Berlioz on his musical style

From the Postscript of the Memoirs, dated 25 May 1856

Translated by Michel Austin

© Michel Austin

This page is also available in French

    […] My style is in general very bold, but it does not seek in any way to subvert any of the constituent elements of art. On the contrary my aim is to increase their number. It has never entered my mind to write music without melody, despite what has been absurdly said in France. This school now exists in Germany, and I hold it in detestation [a probable allusion to Wagner]. It is patent that without even limiting myself to using a very short melody as a theme for a piece, as the greatest masters have often done, I always take care to provide my compositions with a wealth of melodies. One may well question the quality of these melodies, their distinction, their novelty, their charm, and it is not for me to evaluate them; but to deny their existence shows in my view bad faith or ineptitude. Yet as these melodies are often very long-drawn, childish and short-sighted minds are unable to grasp their shape clearly; or as they are combined with other subsidiary melodies which, for these same childish minds, obscure their outline; or as they are so different from the little trivia called melodies by the common musical crowd, critics are unwilling to call them both by the same name.

    The predominant qualities of my music are passionate expression, inner fire, rhythmic drive and the unexpected. When I say passionate expression, I mean expression that is determined to convey the inner meaning of its subject, even when the subject is the opposite of passion and the aim is to express gentle and tender feelings, or the deepest calm. That is the kind of expression that some believe can be identified in the Childhood of Christ, and especially in the scene in Heaven in the Damnation of Faust and in the Sanctus of the Requiem.

    Concerning the Requiem it might be appropriate to mention a style of writing which I am almost the only modern composer to have explored, and whose potential composers of the past have not even grasped. I am referring to those colossal compositions which some critics refer to as architectural or monumental music, and which caused the German poet Heinrich Heine to call me a colossal nightingale, a lark the size of an eagle, such as is said to have existed in the primeval world. The poet continues: "There is for me in Berlioz’s music something primitive, if not antediluvian; it sets me thinking of gigantic species of extinct animals, of mammoths, of fabled empires with legendary sins, of many impossibilities piled on top of each other; these magic strains remind us of Babylon, of the hanging gardens of Semiramis, of the wonders of Nineveh, of the daring monuments of Mizraïm, such as we see on the paintings of the Englishman Martin."

    In the same paragraph of his book (Lutèce), Heine goes on to compare me with that eccentric Englishman and states that I have little melody, and that I am completely devoid of simplicity. Three weeks after Lutèce was published the first performance of the Childhood of Christ took place. The day after I received a letter from Heine in which he apologised profusely for having badly misjudged me. "I am told on every side, he wrote from his sick bed, that you have just gathered a bouquet of the most exquisite melodic flowers, and that as a whole your oratorio is a masterpiece of simplicity. I will never forgive myself for having been so unfair to a friend." I went to visit him, and he started again accusing himself. "But then, I said to him, why did you act like a ordinary critic in expressing such a categorical view on a composer whose work is far from being familiar to you? You are always thinking of the Witches’ sabbath, of the March to the scaffold of my Fantastic Symphony, of the Dies irae and the Lacrymosa of my Requiem. But I believe I can and have written works of a very different character."

    The musical problems I have tried to solve and which have led Heine astray are exceptional and make use of forces that are out of the ordinary. In my Requiem, for example, there are four separate orchestras of brass instruments, which dialogue with each other from a distance around the main orchestra and the choral masses. In the Te Deum it is the organ which dialogues from one end of the church with the orchestra and the two choirs at the other end, and with a third very large choir which sings in unison and represents the mass of the people which joins from time to time in this vast religious concert. It is especially the form of these pieces, the breadth of their style and the majestic slowness of certain progressions, whose final goal cannot be guessed, which give to these works their strangely gigantic character and colossal aspect. The immensity of these forms is also the reason why the listener either misses the point altogether or is overwhelmed by a tremendous emotion. How often, in performances of my Requiem, one listener would be shaking and moved to the depths of his soul, while another was trying hard to make out what he was hearing but could not understand. The latter are in the position of those visitors who go inside the statue of St Carlo Borromeo at Como and who are very surprised when they are told that the room in which they are sitting is the inside of the saint’s head.

    Those works which critics have described as architectural music are my Funeral and Triumphal Symphony for two orchestras and chorus; the Te Deum, the finale of which (Judex crederis) is without doubt the most grandiose piece I have written; my cantata for double chorus L’Impériale, which was performed at the concerts in the palace of Industry in 1855, and above all my Requiem. As regards those of my compositions that are of normal dimensions, and for which I do not use special forces, it is precisely their inner fire, their expressiveness and rhythmic originality which have caused them the greatest harm, because of the qualities they require in performance. To play them well the musicians, and especially the conductor, must feel as I do. They require extreme precision combined with irresistible verve, a controlled fire, a dreamlike sensitivity, and an almost morbid melancholy; without these the main features of my works are betrayed or completely obliterated. I find it consequently very upsetting to hear the majority of works played under any other conductor except myself. I nearly had a fit when I heard in Prague my overture King Lear conducted by a Kapellmeister of indisputable ability. It was about right … but in this case ‘about right’ is completely wrong. You will see in the chapter on Benvenuto Cellini [chapter 48] how much I suffered from even the involuntary mistakes of Habeneck during the protracted massacre of this opera at the rehearsals.

    If you ask me now which of my works I prefer, my answer is the same as that of the majority of artists: the adagio (the love scene) of Romeo and Juliet. One day, at Hanover, at the end of the piece, I felt I was being pulled from behind by someone. On turning round I saw it was the players near my desk who were kissing my coat-tails. But I would be careful not to perform this adagio in certain halls and before certain audiences.

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    On the subject of French prejudices against me I might also relate the story behind the chorus of shepherds in the Childhood of Christ, which was performed at two concerts under the name of Pierre Ducré, a fictitious church composer of the eighteenth century. How much praise this simple melody received! How many people said: "It is not Berlioz who could write such a piece!"

    In a salon one evening a song was performed under the name of Schubert, in front of a music-lover who had a pious horror of my music. "Wonderful, he exclaimed, here is a real melody, it has feeling, clarity and good sense! Berlioz could never have composed that!" It was in fact Cellini’s aria in the second act of the opera that bears his name.

    A dilettante once complained at a party that he had been unfairly misled in the following circumstances. "One morning, he said, I went to a rehearsal for a concert by the Sainte-Cécile society, conducted by M. Seghers. I heard a brilliant orchestral piece, full of verve, but different in style and orchestration from the orchestral music familiar to me. I approached M. Seghers:

"— What is this exciting overture you have just been performing? I asked.
"— It is the overture Roman Carnival by Berlioz.
"— You must agree…
"— Yes, interrupted one of my friends, we must agree that it is outrageous to take advantage of the prejudices of decent people in this way."

    No one, whether in France or elsewhere, disputes my mastery in the art of orchestration, especially since I have published a treatise on the subject. But I am accused of making excessive use of Sax’s instruments (probably because I have often praised the skill of this able instrument maker). In fact up till now I have only used them in one scene in The Fall of Troy, an opera of which no one has yet heard a single note. I am also accused of making too much noise, of being addicted to the bass drum, which I have used in only a small number of pieces and always for a good purpose. Moreover, alone among critics I have constantly protested for the last twenty years against the outrageous abuse of noise, the senseless misuse of the bass drum, of the trombones etc. in little theatres, in little orchestras, in little operas, in little songs, where nowadays even the drum is used.

    It was Rossini, in his Siege of Corinth, who really introduced to France noisy orchestration, and French critics carefully avoid mentioning him in this context, and fail to charge Auber, Halévy, Adam and a dozen other composers with the odious abuse of his system, but blame me, and what is more, blame Weber for this! (See the Life of Weber in Michaut’s Universal Biography).  Yet Weber used the bass drum only once in his orchestral writing, and writes for all instruments with incomparable tact and talent!

    As far as I am concerned, this laughable error arises from the music festivals where I have often been seen conducting vast orchestras. Thus Prince Metternich once said to me in Vienna:

"— Are you the man who writes music for five hundred performers?"
To which I replied:
"— Not always, your excellence, I sometimes write for four hundred and fifty."

    But does this matter?… My scores have now been published and it is easy to verify the truth of what I say. And even if the truth is not verified, again does it matter?…

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