 February he distanced himself from the label ‘the music of the future’ which he had not invented. He went on to explain at length the argument behind his 1849 book, The Work of Art of the Future, which lay behind the misunderstanding (CG no. 2481; Mein Leben II p. 716). Though Berlioz did not answer (CG no. 2492), Wagner would not give up and clearly wanted to pursue the dialogue. When in May Berlioz published two articles on Beethoven’s Fidelio (substantially reproduced in À Travers Chants, chapter 4), Wagner was moved to write to him a warm letter of thanks in which he sought to convey his conviction that great artists could understand each other (CG no. 2503; WL no. 301a). Berlioz replied the following day (CG no. 2504). This is the last known exchange of letters between them. They did meet again in July when Wagner organised for the benefit of an admirer (Mme Kalergis) a private performance at Pauline Viardot’s of Act II of Tristan with Wagner and Viardot sharing out the vocal parts, and Klindworth, summoned from London for the occasion (cf. CG no. 1991), playing the piano reduction of the score. Berlioz had previously only heard the prelude to the opera, and could not make any sense of it: this was an opportunity for him to hear the heart of the work. According to Wagner’s autobiography, apparently the only source for this occasion (Mein Leben II p. 731), Berlioz had been persuaded to come by Pauline Viardot, who hoped to reconcile him with Wagner (she was aware of Berlioz’s views from his letters to her: CG nos. 2471, 2473, 2477, 2480). Reportedly Berlioz was uncommunicative, and that was the end of the matter.
One may at this point venture the guess that the hearing of part of Tristan could have influenced Berlioz more than meets the eye: within a few months, unexpectedly and on his own initiative, Berlioz started composing his last major work, the opera Béatrice et Bénédict, a light and ironical treatment of a love theme. Could this have been intended by Berlioz as a deliberate counterpart to the all-consuming passion of Tristan und Isolde, which was itself Wagner’s response to Roméo et Juliette?
Be that as it may, the meeting in July was seemingly the last occasion on which Berlioz and Wagner came face to face, and there is no mention in Wagner’s autobiography of Berlioz’s reaction at the time of the performances of Tannhäuser in March 1861. Wagner had now given up on Berlioz. Berlioz on his side was – understandably – exasperated by seeing Wagner’s work given precedence at the Opéra over the as yet unperformed Les Troyens, all at considerable expense and with the support of the Emperor who had treated his own work with indifference (CG no. 2857; Memoirs, Postface). His response was to refuse to make any public comment on the work, no doubt wishing to avoid the stress he experienced when reviewing the Wagner concerts the previous year (he left it to his friend d’Ortigue to write the review); instead he gave vent to his feelings in letters to his closest friends, and only seems to have attended the first performance (CG nos. 2534, 2535, 2536, 2538, 2542, 2545). For Berlioz Wagner was now unambiguously a member of the ‘school of mayhem’ which was supported by Liszt (CG nos. 2536, 2542; in the event Liszt did not come to the performances: CG no. 2538). Resentment had clearly distorted Berlioz’s judgement, and it seems that this may have alarmed even some of his friends: the pointed references to Wagner in Théophile Gautier’s obituary of Berlioz in 1869 imply as much (see also the comments made later by Ernest Reyer, who did not feel he had to make a choice between Berlioz and Wagner).
Two years after the performances at the Opéra, and in a calmer frame of mind, Berlioz heard Tannhäuser at Weimar (neither Liszt nor Wagner were present), and he was able to formulate a brief appreciation of the work’s beauties (CG no. 2708). But he was evidently reluctant to dwell on a painful subject, and the few references to Wagner in his letters thereafter remain negative (CG nos. 2750, 2843, 2888 cf. 2920). One of the last letters in his correspondence, from the Russian critic Vladimir Stasov, a devoted admirer, assumes that Berlioz would be pleased to hear Wagner and the ‘music of the future’ damned and compared unfavourably with his own (CG no. 3375). No wonder Berlioz judged that the penultimate chapter of his Memoirs, which dealt with the latter part of his musical career, should omit any reference to Wagner, Liszt and ‘the music of the future’ (CG no. 3008).
Selected letters of Berlioz, Wagner and others
All translations from French and German are © Michel Austin
CG = Correspondance Générale
SB = Richard Wagner, Sämtliche Briefe vol. 1- (Leipzig, 1979- )
WL = Briefwechsel zwischen Wagner und Liszt, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1910) (the links to each letter refer to the original German text which is given on a separate page)
As mentioned above, the correspondence between Berlioz and Wagner was not extensive and only a few texts have survived; here is a list of the known letters (numbers refer to CG):
(a) Letters of Berlioz to Wagner
1840: 757 (12 October)
1855: 2014 (10 September)
1859: 2431 (ca. 11 November), 2433 (18 November)
1860: 2464 (12 January), 2476 (2 February), 2504 (23 May)
(b) Letters of Wagner to Berlioz
1860: 2468 (21 January), 2481 (ca. 15 February), 2503 (22 May)
See CG no. 1242bis
Liszt to Wagner, 7 April (WL no. 70):
[…] The most detailed information about the production of Berlioz’s opera is provided by Hans von Bülow in Brendel’s Journal [the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 2 and 30 April 1852]. – I will only add for my part that the reasons which prompted me to decide for this opera have been shown to be completely correct and helpful for the further success of my activity here. Why Cellini in Weimar? That is a question that I do not have to answer to everybody, but in practice it will be resolved in a way which we should find satisfactory. – Initially you may have not understood the matter correctly, as you will come to realise later. At any rate I believe that if you are not disposed to shoot in the air you will agree with me. […]
Wagner to Liszt, 13 April (WL no. 71):
[…] Now what stories have you heard about my attitude towards your production of Cellini? I have the impression that in this matter you are assuming I am hostile. I must dispel this misconception of yours. I consider your enterprise to be a purely personal matter, prompted by your fondness for Berlioz. What a beast I would be to criticize that fondness and your enterprise! Everyone should follow the promptings of his heart as you do, or better still, everyone should have a heart such as yours! Then matters would soon be different. Here too I can only be delighted for you. It is only when an emotional impulse of this kind also has to satisfy the demands of common sense that I have to take the view that mistakes creep in which can be clearly recognised as such by an outsider. I cannot possibly believe in the consequences which, as I am told, you expect from the production of Cellini: that is all. Are my doubts capable of making the slightest difference to my opinion of your behaviour? Not in the least! With all my heart I say to you: you have done the right thing, and I would also like to be able to say so to many people. […]
Liszt to Wagner, 23 August (WL no. 78):
[…] I am expecting Berlioz around mid-November; his Cellini (with one fairly considerably cut) must not be set aside – because in spite of all the absurdities that circulate on this subject, Cellini is and remains a very significant work which deserves to be ranked high. – I have no doubt that you will find it very rewarding. […]
Wagner to Liszt, 8 September (WL no. 79):
[…] This brings me to Berlioz and Raff. To be frank, it saddens me that Berlioz is still planning to revise his Cellini. If I am not mistaken, this work is more than twelve years old: has Berlioz not progressed in the meantime to be in a position to attempt something altogether different? How lacking in self-confidence he must be to have to return to a much earlier work. Bülow is quite right in his argument about the flaw in Cellini: it lies in the poem, and in the unnatural position into which it forces the composer. He has to cover up by purely musical means a gap that only the poet is capable of filling. Berlioz will never be able to rescue this Cellini, now or in the future; but then what is more valuable, Cellini – or Berlioz? Forget about the former, and come to the assistance of the latter! I find it dreadful to be the spectator of these Herculean labours at bringing the work back to life. For heaven’s sake, Berlioz should be writing a new opera; if he does not then it is his greatest misfortune, because only one thing can save him: drama, and what must drag him down ever lower is his willful avoidance of the only correct escape route – and this will only be aggravated by his grappling once more with an old problem, where the poet lets him down and he will only try to replace him with his music.
Believe me – I love Berlioz, despite the fact he does not trust me but insists on keeping his distance: he does not know me – but I know him. If there is anyone I expect anything from, it is Berlioz, but not in the way he has been following and which has led him to the tasteless platitudes of his Faust symphony. If he continues in this direction then he can only make a complete fool of himself. If ever a composer has needed a poet, then it is Berlioz, and it is his misfortune that he always adapts the poet to his musical whim, and dresses up at one time Shakespeare and at another Goethe according to his fancy. He needs the poet who will saturate and overpower him, and be to him what a man is to a woman. I see with despair that this exceptionally talented artist is going to ruin through self-indulgent isolation. Can I be of assistance to him?? –
You do not want Wiland [Wiland the Smith, a poem by Wagner]: I think it is a beautiful poem, but am no longer able to work it out myself. Will you offer it to Berlioz? Perhaps Henri Blaze would be the person to do a French version of it? […]
Wagner to Liszt, 3 October (WL no. 81):
[…] Good heavens, did I write something to you about Berlioz or Raff which you then misunderstood, as though I had something against them? I spoke as things appeared to me from a distance, and particularly in the case of Berlioz I only meant it in a good sense. […]
Liszt to Wagner, 7 October (WL no. 82):
You are completely right, dearest friend, in identifying poetry as the point at issue with Berlioz, and my view agrees entirely with yours – only you were misinformed in your belief that Berlioz has undertaken a revision of his Cellini. That is not the case – it is simply a matter of a very extensive cut (roughly the whole of a tableau) which I suggested to Berlioz and which he thought was a good idea – the result of which is that at the next performance Cellini will be given in 3 tableaux instead of 4. If that interests you, I will send you the new libretto together with the old one, and I believe you will approve of the change and of the fusing of the last two tableaux into one. – I thank you most warmly for the suggestion of offering Wiland to Berlioz, and will talk to him about it when he comes to Weimar. Unfortunately it is to be feared that the Parisians will not go along – and Henry Blaze is certainly not the person to work over the poem for such a subject and do justice to it. But above all you must not imagine, best and dearest friend, that I am holding against you anything you said about x or y. My sympathy for you and my admiration for your divine genius are in truth too serious and deep for me to be able to misconstrue the cogency of your arguments. You cannot and never should be anything other than what you are, and it is on this basis that I honour, understand and love you with all my soul. […]
Berlioz to Liszt (CG no. 1620; late July, Paris):
[…] Like you I am convinced that it should be easy for Wagner and myself to understand each other, if only he is prepared to lubricate his wheels. As for the lines you tell me about, I have never read them and hold no grudge against them. In my time I have shot people often enough in the legs to be surprised at being fired at in my turn. […]
Wagner to Liszt, 25 August (WL no. 123):
[…] Give my greetings to Berlioz: he is an eccentric oddity, though he has not yet reached the point where only millionaires can be of help to him. But he is a noble fellow. […]
Wagner to Liszt, 12 September (WL no. 124):
[…] The idea of Paris is beginning to look almost unattractive to me; I am frightened of Berlioz, and with my poor French I am lost. […]
Liszt to Wagner, 31 October (WL no. 135):
[…] – The rest [everything apart from the works of Wagner performed in Weimar] leaves me cold, with the one exception of Berlioz’s Cellini, for which I maintain a great affection; you will agree with me when you know the work better. […]
Liszt to Wagner, 21 February (WL no. 145):
[…] Berlioz is coming back to Hanover at the end of March and then goes to Dresden, where he will conduct a few concerts in the theatre. Fischer wrote to me recently about a performance of Cellini in Dresden. – This is still a secret – but for my part I would like it to be made public very soon. The opera is Berlioz’s freshest and most rounded work, and its fall in Paris and London the result of dirty tricks and incomprehension. It would be wonderful if it could be granted the resounding vindication that it deserves. […]
Berlioz to Auguste Morel (CG no. 1972; 2 June, Paris):
[…] I am leaving for London on Friday where I have undertaken to conduct the last two concerts of the New Philharmonic Society, including Harold and Romeo and Juliet. After that I will come back, and I might possibly give here a concert or two in July or August. Wagner, who is conducting in London the old Philharmonic Society (I had to refuse to conduct them because I was already committed to the other one), is succumbing to the attacks of the entire English press. But he remains calm, it is said, assured as he is of being master of the musical world in fifty years. […]
Berlioz to Liszt (CG no. 1975; 7 June, Paris):
[…] I will see Wagner when I arrive in London; he is said to be in a very bad mood. I will tell you what I believe to be the truth about his position in England. […]
Berlioz to Liszt (CG no. 1987; 24-25 June, London):
[…] These last few days we talked here a great deal about you with Wagner, and you can imagine with what affection; take my word for it, I believe he loves you as much as I do myself.
He will probably tell you about his stay in London and all he has had to suffer from preconceived hostility. He is superb in his fire, warmth and ardour, and I confess that I find even the violence of his outbursts compelling. It seems that fate is preventing me from hearing anything of his recent compositions. The day when, at the request of Prince Albert, he conducted his Tannhäuser overture at Hanover Square Rooms I was at the same time forced to attend a dreadful choral rehearsal for the concert of the New Philharmonic which I was due to conduct two days later. This involved the choral sections in the first four parts of Romeo and all this was so prodigiously revolting that, against the advice of Dr Wylde who thought it was all very well sung, I had to cut short all these horrors by removing completely the vocal parts. Despite a few real absentees from the orchestra the first two movements of Romeo went well. The Festivities were even put across with such verve that for the first time since this symphony exists, it was encored with loud cheers by this vast audience in Exeter Hall. There were many mistakes in the Scherzo.
I am staying in London for a few more days because of a concert that I am asked to conduct at Covent Garden after the last one of the Philharmonic.
Wagner is ending tomorrow Monday with the Hanover Square concerts, and will hurry away the day after. We are dining together before his concert. There is something singularly attractive about him, and though we may both have our rough edges at least they dovetail like this:
explain this to Cornelius
[…] Farewell; I am being taken to Champion Hill where I promised to spend part of the day.
– Monday morning. I am back from my rustic excursion. I mean I came back yesterday evening. Klindworth was there; he played a delightful sad piece of yours. We then sung, himself, the two girls there, a young German painter and myself, 5-part vocal pieces by Purcell that these ladies seem to know as well as their Bible, and which left Klindworth and myself unimpressed. The others lapped up this up like sweet milk. Incidentally there is deep down a feeling for music in the English temperament, but it is a conservative feeling, religious in the first instance, and the antithesis of passion. Wagner has ruined himself in the eyes of the London public by appearing to belittle Mendelssohn. Yet Mendelssohn for many people is a Handel and a half…!!!… On the other hand, if I did not have the same fault of detesting with the force of a 120mm gun other masters, I would say that Wagner is wrong in refusing to regard the puritanical Mendelssohn as a rich and fine personality.
When a master is a master, and when this master has consistently and everywhere honoured and respected art, he deserves to be honoured and respected himself, whatever the divergences between the line we follow and his. Wagner could turn the argument against me if he knew whom I detest so cordially, but I will be careful not to tell him. When I hear or read certain pieces from that fat master [Berlioz probably means Handel], I just clench my teeth tightly, until back home and on my own I let off steam by hurling abuse at him.
One can’t be perfect. […]
Berlioz to Théodore Ritter (CG no. 1991; 3 July, London):
[…] departure of Wagner after the good M. Hogarth has introduced him in his turn to M. Meyerbeer, asking these two famous figures whether they knew each other, joy of Wagner at leaving London, fresh upsurge of fury against him from all the critics after the last concert at Hanover Square, he does indeed conduct in free style as Klindworth plays the piano, but his ideas and conversation are very captivating, we go to drink punch at his place after the concert, he reiterates his professions of friendship, he embraces me furiously, saying that he had had a mass of preconceptions against me, he weeps, he jumps up and down, hardly has he left that the Musical World publishes the passage from his book [Opera and Drama] where he tears me to pieces in the most comical and witty fashion, delirious joy of Davison in translating this to me, THE WORLD IS A THEATRE, Shakespeare and Cervantes have said it. […]
Wagner to Liszt, 5 July (WL no. 187):
[…] I am bringing back from England a real gain: the cordial and deep friendship which I have conceived for Berlioz and which we both sealed. I heard a concert of the New Philharmonic under his direction; I was not much impressed by his conducting of Mozart’s symphony in G minor and had to feel sorry for him for the performance of his symphony Romeo and Juliet which was very unsatisfactory. A few days later we were both on our own at dinner at Sainton’s: he was very lively, and the progress I had made in French in London enabled me in the course of our five-hour meeting to have a stimulating discussion with him on all aspects of art, philosophy and life. I gained in this way a deep sympathy for my new friend; he came across to me as a completely different person than he had been before; we suddenly discovered in each other a genuine companion in misfortune, and I judged myself more fortunate than Berlioz. – After my last concert he paid me a visit with my few remaining London friends; his wife was also present; we stayed together till 3 in the morning, and parted on that occasion with warm embraces. – I said to him that you intended to visit me in September and asked him to arrange to meet you at my place; the main point which seemed to trouble him was the question of money. But he would certainly be keen to come. Tell him exactly when you are coming. […]
Liszt to Wagner, 10 July (WL no. 188):
[…] Meanwhile I am delighted by your friendly relations with Berlioz. Among all contemporary composers I consider him the one whom you can deal with in the straightest, most open and interesting way. He is an honest, splendid and strong man, all things considered; at the same time as yours I received a letter from Berlioz, where among other things he said to me the following: [Liszt then transcribes part of the letter CG no. 1987] […]
Wagner to Liszt, early September (WL no. 192):
[…] Your essay on the symphony Harold in Italy was very fine and has greatly delighted me. Tomorrow I will be writing to Berlioz; he is to send me his scores. But he will never be able to get to know me well; his ignorance of German stands in his way, and he will never be able to see me except in deceptive outlines. I will therefore make honourable use of my privilege and try to bring him closer to me. […]
Berlioz to Wagner in Zürich (CG no. 2014; 10 September, Paris):
Your letter caused me a great deal of pleasure. You are right to deplore my ignorance of German, and what you say to me about my inability to appreciate your works I have said to myself many times. The flower of expression almost always fades under the weight of translation, however delicately that translation is made. There are accents, in real music, which require their special word, and there are words which require their accent. To separate each from the other, or to give them approximations, is like trying to get a goat to feed a puppy and vice versa. But then I find the learning of languages diabolically difficult; I barely know a few words of English and Italian…
So you are melting the glaciers while composing your Niebelungen!… It must be wonderful to write face to face with the majesty of nature!… That is another capacity which is denied to me. Fine landscapes, high peaks, and vast seascapes engross me completely instead of stimulating creative thought. I can then only feel and am unable to express. I can only draw the moon by looking at its reflection at the bottom of a well.
I would love to send you the scores which you kindly ask me; unfortunately my publishers have long ceased to give me copies. But there are two or even three: the Te Deum, l’Enfance du Christ and Lélio (a lyrical monodrama), which will be appearing in a few weeks, and I could at least send you these.
I have your Lohengrin; if you could send me Tannhäuser, I would really be delighted. The get-together you are suggesting would be treat, but I must be careful not to think of it. I have to travel for my displeasure, to earn a living, since Paris produces for me nothing but bitter fruits.
All the same, if we could live another hundred years, I think that we would overcome many things and many men. […]
Berlioz to Théodore Ritter (CG no. 2059; 6 December, Paris):
[…] Where the devil have you found this invention?.. nothing in the score could have misled you; the horns in D play
which in every country and at every period has produced D natural; I cannot answer for the future. It may be that in the music of the future that note will produce D sharp, because of the upward tendency of art. But for the time being, by all five hundred thousand devils!… […]
Berlioz to Henri Litolff (CG no. 2143; 24 June, Paris):
[…] I will tell you what you perhaps already know, that I have just been elected a member of the Institut. Tell Griepenkerl about it when you see him. This is causing a great sensation in Paris. It is a kind of revolution or coup d’état in favour of young music, which has little to do with music of the future, yet has equally little to do with music of the past. Seriously speaking, all these labels, all these categories, are mere caricatures. […]
Berlioz to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein (CG no. 2163; 12 August, Baden-Baden):
[…] What is immensely difficult there is to find the musical form, without which music does not exist or is no more than the humbled slave of speech. Therein lies Wagner’s crime: he would like to dethrone music and reduce it to expressive accents, thereby exaggerating Gluck’s system (who most fortunately did not succeed in following himself his impious theory). I am for what you yourself call free music. Yes, free, proud, sovereign and conquering; I want music to take everything, assimilate everything, and there must no longer be for her either Alps or Pyrenees. But to carry out her conquests she has to fight in person and not through her lieutenants; I am willing to let her have, if possible, good verses ranged in battle order, but she must face the fire herself like Napoleon and march in the front rank of the phalanx like Alexander. Music is so powerful that in some cases she would win her battles even on her own, and like Medea she has a thousand times been entitled to say: « Myself and that is enough! ». To want to take her back to the old declamation of the ancient chorus is the most incredible, and fortunately, the most useless madness that can be cited in the history of art.
To find the way of being expressive, and truthful, without ceasing to be a musician, and on the contrary providing music with new means of action, that is the problem. […]
Wagner to Hans von Bülow (SB IX no. 118; 10 February, Zürich; see also the previous letter SB IX no. 117 to Princess Marie von Sayn-Wittgenstein):
[…] Nothing should be done in answer to a commission, even when the request comes from Countess Wittgenstein. I have noticed this once more with Berlioz’s unfortunate libretto [for Les Troyens]; I was seized with horror when he read it to me and wished that I would never come face to face with Berlioz again. I cannot continue to play a comedy to myself and to the world in order to perpetuate Berlioz’s illusions about myself and himself. To see him sitting there brooding over the fate of this nameless absurdity, as though the salvation of the world and of his own soul depended on it, that is too much for me. […]
See also CG no. 2274
Wagner to Berlioz (CG no. 2468; 21 January, Paris):
I am delighted to be able to offer you the first copy of my Tristan. Please accept it and keep it out of friendship for me. […]
[Inscription on the score] To the dear and great author of Romeo and Juliet the grateful author of Tristan and Isolde.
Berlioz to Adolphe Samuel (CG no. 2472; 29 January, Paris):
[…] Wagner has just given a concert which has exasperated three quarters of the audience and delighted the fourth. For my part I suffered a great deal, while admiring in some cases the vehemence of his musical feeling. But the diminished sevenths, the discordances, the wild modulations, have given me a fever, and in truth I find this kind of music odious and it repels me. […]
Berlioz to Wagner (CG no. 2476; 2 February, Paris):
Indeed I am still unwell, but that is not the reason which has prevented me from attending your second concert; still less is it a lack of interest for your compositions, be assured. But I had an inescapable commitment that evening and I had to give your two tickets to two ladies, excellent musicians, who were very keen to hear you. I have not yet been able to write my feuilleton but will be starting soon, and I will tell you sincerely all my impressions and everything I think. […]
Berlioz to Pauline Viardot (CG no. 2480; 10 February):
Here are your scores of Wagner; I thank you. I am worried that the diminished sevenths they contain may run loose and eat away my furniture. Take good care of yours. I need to talk to you about many things; it is a cruel torment not to be able to. […]
Wagner to Berlioz (CG no. 2481; open letter published in the Journal des Débats of 22 February):
When five years ago destiny brought us closer together in London, I boasted of having an advantage over you: I could understand and appreciate your works perfectly, while you could only get an imperfect idea of mine because of your lack of knowledge of the German language, to which my dramatic conceptions are so closely bound. […]
It is neither ambitious designs nor hopes for monetary gain that have impelled me to ask from France hospitality for my works. I have been guided solely by the hope of getting my lyrical dramas represented here in French texts, and if the public is willing to extend a little sympathy to someone who is obliged to go to considerable trouble to be able to hear at last his own creations, I do not doubt that I will have the satisfaction, my dear Berlioz, of being understood by you. […]
Let me therefore inform you, my dear Berlioz, that the inventor of the music of the future is not myself but M. Bischoff, professor in Cologne (a friend of Ferdinand Hiller and you will recall having known him as a friend of Rossini). The occasion which gave rise to this empty phrase was the publication by myself, about ten years ago, of a book entitled The Work of Art of the Future. […] (there follows a lengthy account of the argument of the book) […]
I hope that soon both of us, in conditions of complete equality, will be able to understand each on a reciprocal basis. Let such a hospitable country as France give sanctuary to my lyrical works; on my side I await with the keenest impatience the staging of your Trojans. […]
Berlioz to Charles Hallé in Manchester (CG no. 2492; 4 April, Paris):
[…] As far as I know I have not been attacked by Wagner; he merely responded to my article in Les Débats with a supposedly explanatory letter which nobody could make any sense of. This nonsensical and turgid letter [CG no. 2481] did him more harm than good. I did not answer a word. […]
Wagner in Paris to Liszt, 22 May (WL no. 301a):
[…] I then read Berlioz’s most recent feuilleton on Fidelio published today. Since my concert I had not met Berlioz again; previously it was always up to me to look him up or invite him – he never bothered about me. It made me very sad: I was not hostile to him, but only ask myself whether God would not have done better to leave women out of creation. It is extremely rare for them to be of any help; usually they do us harm, without in the end getting anything from it themselves. With Berlioz I have been able to study once more with clinical precision how an evil woman can ruin at her whim an altogether brilliant man and bring him down to the point of ridicule. What satisfaction can such a poor fellow find in this treatment? Perhaps the sad satisfaction of having the worst part of his nature so conspicuously displayed! – As I mentioned, I did not see Berlioz again since then. Then I read today his article. It gave me such happiness that I wrote to him the following note in my dreadful French, certain in the knowledge that I would be gigantically misunderstood by him:
Dear Master! (I know that my familiar tone now makes him feel uneasy) I have just read your article on Fidelio. A thousand thanks for it! It is for me a very special joy to hear these pure and noble terms that express a soul and an intelligence which can understand so perfectly and appropriate the most intimate secrets of another hero of art. There are times when I am almost more transported by learning these acts of appreciation than by the work itself which is appreciated, since this gives us infallible witness that an uninterrupted chain of intimate kinship binds together great minds, which, thanks merely to this sole bond will never lapse into incomprehension. If I am not expressing myself well, I hope all the same that you will not understand me badly. [CG no. 2503]
Heaven knows how he will take this gibberish: if he does not wish to understand me this time, I fear that my bad French may at least have given him a good reason. Nevertheless it filled me with a special feeling of warmth to have sent these lines to the poor man. […] Berlioz’s article made it clear to me once more that the unhappy man is on his own; he is so gentle and sensitive that the world can only hurt him, and abuse his wounded irritability to drive him and the influences which surround him to extraordinary errors. He becomes so alienated from his nature that he harms himself without even realising it. But it was precisely through this absurd phenomenon that I realised that a man of exceptional talent needs as a friend another one of similar talent who can understand him. That led me to the conclusion that at present only the three of us really belong to each other, because only we are equals; and they are – you – him – and myself! – But under no circumstances should one say that to him: he hits back when he hears it. Such a stricken god is no more than a poor devil! […]
Berlioz to Wagner (CG no. 2504; 23 May, Paris):
I am very glad that my articles on Fidelio were to your liking. I had written them with care, but without the slightest hope that they would be of any use. I no longer believe in the education of the public by criticism, or at least I believe that a very long time is needed for criticism to bear fruit. I do not know whether you have any illusions; for my part I have for many years come to see things as they are…… You are at least full of energy and ready for the fight; I am ready only for sleep and death. And yet a kind of feverish joy still stirs me, when I cry out with love for what is beautiful and in answer comes a distant voice which lets me hear through the noise of the crowd its approving and friendly greeting. Thank you therefore for your letter; it did me good. I thought you were still in Belgium. Since we saw each other I have been very ill, very sad, and suffering a thousand torments…. When you write to me why do you address me as ‘Dear Master’, like people who stand on ceremony? Between us that is not right. […]
Berlioz to his son Louis (CG no. 2534; 14 February, Paris):
[…] Public opinion is more and more outraged at seeing me kept out of the Opéra while the protection of the Austrian ambassador gives Wagner such easy access to it. […]
Berlioz to J.-A. Demeur (CG no. 2535; 19 February, Paris):
[…] We are all sick here, I am being assailed with every sort of villainy. We are going to be having Tannhäuser and a barrage of publicity without precedent. But I have made up my mind and will wage on them a war of silence. My unfortunate friend d’Ortigue will sacrifice himself to write about the matter. They are not expecting this ambush. […]
Berlioz to Louis (CG no. 2536; 21 February, Paris):
[…] Wagner is driving to distraction the singers, men and women, the orchestra, and the chorus of the Opéra. Impossible to emerge from this Tannhäuser music. They say the last general rehearsal was dreadful and only finished at one in the morning. And yet they must get over it. Liszt will arrive to give his support to the school of mayhem [l’école du charivari]. I will not be writing the article on Tannhäuser and have asked d’Ortigue to take charge of it. That is better from every point of view and will disappoint them all the more. I have never had so many windmills to fight as this winter; I am surrounded by lunatics of every description. There are times when I choke with anger. […]
Berlioz to Louis (CG no. 2538; 5 March, Paris):
[…] There is great agitation in our musical world over the impending scandal with the production of Tannhäuser; I see nothing but furious people; the minister walked out of the rehearsal the other day in a state of anger!… The emperor is not pleased; and yet there are a few genuine enthusiasts, even among the French. Wagner is obviously mad. He will die as Jullien did last year, from a seizure of the brain. Liszt did not come and will not be at the first performance; he seems to be anticipating a catastrophe. For this three-act opera 160,000 francs have already been spent. Well, on Friday we shall see.
As I told you, I will not be writing the article about it, I am leaving it to d’Ortigue. I want to protest through my silence, though I may speak out later if I am driven to it. […]
Berlioz to Mme Massart (CG no. 2542; 14 March, Paris):
Yes, of course, till this evening!
God in heaven, what a performance! what roars of laughter! The Parisians showed themselves yesterday in a completely new light; they jeered at the bad musical style, they jeered at the pranks of the ridiculous orchestra, they jeered at the oboe’s inept music; at last they understand that there is such a thing as style in music.
As for the horrors, they were magnificently hissed.
Make sure you never play better than last time; if you continue to improve you will fall into the well of the Future.
Perfection is enough.
Berlioz to Louis (CG no. 2545; 21 March, Paris):
[…] The second performance of Tannhäuser was worse than the first. It was no longer a question of laughing, people were angry and hissing furiously, despite the presence of the emperor and empress who were in their box. The emperor is enjoying himself. On the way out down the stairs people were openly calling the wretched Wagner a scoundrel, an insolent rascal and an idiot. If this carries on, one of these days the performance will not conclude and all will be said. The press is unanimous in slaughtering him. As for me I am cruelly avenged.
Berlioz to Hippolyte Lecourt (CG no. 2708; 7 April, from Weimar):
[…] Yesterday I saw a performance of Tannhäuser, Mme Milde is the ideal personification of Elisabeth, and I find her admirable and adorable with her dove-like beauty. There are many fine things, especially in the last act; it has a deep sadness but great character; why is it necessary? etc. etc. There is too much to be said. […]
Berlioz to Ferdinand Hiller (CG no. 2750; 8 July, Paris):
[…] Your work is written in a clear and firm style; I congratulate you for preserving it amid the tendencies to mayhem [tendances charivariques] which have manifested themselves for such a long time among the new German composers. […]
Berlioz to Toussaint Bennet (CG no. 2843; 15 March, Paris):
[…] So Wagner’s madness is becoming more and more pronounced? It should have been forecast a long time ago. He will end like Schumann and like Jullien. […]
See also CG no. 2920
Vladimir Stasov to Berlioz (CG no. 3375; 5/17 October, from St Petersburg):
[…] This evening Wagner’s Lohengrin is being staged for the first time at the Russian opera, and it is possible that one part of the public will find this brutal music, which has no trace of talent, to its liking. So much the worse for those who think so. As for all of us, we do not believe that Wagner is a prophet of the future: we think that all he has done is to make Weber’s music retrograde. We find in Wagner a total lack of proportion and taste, a mass of banal things, orchestral writing that is overloaded and shrill, no talent for recitative, and outrageous modulations that exasperate you at every moment. And yet the prestige of his reputation in Germany, the word future that is attached to this music, the splendour of the sets and costumes, may perhaps impress an unsophisticated public and generate a sort of infatuation. That does not concern us: our eyes are turned towards true beauty and greatness, such as we find in your works; all our thoughts are directed at getting to know them and appreciating them in all their breadth and at once… […]
Wagner on Berlioz: excerpts from Mein Leben
The text used is that of the 1911 edition, to which page references are given; the links to each passage refer to the original German text which is given on a separate page. All translations are © Michel Austin.
Mein Leben I pp. 229-31 (on Wagner’s first stay in Paris in 1839-1842):
With a continuation of the story entitled The End of a Musician in Paris I took revenge for all the humiliation I had experienced in Paris. Schlesinger [the publisher, in Rue de Richelieu] was far less pleased with it, though it elicited touching signs of approval from his poor assistant, and from H. Heine the approving comment: « Hoffmann could not have written anything like it ». Even Berlioz was touched by it, and mentioned my story favourably in one of his feuilletons in the Journal des Débats [Note: Berlioz mentions Wagner’s earlier article Une visite à Beethoven but not this one; see Critique Musicale IV p. 402]. Another one of my articles on music, Concerning Overtures, earned his approval, though only in conversation, and this was particularly because in explaining my principles for this kind of composition I had used as illustration Gluck’s overture to Iphigenia at Aulis.
I was encouraged by these marks of approval to try to get closer to Berlioz. I had already been introduced to him some time ago in Schlesinger’s office, and since then I met him there with some frequency. I had presented him with a copy of my Two Grenadiers, but could not get out of him any other comment than that he only played the guitar a little and could not play the piano. On the other hand his large orchestral works, which I had already heard on a number of occasions performed under his baton during the previous winter, had made a considerable impression on me. During that winter (1839-1840) he performed for the first time his Romeo and Juliet symphony on three occasions, one of which I was able to attend. For me this was a new world, and while under the impression I wanted to formulate a completely objective view of the work. The power and virtuosity of the orchestra were something I had never dreamed of, and at first I was completely stunned. The fantastic daring, the sharp precision, the boldness of the combinations, almost tangible in their immediacy, all this impressed me, and my own ideas about the musical and poetic experience were brutally forced back in me. I was all ears for things which previously I had no inkling of, and which I needed to explain to myself. On the other hand numerous passages in Romeo and Juliet struck me again and again as empty and worthless, and the work itself suffered from its length and structure, but this pained me all the more as I was so overwhelmed by the many wonderful moments in the score that all criticism was rendered impotent. During the same winter Berlioz also followed this new symphony with fresh performances of his Fantastic Symphony and Harold in Italy. I was astounded and captivated especially by the pictorial style that was woven into the Fantastic Symphony and almost completely won over by the Harold symphony. But it was the latest work of this wonderful master, his Funeral Symphony for the Victims of the July Revolution [the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale], a most imaginatively constructed work for military band which he performed in the summer of 1840 under the column at the Place de la Bastille at the ceremony for the transfer of the remains of the July victims, which completely convinced me of the greatness and power of this unique and incomparable artist. And yet the overall impression was that I could never overcome a strange and deep sense of unease. I was left with a feeling of awe at something alien which would forever remain unfamiliar, and was puzzled that every time I heard a major work by Berlioz I was on the one hand thrilled, yet at times repelled, and sometimes even altogether bored. The problem I had with Berlioz troubled me deeply for many years, and it was only much later that I was able to understand it clearly and find a solution.
What is certain is that at that time I felt like a little schoolboy next to Berlioz; I was therefore really embarrassed when Schlesinger, wanting to exploit for my benefit the success of my story, invited me to perform some orchestral work of mine in a large concert that was to be organised by the editor of the Gazette musicale. […] (Wagner decides to perform his Columbus overture, but the rehearsals do not go well) […] Berlioz, who was present at this rehearsal, remained silent throughout; he neither encouraged nor discouraged me, but only sighed with a weary smile that ‘things in Paris were difficult’.
[See also the letters SB vol. 1 nos. 139 (Wagner to Ferdinand Heine; 27 March 1841) and 189 (Wagner to Robert Schumann; 5 January 1842)]
Mein Leben I p. 235 (in 1841 in Paris):
It seemed to me that there was nothing left except to work as a journalist; however little money journalism earned, it had at least brought me some success. The previous winter I had already written for the Gazette musicale a rather long essay on Weber’s Freischütz, which was intended to prepare the ground for the forthcoming production of the work at the Opéra, with the addition of the recitatives by Berlioz. To begin with it seems that the article earned me Berlioz’s displeasure. I had not been able to avoid drawing attention to the flaw in the project: the addition of recitatives to a work that was based on the genre of the old Singspiel would completely alter its original proportions in order to make it fit the lavish conventions of that theatre.
Mein Leben I p. 346 (concerning Spontini’s visit to Dresden):
About Spontini’s death, Berlioz, who to the end never left his death-bed, told me that the master had struggled to the utmost against death, repeatedly shouting « I do not want to die, I do not want to die! » When Berlioz tried to comfort him by saying « How can you think of dying, you, my master, who are immortal! » Spontini retorted to him angrily: « Do not make bad jokes! »
Mein Leben II p. 597 (on the meeting in Paris in October 1853):
On this occasion the reading of the poem and thus of the last act of Götterdämmerung was resumed, and this brought us to the longed-for end of the whole work. Berlioz, who arrived during the proceedings, behaved like a perfect gentleman when faced with this unfortunate reading. He entertained us to breakfast at his house the following morning to bid us farewell: he had already packed his music to set out for a concert tour in Germany. On this occasion Liszt played me excerpts from Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, and Berlioz sang to his accompaniment in his peculiarly dry style.
Mein Leben II pp. 616-18 (on the meeting in London in June 1855):
Our small company was considerably enlarged with the arrival of Berlioz, who had also been invited to London to conduct two concerts for the recently formed New Philharmonic Society. […] To add some lustre to these concerts, Berlioz, as mentioned, had been invited to take charge of a few. Here I heard him perform a few pieces of classical music, among them a symphony by Mozart [no. 40 in G minor], and was very startled to find that the man who was such a dynamic conductor of his own works could sink to the routine of the ordinary time-beater. Several of his own compositions, such as the most effective fragments from his Romeo and Juliet symphony, did indeed once more make a great impression on me; but the peculiar weaknesses which mar even the finest conceptions of this extraordinary master now became more obvious to me than they had been earlier, when all I could feel was a general sense of unease commensurate with the impression the work had made on me.
But I felt very stimulated on the few occasions that Sainton invited Berlioz and myself to dinner. I was suddenly brought face to face with him – a tortured and in many ways blunted figure, yet still a man of extraordinary gifts. My trip to London was the result of a desire for recreation and the search for external stimulus; I therefore had to consider myself very fortunate and floating as it were in a serene sky when I saw Berlioz, a much older man, coming here merely in order to earn a few guineas. There was nothing in him but weariness and despair, and I suddenly felt a deep sympathy for this man, whose gifts were so obvious to me and far surpassed those of his rivals. Berlioz seemed to welcome the cheerful spontaneity with which I approached him; his usual curt and reserved manner visibly thawed during the friendly hours that we spent together. He told me many funny stories about Meyerbeer and the impossibility of avoiding his flattery and cajoling manner which always aimed at creating a favourable press. The first performance of his opera Le Prophète was preceded by the usual « Dîner de la veille »; when Berlioz excused himself for his absence, Meyerbeer reproached him gently and invited him to make good the great injustice he was doing by writing a ‘really nice article’ on his opera. Berlioz explained that it was impossible to get anything critical of Meyerbeer published in the Paris press.
I found it more difficult to bring about a meeting of minds with him on deeper matters of art. I kept coming face to face with the Frenchman, ever fluent and glib, whose self-assurance never allowed any doubt to cross his mind as to whether he had correctly understood his interlocutor. At one point I sought to convey to him my views over the mystery of ‘artistic conception’ – I had warmed up and felt confident, and was astonished at my sudden mastery of the French language. I was trying to describe the power exercised by the experiences of life on our feelings, which hold us as it were captive, until we are able to liberate ourselves completely through the inner development of our deepest spiritual visions, which are summoned from their deep slumber – but not through the agency of those impressions. In other words the artistic construct is in no way the effect of those experiences of life, but on the contrary a liberation from them. At this point Berlioz smiled with patronising condescension and said: « we call that digesting ». My amazement at this instant summary of my laborious pronouncements was confirmed also by the outward behaviour of my newly-acquired friend. I invited him to my farewell concert, and after it to a small farewell dinner which I was giving in my flat to my few friends. He left early giving as pretext that he was not feeling well; but the friends who stayed behind made no mystery to me of the fact that they believed that Berlioz was not pleased by the enthusiastic farewell which the public had just given me.
Mein Leben II p. 625 (in 1855):
I was also pleased by a charming letter from Berlioz, which was accompanied by his new book Les Soirées de l’orchestre; despite all the grotesque elements in the author’s taste which I found just as off-putting as in his compositions, I found it made stimulating reading.
Mein Leben II p. 663 (on the meetings in Paris in January 1858):
I now paid a visit to Berlioz, the new friend I had acquired in London, and found him to be in general well disposed. I informed him that I was only making a brief visit to Paris for pleasure. At the time he was busy with the composition of a large opera, Les Troyens; in order to gain an impression of the work I was particularly anxious to get to know the poem, which he had written himself. He spent an evening reading it out for me alone: it made a very bad impression on me, not only because of the conception behind the poem, but also owing to the astonishing dryness and theatrical affectation of his delivery. This theatricality made me feel that I could also recognise in it the character of the music to which he had set his text; I sank into the deepest despair, as I could see that Berlioz regarded this work as his masterpiece and the production he was aiming at as the principal goal of his life.
Mein Leben II pp. 706-8 (on Wagner’s concerts in Paris in 1860):
The most important task now seemed to recruit a first-rate orchestra under contract for my concerts, and both my agents had more than enough to do for the time being. It was through their efforts on this occasion that I had the first indications of my old friend Berlioz’s hostile attitude towards me and my enterprise, a hostility which so far I had not suspected.
I was still full of the good impressions which my meeting with Berlioz in London in 1855 had left, and which he had kept up for a while by corresponding with me in friendly terms; immediately on arrival I therefore went to his domicile. As I did not find him there, I went back to the street, where I met Berlioz on his way home; I noticed that on catching sight of me he gave a convulsive start, which his appearance and whole demeanour reflected in a truly dreadful way. At once I was left in no doubt as to how matters stood between us, but concealed my own fright by expressing a natural concern for the state of his health; he immediately told me that he was very unwell, and could only withstand the violent attacks of a neuralgia through electric shock treatment, and was just returning home after such a session. So as not to increase his pain I offered to leave him immediately, though that made him feel so ashamed that he insisted that I should go up to his flat again with him. Here I managed to placate him a little by revealing the truth about my intentions in Paris: even my project of organising concerts had only the aim of attracting to myself as much public attention as was needed to establish a German opera in Paris, in which it was my wish to stage works of mine that I had not yet heard myself. In return for this I gave up completely the idea of a French performance of Tannhäuser, which had seemingly been the intention of the director Carvalho.
Following these explanations my relations with Berlioz became for a while not just tolerable but even on the surface altogether friendly. I therefore believed that I could tell my agents, concerning the recruitment of instrumental players for the projected concerts, to take advantage of the certainly well-informed advice of my experienced friend. They told me that at first Berlioz showed himself to be cooperative, but that this suddenly changed when one day Madame Berlioz walked into the room while they were in discussion and shouted in tones full of angry surprise: « What, do I understand that you are giving advice for Mr Wagner’s concerts? » In connection with this lady Belloni [one of Wagner’s agents] had found out that she had recently received from Meyerbeer an expensive bracelet as a present. « Do not rely on Berlioz! ». This warning from my well-informed agent put the whole matter back in good order.
Mein Leben II p. 716 (on Berlioz’s review of Wagner’s concerts in 1860):
Berlioz aroused considerable indignation with an article in the Journal des Débats; the article started in a laborious and convoluted way but ended with openly hostile insinuations. He had been my old friend, and I decided that I would not let his bad behaviour pass so easily; I answered him with a letter, which I got translated into good French with considerable trouble, and after some protest it was included in the Journal des Débats. It seems that this very letter won over to my side completely those who had been impressed by my concert.
Mein Leben II p. 731 (on the meeting at Mme Viardot’s in July 1860):
I improvised specially for Mme Kalergis a hearing of the second act of Tristan; Mme Viardot, with whom I became very friendly on this occasion, was to deal with the vocal parts together with me, while for the piano part I invited Klindworth to come from London at my expense. This very strange private performance took place at the domicile of Mme Viardot. Apart from Madame Kalergis, for whose sole benefit it was put on, only Berlioz was present. Mme Viardot had made a special point of getting him to come, apparently with the precise intention of erasing the disagreements that had arisen between myself and Berlioz. What impression a performance of these odd fragments, taking place in such circumstances, left on those present has never been clear to me; Mme Kalergis remained dumb, and all that Berlioz could find to praise was the ‘warmth’ of my singing. It must indeed have made a striking contrast with that of my partner, who sang everything mostly in a low voice. Klindworth seemed particularly displeased with the result; he for his part gave an excellent account of himself, but said he was outraged by the conduct of Viardot and her lukewarm performance, which he conjectured was caused by the presence of Berlioz.
See also on this site:
Berlioz and Liszt
Berlioz and Weimar
Wagner: an article on Berlioz, May 1841
Entente Cordiale – Berlioz dines with Wagner, by Olivier Teitgen (in French)
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18
The Berlioz and Wagner page was created on 1 April 2008, and enlarged on 15 July 2012.
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