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Berlioz on his musical education

Memoirs, chapters 4, 6, 13

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Memoirs chapter 4

    When I said above [chapter 3] that music had been revealed to me at the same time as love, at the age of twelve, I should have said musical composition: for even before then I could sing at sight and play two instruments. It was again my father who had provided me with the rudiments of a musical education.

    By chance I had discovered at the bottom of a drawer I was searching a flageolet; I wanted to make immediate use of it, and tried in vain to play on it the popular song of Marlborough [the tune is the same as that of “For he’s a jolly good fellow”!].

    My father was very irritated by the whistling noises I was making, and told me to leave him in peace until he had time to teach me the fingering of that tuneful instrument and how to play the heroic song I had chosen. He did indeed succeed in teaching me both without too much trouble, and two days later I had achieved sufficient mastery to be able to entertain the whole family with my tune of Marlborough.

    You can doubtless sense my emerging talent for powerful wind effects (a biographer worth his salt would hardly fail to make this ingenious inference…). This gave my father the ambition to teach me to read music. He explained to me the basic principles of the art, and conveyed lucidly the purpose and function of musical notation. Soon after he put a flute in my hands, with Devienne’s method, and as with the flageolet, took the trouble to demonstrate the mechanism. I worked with such conviction that after six or seven months I had acquired a more than basic proficiency on the flute. Wishing to develop further the aptitude I was showing, my father then persuaded several wealthy families of La Côte to join him in bringing from Lyon a music teacher. The plan came off. A second violin from the Célestins theatre, who also played the clarinet, agreed to come and settle in our little backwater to try to inculcate music to its inhabitants. This was on condition of having a minimum number of guaranteed pupils, and a fixed salary for directing the military band of the national guard. His name was Imbert. He gave me two lessons a day. I had a nice treble voice, and soon I could sight-read without fear, sing quite pleasantly, and play on the flute the most complicated concertos of Drouet. [...]

    I had discovered among some old books Rameau’s treatise on harmony, annotated and simplified by d’Alembert. But despite spending whole nights reading these obscure theories, I could not make any sense of them. To be able to understand the author’s meaning one needs in fact to have already mastered the science of chords and to have studied in depth questions of experimental physics on which the whole system is based. It is therefore a treatise on harmony for the exclusive benefit of those who know it. Yet I had the ambition to compose music. I would arrange duets as trios and quartets, but without being able to find chords or a bass which made any sense. But by dint of listening to quartets by Pleyel performed on Sundays by our local amateurs, and with the help of Catel’s treatise on harmony, which I had managed to obtain, I was finally able to penetrate, all of a sudden, the mystery of the formation and sequence of chords. I immediately wrote a kind of pot-pourri with six parts, based on Italian themes of which I had an album. The harmony seemed tolerable enough. Emboldened by this first step I ventured to undertake the composition of a quintet for flute, two violins, viola and bass, which was performed by three amateur players, my teacher and myself.

    It was a triumph. My father alone did not seem to share in the general plaudits. Two months later, another quintet. My father wanted to hear the flute part, before letting me attempt the full-scale performance, in the way of provincial amateurs who imagine that a quartet can be judged from the first violin part. I played the part to him, and at a certain passage he exclaimed: “Excellent, this is real music.” But this quintet was far more ambitious than the first and much more difficult; our amateur group were unable to give an adequate performance of it. The viola and cello in particular were all over the place.

    At that time I was twelve and a half. As can be seen, those biographers who have written, and still quite recently, that at the age of twenty I did not know my notes, are strangely mistaken.

    A few years after writing the two quintets I burnt them, but it is striking that when years later in Paris I was writing my first orchestral composition, the melody my father had approved in my second effort came back to mind, and I adopted it. It is the theme in A flat played by the first violins, soon after the start of the allegro of the Francs-Juges overture.

    After the sad and inexplicable end of his son [he committed suicide], the unfortunate Imbert went back to Lyon, where I believe he must have died. He was succeeded at La Côte almost immediately by a much more talented musician named Dorant. An Alsatian from Colmar, he could play almost every instrument, and excelled on the clarinet, the cello, the violin and the guitar. He gave guitar lessons to my elder sister [Nanci] who had a good voice, but has not been endowed by nature with any musical instinct. She does like music, though she has never managed to read notes and cannot decipher even a romance. I was present at her lessons, and wanted to have some myself. Finally Dorant, who was an unusual artist and a man of integrity, suddenly went to see my father, saying “Sir, I cannot possibly continue my guitar lessons with your son! – Why so? Has he let you down in any way, or is he being lazy and making you despair of him? – Nothing of the sort, but this would be absurd, as he is as good as I am.”

    So you see – I had mastered three majestic, incomparable instruments, the flageolet, the flute and the guitar. Who could fail to recognise in this judicious choice the impulse of nature which was driving me towards the most immense orchestral effects and music on the scale of Michelangelo! The flute, the guitar and the flageolet!… I have never had any other skills as an instrumentalist, though these seem to me respectable enough as it is. But I am not being fair to myself: I could also play the drum.

    My father was against letting me start studying the piano, otherwise I would probably have become a formidable pianist, like countless others. He had absolutely no intention of making an artist of me, and was probably worried that the piano might establish too strong a hold on me and lead me deeper into music than he wished.

    I have often regretted not being able to play the piano; this skill could be of great use to me in many circumstances. But when I think of the frightening number of trivia that are produced with such ease day-in day-out – disgraceful compositions that would be beyond the reach of their authors if they had to rely on pen and paper and were deprived of their musical kaleidoscope – I have to thank my lucky stars for having been obliged to learn to compose in silence and with complete freedom. This has preserved me from the tyranny of fingering patterns, which are so damaging for creative composition, and from the seduction of commonplaces to which composers are exposed most of the time. But admittedly the countless devotees of such pieces express in my case the opposite regret; but this leaves me unmoved.

    My adolescent attempts at composition were tinged with deep melancholy. Most of my melodies were in minor keys. I was aware of this weakness but unable to avoid it. My thoughts were shrouded in the darkness where my romantic love of Meylan had confined them. In this state of mind, as I read and re-read Florian’s Estelle, I would probably have set to music sooner or later some of the numerous romances found in that insipid pastoral idyll, which at the time I found gentle. This I did not fail to do.

    Among other pieces I wrote a very sad one on words which expressed my despair at leaving the woods and the places honoured by the feet, illuminated by the eyes [La Fontaine, Les deux pigeons] and the little pink boots of my cruel beauty. This colourless poetry comes back to mind today together with the spring sunshine in London [April 1848], where I am beset by major worries and a terrible anxiety, seething with concentrated fury at having to face here as elsewhere so many absurd obstacles… Here is the first stanza:

Je vais donc quitter pour jamais
Mon doux pays, ma douce amie,
Loin d’eux je vais traîner ma vie
Dans les pleurs et dans les regrets!
Fleuve dont j’ai vu l’eau limpide,
Pour réfléchir ses doux attraits,
Suspendre sa course rapide,
Je vais vous quitter pour jamais. 

    I burnt this romance, as well as the sextet and the quintets, before my departure for Paris, but the melody came discreetly back to my mind when in 1829 I undertook to write my Fantastic Symphony. It seemed to me to express exactly the overwhelming grief of a young heart in the first pangs of a hopeless love, and I adopted it. It is the melody sung by the first violins at the beginning of the largo in Part I of this work, which has the title: Dreams and Passions. I have not changed it in any way.

    In the midst of these various musical endeavours, while I was absorbed in reading, the study of geography, religious aspirations, and the alternating moments of calm and storm of my first love, the time was approaching when I had to prepare myself to follow a career. My father intended me to follow his profession, as none seemed to him more distinguished, and he had long given me indications of his purpose.

    My own feelings on the subject were far from favourable to his views, and on occasions I had displayed them forcefully. Without being fully aware of what I felt, I was looking forward to a career spent far away from the bedside of patients, hospitals and operating theatres. I did not dare to admit to myself what I had in mind, but was nevertheless determined to resist anything that might be done to direct me towards medicine. I read at the time the life of Gluck and Haydn in Michaut’s Biographie universelle, and this threw me in a state of great agitation. What brilliant glory, I said to myself thinking of those two famous men, what a noble art, and what joy to be able to pursue it on a grand scale! Then there was a seemingly trivial incident which moved me further in the same direction, and suddenly filled my mind with the dazzling perception of countless distant musical horizons that were both strange and grandiose.

    I had never seen a full score. The only pieces of music I knew were solfèges accompanied by a figured bass, flute solos or fragments from operas with piano accompaniment. But one day I came across a sheet of music paper with twenty four staves. On seeing this large number of lines, I immediately grasped the multiplicity of instrumental and vocal combinations that could be created by using them in an imaginative way. “What an orchestral score one could write with that!” I exclaimed. From that moment on my head was even more filled with musical excitement, and my hostility towards medicine only increased. But I was too frightened of my parents to dare to reveal anything of my ambitious thoughts. At that point my father enlisted the help of music to carry out a coup d’état; it was designed to disarm what he called my childish hostility and make me begin the study of medicine.

    With the intention of familiarising me quickly with the objects that would soon be constantly before my eyes, he had spread open in his study the huge Treatise on Osteology of Munro; it contained full-scale engravings which reproduced very accurately the different parts of the human skeleton. “Here, he said, is a work you are going to have to study. I do not suppose that you are going to persist in your hostility to medicine; it is unreasonable and entirely without foundation. But if, on the other hand, you are prepared to promise me to study osteology seriously, I will order from Lyon, for your own use, a superb flute equipped with all the new keys.” I had long been coveting this instrument. What could I say in answer?… The solemn manner of the offer, the mixture of respect and fear I felt for my father, for all his kindness, and the power of temptation, all upset me considerably. I uttered a weak Yes and went back to my room, where I threw myself on my bed in total despair.

    The thought of being a doctor, of studying anatomy, of dissecting bodies, of witnessing horrific operations, instead of surrendering body and soul to music, the sublime art whose grandeur I could already imagine! To forsake heaven for the most miserable haunts on earth, the immortal angels of poetry and love and their inspired songs for the filthy staff of hospitals and operating theatres, for hideous corpses, the screams of patients, the cries and groans of the dying!...

    No! This seemed to me to turn the natural order of my life upside down; it was monstrous and completely out of the question. And yet that is what happened. [...]

Memoirs chapter 6

    During these painful arguments [with his father over his plans for a musical career] I had started to compose. I had written, among other things, a cantata with large orchestra on a poem by Millevoye (Le Cheval arabeThe Arab horse). A pupil of Lesueur, called Gerono, whom I met frequently at the library of the Conservatoire, suggested I might gain admission to the composition class of this master, and offered to introduce me to him. I gladly accepted his offer, and one morning I came to submit to Lesueur the score of my cantata, together with a canon for three voices which I thought I should produce as supporting evidence on this solemn occasion. Lesueur was kind enough to read the first of these two shapeless works, and returned it to me saying “There is a great deal of warmth and dramatic fire there, but you do not yet know how to write, and your harmony is marred by so many mistakes that there is no point in drawing them to your attention. Gerono will be pleased to instruct you in our principles of harmony, and as soon as you have become sufficiently acquainted with them to be able to follow me, I will be glad to welcome you among my pupils.” Gerono accepted respectfully the task entrusted to him by Lesueur and in a matter of weeks explained to me clearly the whole system on which this master had based his theory of the production and sequence of chords. The system is derived from Rameau and his fantasies on the vibrations of a string. […]  From the manner in which Gerono expounded these principles I could see at once that arguing about their validity was out of the question, and that in Lesueur’s school they constituted a kind of religious faith to which everyone was expected to subscribe blindly. Such is the force of example that I even ended by believing sincerely in this doctrine, and Lesueur, by admitting me to the circle of his favoured pupils, could count me as one of his most fervent disciples.

    I am far from being ungrateful to this excellent and worthy man, who nurtured the first steps in my career with such kindness and to the end of his life showed me genuine affection. Yet how much time I have wasted studying these antediluvian theories and trying to put them into practice, only to have to unlearn them subsequently and start my musical education all over again! As a result I often inadvertently turn my gaze away whenever I see one of his scores. The feeling I have is similar to that experienced when seeing the portrait of a friend who is no more. I had such admiration for those little oratorios which constituted Lesueur’s repertory at the Chapel Royal and I have keenly regretted seeing this admiration wane. In fact when I compare the present with the time when I used to go regularly every Sunday to hear them at the Palais des Tuileries, I find myself so old, tired, and so bereft of illusions. How many famous artists I used to meet at these solemn religious occasions are no more, and how many have fallen into oblivion, a fate worse than death! What struggles, labours and worries since that time! Those were the days of great enthusiasms, great musical passions, long dreams, infinite and inexpressible joys!… When I arrived at the orchestra of the Chapel Royal, Lesueur would usually take advantage of the few minutes before the service to tell me about the subject of the work that was going to be performed, outline the plan and explain its principle aims. It was actually very helpful to know the subject treated by the composer, because it was rarely the text of the mass. Lesueur had written a large number of masses, but had a particular fondness for those exquisite episodes from the Old Testament which he preferred to set to music, such as Naomi, Rachel, Ruth and Boaz, Deborah etc. He had dressed them in an antique colouring which was sometimes so truthful that one could forget on hearing them the poverty of his musical fabric, his obstinate imitation of the old Italian dramatic style in the arias, duets and trios, and the childish weakness of his instrumental writing. Among all poems, with the possible exception of that by MacPherson, whom he persisted in attributing to Ossian, it was without doubt the Bible that provided the best scope for the deployment of his special abilities. I used to share his delight, and the Orient, with the calm of its burning deserts, the majesty of its vast ruins, its historical associations and legends, was the point on the horizon towards which my poetical imagination was most inclined to gravitate. […]

Memoirs chapter 13

    It was at this period [in 1826] that I composed my first large-scale piece of instrumental music, the overture to Les Francs Juges. The overture to Waverley followed soon after. At the time I was so ignorant of the mechanism of some instruments that after writing the solo in D flat for the trombones in the introduction to the Francs Juges, I was worried it might be immensely difficult to perform. I anxiously went to show it to one of trombone players at the Opéra. He looked at the passage and put my mind completely at rest, saying “On the contrary, the key of D flat is one of those most suited to this instrument, and you can be sure that your passage will be extremely effective.”

    I was so overjoyed by this assurance that on returning home, lost in my thoughts, I did not pay attention to where I was stepping, and I sprained my ankle. As a result every time I hear that piece my foot hurts. Others perhaps get a headache.

    Neither of my two masters taught me anything about instrumentation. Lesueur had only very rudimentary notions of this art. Reicha had a good understanding of what most wind instruments can do, but I doubt that he had any very advanced ideas about how to group them in large or small masses. In any case this side of musical instruction, which nowadays is still not represented at the Conservatoire, did not form part of his course, which dealt exclusively with counterpoint and fugue. Before I joined the Théâtre des Nouveautés I had become acquainted with a friend of the celebrated ballet-master Gardel. Thanks to the tickets for the stalls which he gave me, I attended regularly every performance at the Opéra. I would bring the score of the work that was going to be played and would follow it during the performance. That was how I started to familiarise myself with the use of the orchestra and to get to know the tone and timbre, if not the full range and mechanism of the majority of instruments. By carefully comparing the resulting effect with the means used to produce it I was able to discover the hidden link between musical expression and the special art of instrumentation. No one had put me on the right track. I studied the methods used by the three modern masters, Beethoven, Weber and Spontini. I carried out an impartial investigation of current practices in instrumentation and of unusual forms and combinations. I frequented virtuoso players and made them carry out experiments on their various instruments. All that and a little instinct did the rest.

    Reicha’s lessons in counterpoint were exemplary for their clarity; he taught me a great deal in a short time and without wasting words. Unlike the majority of teachers, he generally did not omit to tell his pupils the reason for the rules which he was asking them to follow, as far as was possible.

    His approach was neither empirical nor static; he believed in progress in some branches of art, and his respect for the founding fathers of harmony was not carried to the point of fetishism. Hence the constant disputes between him and Cherubini, who carried his respect for authority in music to the point of negating his own judgement. For example, in his Treatise on Counterpoint he writes: “This harmonic arrangement seems to me preferable to the other one, but since the old masters were of a contrary opinion, one must defer to them.”

    In his compositions, Reicha would still follow routine while despising it. I once asked him to give me his frank opinion on vocal fugues on the words amen or kyrie eleison, which still infect the masses or requiems of the greatest composers of every school. “Why, they are barbaric! he exclaimed at once – In that case, sir, why do you write such fugues? Heavens, everybody does it!” Oh misery!….

    In this respect Lesueur was more logical. These monstrous fugues, which resemble the shouts of a drunken mob, seem like a blasphemous parody of the sacred text and the religious style. He too believed they were worthy of barbaric times and peoples, but was careful not to write any, and the occasional fugues that he has included in his religious works have nothing in common with these grotesque horrors. On the contrary, one of his fugues, which begins with the words Quis enarrabit coelorum gloriam! is a masterpiece of dignified style and harmonic science, and what is more is also a masterpiece of expression, which is served here by the fugal form. […]

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© Michel Austin for the English translation. All rights of reproduction reserved.