Translated by Michel Austin
© Michel Austin
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Memoirs, chapter 48
[…] This (sc. the fall of Louise Bertin’s opera Esmeralda in 1836) made me realise what I could expect from the personal enemies I had made directly from my writings as a music critic, and from those hostile to the Journal des Débats, when I came to produce a work of my own on the stage of the Opéra, where so many cowardly acts of revenge can be perpetrated with impunity.
This is how I came to suffer in my turn a resounding defeat there.
I had been very struck by a number of episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini. I had the misfortune to believe that they could provide a dramatic and interesting subject for an opera, and I requested Léon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier, the redoubtable poet of the Iambes, to write a libretto for me.
According to what even our common friends say, their work does not possess the elements required for what is considered a well-made drama. But I liked it, and to this day I am unable to see in what way it is inferior to so many others that are performed every day. At that time Duponchel was the director of the Opéra; he regarded me as a kind of lunatic whose music could not fail to be anything but a tissue of extravagances. Still, to please the Journal des Débats, he agreed to hear a reading of the libretto of Benvenuto, and appeared to like it. He then went round saying to everybody that he was putting this opera on stage not because of the music, which he was sure would be absurd, but because of the book, which he found delightful.
He did indeed put the work into rehearsal, and I will never forget the agonies I had to endure during the three months that were devoted to it. The indifference and distaste manifested during the rehearsals by most of the actors, who were already expecting a fiasco, Habeneck’s ill-will, the secret mutterings that went round the theatre, the stupid comments of all those illiterate people on some expressions in the libretto, which was so different in style from the flat and insipid prose of Scribe’s school – all this pointed to a general hostility against which I was powerless, and I had to pretend not to notice anything.
Here and there in the recitatives Auguste Barbier had admittedly let slip through some words which belonged evidently to the vocabulary of insults, and their crudeness offends the prudishness of contemporary taste. But would you believe that in a duet written by L. de Wailly the following lines were thought grotesque by most of the singers:
When I came to my senses
The roofs were shining in the light of dawn,
THE COCKS were singing, etc. etc.
‘The cocks, they would say, ha! ha! the cocks! why not the hens! etc., etc.’
How do you answer such idiots?
When it came to the orchestral rehearsals the musicians, seeing Habeneck’s grumpy manner, maintained towards me a frosty attitude. But they did at least do their job. Habeneck performed his in a perfunctory manner. He never succeeded in establishing the brisk tempo for the saltarello that is sung and danced on Colonne Square in the middle of the second act. The dancers could not adapt to his sluggish beat, complained to me, and I kept saying to him: ‘Faster! faster! put more life into it!’ Losing his temper Habeneck would hit the desk and break his bow. In the end, after seeing him explode four or five times, I said to him with a coolness that exasperated him:
‘Sir, you might break another fifty bows but your tempo would still be too slow by half. This is a saltarello.’
That day Habeneck stopped and turned to the orchestra:
‘Since I have the misfortune not to satisfy M. Berlioz, he said, we will stop here for today; you may go.’
That is how the rehearsal ended. [Footnote: I could not conduct myself the rehearsals for Cellini. In French theatres, composers are not allowed to conduct their own works.]
A few years later [3rd February 1844], when I had written the overture Roman Carnival, the allegro of which is based on the same saltarello which he never managed to play up to speed, Habeneck happened to be in the greenroom at the Salle Herz on the evening of the concert where this overture was to receive its first performance. He had heard that at the morning rehearsal a number of my players had been called away for service in the National Guard, and the rehearsal had taken place without any wind instruments. ‘Good! he said to himself, there is going to be a catastrophe at his concert, I must be there to watch’. And indeed, when all the wind players came to the orchestra, they gathered around me petrified at the thought of playing in public an overture which was completely unknown to them.
‘Don’t be afraid, I said, the parts are accurate, you are all talented players, follow my beat as often as possible, count your rests carefully and everything will go well.’
There was not a single mistake. I launched the allegro in the whirling tempo of Roman dancers. The audience encored the piece, and we played it again. The second performance was even better than the first. When I returned to the greenroom I found Habeneck looking rather crestfallen, and said to him casually: ‘That’s what it sounds like!’ He was careful not to reply.
Never have I felt more keenly than on this occasion the pleasure of conducting myself my own music. My delight was increased at the thought of what I had endured at the hands of Habeneck.
Unhappy composers! Learn how to conduct, and how to conduct yourselves well (with or without a pun). Never forget that the most dangerous of your interpreters is the conductor himself.
To return to Benvenuto.
The orchestral players maintained a studied reserve towards me, as they wanted to avoid any contrast with the tacit hostility of their conductor. Nevertheless when it came to the final rehearsals the musicians made no bones about praising several pieces, and a few declared that my score was one of the most original they had ever heard. This came back to Duponchel’s ears, and one evening I heard him say: ‘Have you ever seen such a change in opinion? Now they are finding Berlioz’s music enchanting and these fools of musicians are praising it to the sky!’ But several of them were anything but my supporters. Thus two of them were caught one evening in the finale of the second act playing the tune J’ai du bon tabac instead of what was written in their part. They were hoping to secure in this way the favours of their conductor. These foolish pranks had their counterpart on stage, as I discovered. In this same finale, where the stage must be plunged in darkness and represents a crowd of masks on Colonne Square at night, the male dancers would amuse themselves by pinching the women. Their shrieks added to those of the women and to the choral singing disturbed the performance of the chorus. And when I would indignantly summon the director and demand he put an end to this outrageous chaos, Duponchel was nowhere to he seen; he would not condescend to attend rehearsals.
Eventually the opera was performed. The overture was received with exaggerated applause, and the rest was hissed with admirable ensemble and energy. Nevertheless it received three performances [10, 12 and 14 September 1838], after which, since Duprez had decided he had to give up the role of Benvenuto, the work disappeared from the bills and only returned long after; A. Dupont took five whole months to learn a part which he was furious not to have been given in the first instance.
Duprez was very fine in the violent scenes, such as that in the middle of the sextet when he threatens to break the statue. But his voice was already unable to cope with gentle passages, sustained notes, and music of a quiet and dreamlike character. For example in his aria Sur les monts les plus sauvages, he was unable to sustain the high G at the end of the phrase Je chanterais gaîment, and instead of the long note held over three bars that I had written, he only sang a short G and thus destroyed the effect completely. Mme Gras-Dorus and Mme Stoltz were both enchanting in the roles of Teresa and Ascanio, which they learned conscientiously and with great care. Mme Stoltz even caused such a sensation in her rondo of the second act: Mais qu’ai-je donc? that that part might be considered the springboard towards the exalted position she subsequently achieved at the Opéra, and from which she has been cast down so abruptly [in December 1846].
It is now fourteen years since I was stretched on the rack at the Opéra in this fashion. I have just re-read my poor score carefully and with cold detachment. I cannot help recognising in it a variety of ideas, an impetuous verve, and a burst of musical colour which I will probably never achieve again and which deserved a better fate. [Footnote: It must not be forgotten that this was written in 1850. Since then the opera of Benvenuto Cellini, after some changes to the libretto, has been successfully staged at Weimar, where it is frequently performed under the direction of Liszt. The vocal score has been also published with German and French text by Mayer in Brunswick in 1858. It has even been published by Choudens in Paris in 1865.]
I took rather a long time to write the music for Benvenuto and, but for a friend who came to my rescue, would not have been able to finish the work on time. To write an opera you have to be free from all other obligations, which implies that for some length of time you are able to rely on a guaranteed income. That was far from being my position; I was living from hand to mouth by writing articles for various papers and this took up most of my time. In the first flush of excitement for the opera I did try to devote two months to my score, but dire necessity soon forced me to abandon my task as composer to turn to that of music critic. I will not attempt to describe the heartbreak this caused. But there was no room for hesitation, I had a wife and son and could not let them go short of basic necessities. I was plunged into deep despair, torn on one side by need and on the other by musical ideas that I was obliged to push aside. I lacked even the courage to perform my usual task of scribbler, which I hated.
I was sunk in the gloomiest of thoughts when Ernest Legouvé came to see me. "How is your opera going? he asked. – I have not yet finished the first act. I cannot find time to work on it. – But if you had the time… – Well, I would be writing from morning to evening. – What would you need to be free? – Two thousand francs which I do not have. – And if someone… If this money… Come, help me out. – What? What do you mean?… – Well, if one of your friends were to lend you this sum… – Which friend could I ask for such a sum? – You do not need to ask anybody, I am offering it to you!…" You can imagine my joy. The next day Legouvé did indeed lend me the two thousand francs, thanks to which I was able to complete Benvenuto. What generosity of spirit, and what a kind and sensitive man! Himself a writer of distinction and an artist at heart, he had guessed the torment I was going through. With exquisite tact he was worried of hurting my feelings by offering the means of bringing the torment to an end. Only true artists can understand each other in this way… I have been fortunate enough to meet several like him who have similarly come to my help. [see Correspondance générale nos. 558-9, 561, 563, 611, 625-6]
Memoirs, chapter 59
[…] I know what I am capable of achieving in dramatic music, but it is both pointless and dangerous to make the attempt [a reference to Les Troyens; this passage of the Memoirs was written in 1854]. For a start most of our lyrical theatres are places of ill-repute, musically speaking, and the Opéra in particular is at the moment a disgrace. Then in a work on this kind I could only give wing to my creative imagination on the assumption that I was fully in charge of a large theatre, as I am in charge of my orchestra when I conduct a performance of one of my symphonies. I would need to be able to count on everyone’s support, be obeyed by all, from the first lady and the leading tenor, the choristers, musicians, dancers and supernumeraries, down to the set-designer, the stage-hands and the producer. An opera house, as I conceive it, is above all a vast musical instrument. I know how to play it, but in order to play it well I need to have full and untrammelled control over it. And that will never happen. Then the machinations, conspiracies and intrigues of my enemies would find there too much scope. They dare not come and hiss in a concert hall, but in a vast theatre like the Opéra would not fail to do so. That will always be the case.
I would have to put up not only with the animosities aroused by my critical writings, but also with the equally ferocious hostility engendered by the tendencies of my musical style. That style is, by itself, the most devastating living critique of the works of some people who enjoy solid popularity. They rightly say to themselves: ‘The day the general public learns to understand and appreciate compositions like this, our own will become worthless.’ The proof of all this was given to me in London, when a band of Italians turned up and made it almost impossible to perform Benvenuto Cellini at Covent Garden [25 June 1853]. They shouted, booed and hissed from start to end. They even tried to prevent the performance of my overture Roman Carnival which served as curtain-raiser for the second act, and which had often been performed to great applause in London in many concerts, as that at the Philharmonic Society in Hanover Square only two weeks earlier. Public opinion, if not mine, put M. Costa, the conductor at Covent Garden, at the head of this laughably ferocious conspiracy. I had frequently attacked him in my articles for the liberties he takes with the scores of great masters – he makes cuts or additions to them, and changes and mutilates them in many ways. If M. Costa is responsible, which is quite possible, he has at least succeeded in lulling my suspicions with considerable skill by his assiduous co-operation and help during rehearsals.
The London musicians, disgusted at this pettiness, wanted to show their sympathy for me by opening a subscription for a Testimonial concert, to which two hundred and thirty contributed, and which they asked me to conduct in Exeter Hall without charging for their services. But the concert could not take place. The publisher Beale, who is now one of my best friends, also presented me with a gift of two hundred guineas from a group of amateur musicians, with at their head the celebrated piano manufacturers Messrs. Broadwood. I felt I could not accept such a present, which is so far removed from our French musical habits, though it had been prompted by genuine kindness and generosity. Not everybody is a Paganini. [...]
Overture: Benvenuto Cellini (commentary and score)
Overture: Roman Carnival (commentary and score)
Texts and Documents
© Michel Austin for the English translation. All rights of reproduction reserved.