Translated by Michel Austin
© Michel Austin
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Chapter 59 (dated 18 October 1854)
[…] For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera for which I would write both the words and the music, as I have just done for my sacred trilogy L’Enfance du Christ. I am resisting the temptation of carrying out this project, and I hope I will resist to the end [footnote: Alas, no, I have not been able to resist. I have just completed the poem and the music of Les Troyens, an opera in five acts. What is going to happen to this vast work?… 1858]. The subject seems to me elevated, magnificent and deeply moving – sure proof that the Parisians will find it dull and boring. Even supposing I am wrong to attribute to our public a taste so different from my own (to quote the great Corneille), I will not be able to find an intelligent and dedicated woman capable of interpreting the main role. It requires beauty, a great voice, genuine dramatic talent, a complete musician, with a soul and heart of fire. Still less would I be able to draw on all the many resources which have to be entirely at my disposal, without interference or objections from anybody. My blood boils at the mere thought of having to endure for the performance and staging of such a work all the idiotic obstacles I have had to put up with and which day in day out I see thrust in the way of other composers who write for our great opera house. The clash between my own will and that of malevolent fools would be extremely dangerous now. I feel quite capable of doing anything to them and might kill these people like dogs. As for adding to the number of pleasant and useful works that are called comic operas and are produced in quantity every day in Paris, rather like little meat pies, I have not the slightest inclination. In this respect I am not like the corporal whose ambition it was to be a servant. I would rather remain an ordinary foot-soldier. I must also add that the influence of Meyerbeer, and the pressures he exercises, through his huge wealth at least as much as by the realities of his eclectic talent, on directors, singers, and critics, and thus on the Parisian public, make it almost impossible to score any serious success at the Opéra. This destructive influence will be felt perhaps for another ten years after his death. Henri Heine alleges that he has paid in advance… [footnote: I believe I have said this somewhere else (see Soirées de l’orchestre, 5th evening), and it bears repeating: not only is Meyerbeer lucky to be blessed with talent, but he possesses, and to the highest degree, the talent of being lucky] […]
[…] At that time I had completed the dramatic work I mentioned earlier and which I referred to in a footnote to one of my earlier chapters [i.e. chapter 59 concerning Les Troyens: see above]. Four years earlier I happened to be in Weimar at the home of Princess Wittgenstein – a devoted friend of Liszt, and a woman of character and intelligence who has often given me support in my darkest hours. I was led to talk of my admiration for Virgil and of the idea I had formed of a great opera, designed on Shakespearean lines, for which Books Two and Four of the Aeneid would provide the subject-matter. I added that I was all too aware of the pain that such an undertaking would inevitably cause me ever to embark on it. “Indeed, the princess replied, the conjunction of your passion for Shakespeare and your love of antiquity must result in the creation of something grand and novel. You must write this opera, this lyric poem; call it what you like and plan it as you wish. You must start work on it and bring it to completion.” As I persisted in my refusal: “Listen, said the princess, if you shrink before the hardships that it is bound to cause you, if you are so weak as to be afraid of the work and will not face everything for the sake of Dido and Cassandra, then never come back here, for I do not want to see you ever again.” This was more than enough to decide me. Once back in Paris I started to write the lines for the poem of Les Troyens. Then I set to work on the score, and after three and a half years of corrections, changes, additions etc., everything was finished. As I was polishing the work over and over again, after giving numerous readings of the poem in different places, listening to the comments made by various listeners and benefiting from them to the best of my ability, I decided to write the following letter to the Emperor:
I have just completed a large-scale opera for which I have written both the words and the music. Though the means employed are bold and varied, there are enough resources available in Paris for the staging of this work [footnote: At the time the libretto of les Troyens was not yet divided into two operas but formed a single work lasting five hours]. Allow me, Sire, to read the poem to you and then to request your eminent patronage for the work, provided it is worthy of it. The Opéra is at the moment under the direction of one of my former friends [footnote: Alphonse Royer], who has the strangest ideas about my musical style – a style he has never got to know and which he is unable to appreciate. The two conductors under his orders are enemies of mine. Protect me, Sire, from my friend, and, as the Italian proverb says, I will protect myself from my enemies. If, after hearing my poem, Your Majesty does not judge it to be worthy of performance, I will accept your decision with complete and sincere respect. But I cannot submit my work to the appreciation of people whose judgment is clouded by preconceptions, and whose opinion is consequently of no value as far as I am concerned. They would allege the inadequacy of the poem as a pretext to refuse the music. I was briefly tempted to request the favour of reading to Your Majesty my libretto of Les Troyens during the moments of leisure afforded by your recent stay in Plombières. But at that time the score was not completed and I feared that had the outcome of the reading not been positive I would have been discouraged from ever completing it. I wanted to write this great score, to bring it to completion, with untiring dedication and the most loving care. Discouragement and setbacks may now come, but nothing can prevent the work from existing. It is grand and powerful, and despite the apparent complexity of the means used, very simple. Unfortunately it is not vulgar, but this is a shortcoming that Your Majesty will forgive, and the Parisian public is beginning to understand that the production of musical toys is not the highest goal of art. Allow me therefore, Sire, to echo the words of a character in the ancient epic from which I have drawn my subject: Arma citi properate viro! and I believe that I will take Latium.
I am, Sire, with deepest respect and complete dedication, Your Majesty’s most humble and most obedient servant.
Member of the Institute.
Paris, 28 March 1858
Well, no, I did not take Latium. It has to be admitted that the people at the Opéra were careful not to properare arma viro; and the Emperor never read this letter. M. de Morny advised me against sending it: “the Emperor, he said, would not have found it very appropriate”. And when at long last Les Troyens was performed after a fashion, His Majesty did not even condescend to come and see it.
One evening, at the Tuileries, I managed to have a word with the Emperor, and he allowed me to bring him the poem of Les Troyens, assuring me that he would read it if he could find a free moment. But do you have any time to spare when you are Emperor of France? I handed over my manuscript to His Majesty who did not read it and passed it to the office dealing with the management of theatres. There my work was slandered and described as absurd and nonsensical; the rumour was spread that it would last eight hours, that it required two companies the size of the Opéra’s to stage it, that I was asking for an extra three hundred choristers, etc., etc. A year later there were signs of a readiness to do something about my work. One day Alphonse Royer took me on one side and said: “The minister of state has instructed me to tell you that rehearsals for your score of Les Troyens are going to begin at the Opéra and that he wanted to give you complete satisfaction.”
THIS SPONTANEOUS PROMISE, MADE BY HIS EXCELLENCE, WAS NOT KEPT ANY BETTER THAN SO MANY OTHERS, AND FROM THAT TIME ON IT WAS NOT ETC., ETC. That is how, after a long and fruitless wait, and tired of being rebuffed so often, I gave in to the friendly entreaties of M. Carvalho and agreed to allow him to stage Les Troyens à Carthage at the Théâtre-Lyrique, despite the fact that it was manifestly impossible for him to bring this off [footnote: This is Part II of Les Troyens, to which I added an instrumental introduction (the Lamento) and a prologue]. He had just been granted by the government an annual subsidy of 100,000 francs. In spite of this the undertaking was beyond his resources, his theatre was not large enough, his singers not up to the task, and his chorus and orchestra were inadequate. He made considerable sacrifices, and so did I on my side. I paid from my own pocket for a few players who were missing from his orchestra, and I even mutilated the scoring of many passages to make it fit his available resources. Mme Charton-Demeur, the only woman capable of singing the role of Dido, did me a generous favour in accepting from M. Carvalho a fee far below what she was offered by the director of the theatre in Madrid. But for all that the performance could hardly fail to be very incomplete, as indeed happened. Mme Charton had some outstanding moments, Monjauze, who sang Aeneas, showed at times fire and warmth. But the production, which Carvalho insisted on directing himself, was far removed from what I had asked for; it was even absurd in some places and ridiculous in others. At the first performance the scene-shifter came near to ruining the work and causing disaster through his clumsy handling of the scene of the hunt during the storm. At the Opéra this tableau would produce a striking impression of wild beauty, but here it seemed flimsy, and a fifty-five minute interval was then needed to change the scene. Consequently the next day the storm, the hunt, and the whole scene had to be cut.
I have already said this: if I am to organise properly the performance of a large-scale work such as this one, I have to be in complete control of the theatre, as I am of the orchestra when I am rehearsing a symphony. I need to have the willing co-operation of all and everyone must obey me without any question. Otherwise within a few days my energy is wasted against the willful opposition, the childish opinions, and even more childish terrors which are inflicted on me. I end by giving up, dropping out in frustration and allowing everything to go to the devil. Although Carvalho protested that his sole aim was to follow and execute my intentions, I cannot say what agonies he put me through to secure the cuts he believed were necessary. When he could not summon the courage to request them himself, he would have them conveyed through one of our mutual friends. One of them would write to me that such and such a passage was risky, another would implore me, also in writing, to cut out something else. On top of that came criticisms of points of detail that were enough to drive me mad.
“— I can see that your rhapsode with his four-stringed lyre is needed for the four notes played by the harp in the orchestra. You must have wanted to introduce an element of archaeology.
— Well, this is risky and people will laugh.
— Yes of course, that is very funny. Ha! ha! ha! A tetrachord, an antique lyre playing only four notes! ha! ha! ha!
— There is a word in your prologue which worries me.
— Which one?
— The word triomphaux.
— Why does it worry you? Is not triomphaux the plural of triomphal, as chevaux is of cheval, originaux of original, madrigaux of madrigal, municipaux of municipal?
— Yes but it is not a word used in everyday language.
— Well, if in an epic subject you could only use words common in music-halls and vaudeville theatres a large number of expressions would be banned, and the work’s style would be remarkably impoverished.
— You will see, people will laugh.
— Ha! ha! ha! triomphaux! yes, that is very funny! triomphaux! is almost as hilarious as tarte à la crème in Molière. Ha! ha! ha!
— Aeneas must not enter on stage wearing a helmet.
— Because Mangin, who sells pencils in the street, also wears a helmet. Admittedly it is a mediaeval one, but it is a helmet and the wags in the fourth gallery will laugh and say “Hey, look! There’s Mangin!”
— Ah, yes, a Trojan hero must not wear a helmet, people will laugh. Ha! ha! ha! a helmet! ha! ha! Mangin!
— Look, will you do me a favour?
— What next?
— Leave out Mercury, his wings on his heels and his head will make people laugh. No one has seen wings except on shoulders.
— Ah - I did not know that human-shaped creatures had been seen with wings on their shoulders. But I do grant that wings on heels will make people laugh. Ha! ha! ha! and wings on the head even more so. Ha! ha! ha! as Mercury is not often to be seen in the streets of Paris let us cut out Mercury.”
Can you imagine what such idiotic fears made me endure? I say nothing of Carvalho’s musical ideas. To suit some stage business that he had contrived he wanted me to take some pieces slower, or faster, to add another sixteen, or eight, or four bars, or to cut out two bars, or three, or one. In his view the production of an opera was not intended to fit the music, but the music had to fit the production. As though I had not devoted much time in planning my score to fit the requirements of a theatre, based on forty years’ experience of the Opéra. At least the actors did not pester me in any way, and I have to say that they all sang their parts as written for them, without changing a single note. This may seem incredible, but it is true, and I thank them for it. The first performance of Les Troyens à Carthage took place on November 4, 1863, as announced by Carvalho. The work still needed another three or four intensive general rehearsals, the whole production lacked confidence, especially on stage. But the director was at a loss how to bolster his theatre’s repertory; every evening his theatre was empty, and he was in a hurry to get out of this predicament. It is well known how ruthless directors can be in such circumstances. My friends and I thought the evening was going to be stormy, and we were expecting all manner of hostile demonstrations, though nothing of the sort happened. My enemies did not dare to show themselves; one disgraceful hiss was heard at the end when I was called for, and that was all. The gentleman who had hissed probably felt obliged to insult me in the same way for several weeks, because he came back, with an assistant, to hiss again at the same place on the third, fifth, seventh and tenth performances. Others would rant in the corridors with comic fury and loaded me with abuse, saying that such music could not and should not be allowed. Five newspapers printed stupid insults against me, of the kind designed to hurt my feelings as an artist. But on the other hand more than fifty appreciative articles were published over a two week period, among which those by MM. Gasperini, Fiorentino, d’Ortigue, Léon Kreutzer, Damcke, Joannes Weber, and many others, written with genuine enthusiasm and rare perception, which filled me with a joy I had not experienced for a long time. I also received a large number of letters, some of them eloquent, others naïve, but all of them full of genuine emotion, and they touched me deeply. At a number of performances I saw people in tears. During the two months following the first appearance of Les Troyens, I was often stopped in the streets of Paris by total strangers who asked permission to shake my hand and thanked me for writing this work. These did make up for the insults of my enemies – enemies I have made less through my critical writings than through the tendencies of my music. The hostility of such enemies resembles that of prostitutes for honest women, and it should be taken as an honour. Their muse is usually named Lais, Phryne, very rarely Aspasia [in a footnote: Aspasia was too intelligent for that], while the muse worshipped by noble minds and friends of high art is called Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia, Ophelia, Imogen, Virgilia, Miranda, Dido, Cassandra, or Alcestis, sublime names which evoke thoughts of poetic love, modesty and devotion, while the former only suggest low sensuality and prostitution.
I confess that on hearing Les Troyens I too have been violently moved when certain passages were well played. Aeneas aria: Ah! quand viendra l’instant des suprêmes adieux and especially Dido’s monologue:
Je vais mourir,
Dans ma douleur immense submergée.
stirred me deeply. Mme Charton was magnificent and so dramatic in the passage which goes:
Oh, mon âme te suit!
and in her wordless cries of despair, as she beat her breast and tore her hair, following Virgil’s indications:
Terque quaterque manu pectus percussa decorum,
Flaventesque abscissa comas.
It is strange that none of my vociferous critics reproached me for daring to write such a vocal effect, though I believe it deserves their fury. In all the sad and passionate music that I have written, I know nothing comparable to Dido’s part, in this and the following scene, except that of Cassandra in some sections of La Prise de Troie which has not yet been performed anywhere… My noble Cassandra, my heroic virgin, I must therefore resign myself never to hear you!… and I am like young Coroebus:
.....Insano Cassandrae incensus amore.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In the performances of Les Troyens à Carthage at the Théâtre Lyrique, the following pieces were cut, whether during the rehearsals or after the first performance:
1o the entry of the builders
2o that of the sailors
3o that of the ploughmen
4o the orchestral interlude (the Royal Hunt and Storm)
5o the scene and duet between Anna and Narbal
6o the second ballet
7o the strophes of Iopas
8o the duet of the sentries
9o the song of Hylas
10o the great duet between Aeneas and Dido: “Errante sur tes pas.”
Concerning the entries of the builders, sailors, and ploughmen, Carvalho found the overall effect cold. In any case the theatre was not spacious enough to accommodate such a large procession. The interlude of the hunt was miserably staged. I was given a painted waterfall instead of several real ones; the dancing satyrs were represented by a group of twelve-year old girls, who did not brandish burning branches, as the firemen feared a conflagration and would not allow it; the nymphs did not run around in the forest with dishevelled hair shouting ‘Italie!’ The women of the chorus had been placed in the wings, and their shouts could not reach the hall; the lightning strike was barely audible, though the orchestra was thin and lacked power. Besides, the scene-shifter always required at least forty minutes to change the scene after this flimsy parody. I therefore requested myself that this interlude be cut. Carvalho insisted with incredible obstinacy, despite my furious opposition, that the scene between Narbal and Anna should be cut, as well as the ballet and the duet of the sentries, the familiar style of which he found incompatible with the epic manner. The strophes of Iopas were removed with my agreement, as the singer entrusted with this role was incapable of doing them justice. The same applied to the duet between Aeneas and Dido; I had realised that Mme Charton’s voice could not cope with this violent scene – she found it so taxing that she was left without the energy to deliver the tremendous recitative in the fifth act: “Dieux immortels! il part!”, her final aria and the scene of the funeral pyre. Finally the song of Hylas, which had been very well received in the early performances and was ably sung by young Cabel, vanished when I was confined to bed exhausted by a bout of bronchitis. Cabel was needed for the work that was staged the day after the performance of Les Troyens, and as his contract only required him to sing fifteen times a month, he had to be given an extra two hundred francs for every additional evening. Consequently Carvalho, without warning me, cut the song as an economy measure. I was so punch-drunk by this long ordeal that instead of resisting with all my remaining energy, I agreed to let the publisher of the vocal score leave out many of these pieces from his edition. In this he was following the wishes of Carvalho who wanted the published score to be as close as possible to the performances. Fortunately the full orchestral score is not yet published; I have spent a month putting it back in order and healing carefully all the wounds. The score will be published in full, as originally conceived, and exactly as I have written it.
To see a work of this kind offered for sale, with all the cuts and the changes introduced by the publisher – is there any torture like that? To see a score cut to pieces, in the window of a music shop, like the carcass of a veal on a butcher’s stall, jointed into pieces sold like bits of meat to feed the concierge’s cat!
In spite of the improvements and corrections which Carvalho inflicted on the work Les Troyens à Carthage only ran for twenty one nights. As the receipts were below his expectations, Carvalho agreed to let Mme Charton rescind her contract, and she left for Madrid; to my great relief the work was withdrawn. And yet, since the royalties I received during these twenty one performances were very substantial (I was the author both of the libretto and of the music), and as I had sold the publishing rights for the vocal score in Paris and London, I found to my intense joy that the total income was about equal to one year’s salary as contributor to the Journal des Débats. I immediately handed in my resignation as music critic. At last, at long last, after thirty years of slavery, I am now free! No more feuilletons to write, no platitudes to excuse, no nonentities to praise, no indignation to suppress, no more lies, no more pretence, no mean compromises, I am now free! I do not have to set foot in opera houses, or talk about them, or hear about them, or even laugh at what is cooked up in these infamous eating places! Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis!!
It is to Les Troyens at least that the wretched writer owes his release. […]
The autograph score of the Royal Hunt and Storm has the following note by Berlioz:
Note on the interlude. In case the opera house is not large enough to stage this interlude in a grand and lifelike manner; if the women of the chorus can not be persuaded to rush around the stage with dishevelled hair, and the men dressed as Fauns and Satyrs to perform grotesque dances while shouting ‘Italie’; if the firemen are scared of fire, the scene-shifters scared of water, and the manager scared of everything; and above all if it proves impossible to change the scene quickly before the 3rd Act [Act IV, 2nd tableau in the original version], then this orchestral piece should be omitted altogether. To perform it adequately requires in any case a powerful orchestra such as is rarely found in opera houses.
Compare this note with the passage in the Memoirs (Postface of 1864) concerning the performances of Les Troyens à Carthage at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1863 (see above)
Les Troyens (commentary and scores)
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© Michel Austin for the English translation. All rights of reproduction reserved.