An article on Berlioz, May 1841
© Michel Austin for the English translation
This page gives an English translation (by Michel Austin) of an article by Richard Wagner on Berlioz, originally published in German in the Dresdner Abendzeitung of 5 May 1841. This was the first text on Berlioz to be published by Wagner, and was written during his first stay in Paris of 1839-1842. It should be noted that the following translation was made not from the original German text, which we have not been able to obtain as yet, but from the French translation of the article published in Le Ménestrel of 5 October 1884 pp. 257-8, and available on the internet site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The translation below therefore does not claim to reproduce the original closely.
5 May 1841.
I see that I must absolutely talk about Berlioz at last, because I realise that a suitable opportunity will not present itself soon.
The fact that writing about the daily happenings in Paris’ life of pleasure (or ‘artistic life’ if you like) has not by itself provided me with an obvious opportunity to deal with this musician of genius, seems to me rather characteristic: it provides me with a perfect way to introduce my view of Berlioz, and this artist is in any case entitled to claim an important and very special place in the correspondence which I am sending to you from Paris.
Berlioz is in no way an occasional composer, and that is the reason that I have not had to deal with him in an occasional way. He does not cultivate any relations and does not have anything to do with those opulent and exclusive artistic establishments in Paris, the Opéra and the Conservatoire, who from day one, astounded at his audacity, lost no time in closing their doors to him. Berlioz has been compelled to be and remain a conspicuous exception to the great and eternal rule, and that is what he is and remains, both in reality and in appearance.
Anyone who wishes to hear the music of Berlioz is forced to make a special effort for this and to go to him, otherwise he would not find the slightest trace of his music anywhere, not even in those places where Mozart and Musard are to be found side by side. The compositions of Berlioz are only to be heard in one or two concerts which he organises himself every year; these concerts remain his exclusive preserve, and that is where he gets his works performed by an orchestra he has formed for his own special use, in front of a public he has won over in the course of a ten-year campaign. As for hearing music by Berlioz anywhere else, one must give up the idea, unless it is in the street or in a church, where from time to time the government commissions from him a work with a political and musical purpose.
The isolation of Berlioz does not merely extend to his outward situation; it is this isolation above all which lies at the root of his intellectual evolution. However French he may be, however genuine the sympathies which bind his essence and tendencies to those of his compatriots…, he remains all the same a lonely figure. There is no one he can see in front to lean on, and no one by his side to give him support.
From the depths of this Germany of ours, the spirit of Beethoven has breathed upon him, and there were certainly times when Berlioz wanted to be a German; it is at times like these that his genius drove him to write in imitation of the great master, to express precisely what he felt was being expressed in his works. But as soon as he put pen to paper, the natural fire of his French blood would take the upper hand, the fire of that blood which was flowing through the veins of Auber when he wrote the volcanic last act of his Muette [de Portici]… Lucky Auber, who did not know the symphonies of Beethoven! — Berlioz for his part did know them, and what is more he understood them, they had transported him and intoxicated his soul… and yet that is how he was reminded that it was French blood that was flowing through his veins. That is when he grasped that he was incapable of being a Beethoven, and that is also when he felt that he was incapable of writing like an Auber.
He was Berlioz, and wrote his Symphonie fantastique, a work which would have made Beethoven smile, just as it provokes Auber’s smile, but which was capable of plunging Paganini into the most feverish ecstasy, and to gain for its author a following which will not hear any other music in the world than the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz.
Anyone who hears this symphony here in Paris must believe he is hearing something strange and unheard of. — A rich, monstrous imagination and a fantasy of epic energy belch out, as from the crater of a volcano, a muddy torrent of passions; what can be discerned are clouds of smoke of colossal proportions, traversed only by flashes of lightning and fiery stripes, and shaped like fleeting ghosts. Everything is excessive and bold, but extremely unpleasant. There is no point in looking anywhere there for formal beauty, or a calm and majestic flow whose regular waves might inspire confidence and hope.
After the Symphonie fantastique the first movement of Beethoven’s C minor symphony would have been pure bliss for me.
I was saying that even in Berlioz the French tendency predominates.
In truth, had this not been the case, and had there been a possibility for him to escape from this tendency, one might then support in him what in good German is called a worthy disciple of Beethoven.
But this tendency prevents him from assimilating more deeply the genius of Beethoven. — That is the tendency that aims at outward effect and is looking for success with the most divergent classes of the public. While a German, in the midst of his social life, prefers to withdraw within himself and collect his thoughts when he wishes to probe the true inner source which feeds his productive capacity, we see that a Frenchman, on the contrary, aspires to find in the most extreme classes of society the principle of his productive activity. A Frenchman’s first thought is above all to entertain and amuse, and even when he is seeking to perfect his art by ennobling and idealising this amusement, he never loses sight of his immediate aim, which is that this art should have the capacity to please and captivate the highest possible number of listeners. Thus effect and the impression of the moment are and remain for a Frenchman his principal goal; if he is totally bereft of intuitive sense, it is enough for him simply to have attained this goal…; but if he is gifted with a genuine capacity for creation, it does not prevent him from using this effect; but then it is no more than the first and most important way of conveying to all his innermost thoughts.
What inner struggles there must be within an artistic soul such as that of Berlioz!… On one side he is driven by a powerful intuitive impulse to draw from the deepest and most mysterious spring of the ideal world; on the other the demands and the peculiar character of his fellow-compatriots whose tendencies he shares, and even his own native impulse, make him feel inclined to express his thoughts only in the most superficial aspects of what he creates!… He feels that he has something extraordinary, something infinite to express; he feels that the language of Auber is far too inadequate for that; he feels that he must nevertheless imagine something equivalent, to earn, a priori and immediately, the goodwill of his public. And that is how he is led to use this musical language, a language that is striking in conformity with modern taste, with its profane convolutions, which enable him to dazzle and recruit ordinary bystanders, while putting off those who would have been capable of understanding his intimate intentions, but who will not condescend to penetrate them when they are dressed up in this way.
Another unfortunate circumstance is that Berlioz seems to take delight in his isolation, and seems to insist obstinately in remaining there. He does not have any friend whom he judges worthy of giving him advice, to whom he would allow to point out to him any particular fault in the design of his works.
From this point of view the hearing of his Roméo et Juliette symphony stirred in me the deepest regrets. Side by side with flashes of genius of the most inspired kind, there is in this work such an accumulation of offences against good taste and good artistic design, that I could not refrain from expressing the wish that before performing this work Berlioz had submitted it to someone like Cherubini. Without detracting in any way from the originality of the work he would surely have known how to remove a good many imperfections which disfigure it.
But Berlioz’s sensitivity is so excessive that even his closest friend would not dare to make such a suggestion to him; on the other hand he strikes his listeners in such a way that they see in him an artistic phenomenon for which there is no point of comparison, and to which no yardstick can be applied. That is why Berlioz will always remain incomplete, and that is why he will perhaps only shine really as a passing and strange exception.
And that is a great pity!… If Berlioz knew how to take advantage of the mass of excellent ideas which have sprung up in the latest and brilliant period of modern French music, if Berlioz could renounce the state of isolation which he has reached, which he glories in with such vain pride, and attach himself to some great figure of contemporary or past music, to lean on him as his foundation, then he would inevitably have the assurance needed to exercise on the future of French music a powerful influence and make his memory unforgettable.
Indeed, Berlioz not only possesses creative power and originality of invention: there is a virtue that shines in him, which is normally as rare among composers of his country as is the vice of coquetry among us Germans. This virtue consists in not writing for money, and for anyone who knows Paris, who knows the lifestyle and practices of composers in Paris, it is quite natural to pay homage, in this very city, to such a virtue.
Berlioz is the most determined enemy of anything that is banal, low-grade, and trivial… He has sworn to cut the throat of the first organ-grinder who dares to play one of his melodies. Terrible as is this oath, I do not have the slightest fear for the days of these street virtuosi; I am even convinced that no one holds the music of Berlioz in greater contempt than the members of this vast musical corporation.
And yet there is a talent that cannot be denied to Berlioz: it is precisely his ability to write compositions of a genuinely popular kind, and I mean ‘popular’ in the most ideal sense of the term.
When I heard the symphony which he wrote for the transfer of the victims of July, I had a keen sense that the merest street-urchin wearing a blue blouse and a red cap would have understood it completely, though in truth this kind of understanding would demand that I refer to it as ‘national’ rather than ‘popular’, because it is certain that from the Postillon de Longjumeau to this Symphonie de Juillet there is still a rather long way to go.
I would really have no hesitation in placing this composition ahead of the other works of Berlioz: it is noble and elevated from the first note to the last…; a sublime patriotic enthusiasm, which rises from the strains of lamentation to the highest peaks of apotheosis, preserves this work from any exaltation of an unseemly kind.
I grant further to Berlioz the merit of having used, in a style that is thoroughly noble, the music of a military wind-band, which was all that was available to him on this occasion. I must therefore withdraw what I was saying earlier about the future fate of the works of Berlioz, at least as far as this Symphonie de Juillet is concerned… I must express with joy my conviction that this symphony will endure and exalt the courage of people so long as a nation with the name of France endures…
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 15 July 2012.
© Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb for all text and images on this page. All rights of reproduction reserved.
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