The Hector Berlioz Website


By Norman A Bailey

© 1955 Norman A Bailey

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    Of all the major works of Hector Berlioz the one that has been most consistently ignored during the last hundred years (quite a feat in itself) is the monodrama Lélio, op. 14b, Part II of the Symphonie Fantastique. The first and only recording of Lélio, issued about a year ago on Vox records, has been almost equally ignored, despite the fact that it represents quite a good performance and recording. And yet, during Berlioz’ lifetime, Lélio was the greatest (and just about the only) popular success he had with the Parisian public. Why should this work, so popular when it first came out, fall into such complete oblivion thereafter? I believe the answer lies in the fact that in a sense, Lélio embodies the whole romantic movement in one work of art, and consequently fell into disrepute when romanticism did. It is the romanticist manifesto, much more important for the understanding of the movement that the Preface to Victor Hugo’s Cromwell, usually considered the romanticist manifesto par excellence, because it is not a mere polemic or apology, but is a manifesto fused with music and drama into one inseparable whole.

    The fact that Lélio is made up of six different sections written at various times and taken from several larger compositions written earlier does not have the slightest importance here. Even some of Berlioz’ most fanatical admirers have attacked Lélio on the grounds that as a composition it does not hold together, despite the narration and incidental musical passages written specifically for it by Berlioz. On the contrary, the work is given a framework of romanticism quite sufficient to bring it together into a comprehensible and satisfying whole. Even the sub-title, “Le retour à la vie”, although Berlioz probably had no such intention in mind, may be taken symbolically to represent the return to life of art after the long death of neo-classicism.

    The romanticist movement was universalist in two senses – without the slightest hesitation it crossed both national and artistic boundaries. Lélio is one of the ear1iest of many attempts to fuse drama and music. It is not, like opera, a play set to music, it is a play and music. The two forms are joined together in one work of art, and yet each keeps in the fullest sense its own individuality. At the same time it is written in three different languages: French, German and Italian, and in picking a ballad to set to music Berlioz chose one by Goethe.

    Another aspect of the romanticist movement was that it resurrected the colossi of previous periods of artistic freedom, particularly the renaissance and the Elizabethan age. William Shakespeare is the patron saint of Lélio, as he is of so many of Berlioz’ other works. Shakespeare, Hamlet, The Tempest, appear and re-appear throughout the monodrama. Shakespeare is invoked almost as a deity, which indeed he was for the era. Life was envisaged by the romanticists as an endless, pointless, Schopenhauerean cycle, leading to nothing better than death and decay; and this idea, too, is embodied in Lélio, with its recurrence of the idée fixe of the Symphonie Fantastique, and with its narration which begins “Dieu, je vis encore” and ends with “ pour toujours”. Above all, romanticism was a movement of paradoxes, with the interplay of irony and sentimentalism, the longing for rest and peace and the desire for adventure and exoticism, with heights of bliss and depths of despair. All these emotions and more are expressed in Lélio.

    A thorough examination of Lélio from the point of view of romanticism as an artistic and cultural phenomenon is extremely rewarding. The opening narration of the monodrama establishes the mood of re-awakening after the opium-dream of the last two movements of the Symphonie Fantastique. Then Goethe’s ballad of the fisherman is sung by a tenor representing Lélio’s poet friend Horatio (the name undoubtedly suggested by Hamlet). Here Berlioz has written a beautiful German Lied, and the choice of the form itself is suggestive, but even more so is the story that the song relates – the fisherman who is lured to his death by a mermaid. “Je ne l’ai que trop écoutée” muses Lélio, referring to the song of the siren; and indeed Berlioz-Lélio never did cease listening to the song of the sirens, and his tragedy was duplicated by hundreds of romanticist artists, writers, poets and musicians all over Europe. In the narration following the singing of the ballad there is one short phrase vividly expressive of the “malheur” of the age: “Vivre… mais vivre pour moi, c’est souffrir, et la mort c’est le repos”. Never before nor after, so far as I know, has the famous mal du siècle been so succinctly expressed in a single sentence. For the romanticist “vivre” was indeed “souffrir”, and the separation between the two verbs was tenuous, if not absent altogether. In this regard Lélio invokes the image of Hamlet, which leads him to consider the possibility of writing a chorus of shades to express the sinister mood of the scene between Hamlet and the ghost of his father. At this point another important facet of romanticism is revealed. It is the preoccupation with the supernatural: spectres, ghosts, madness and ruins saturated such works as Confessions of an Opium Eater, Night Thoughts, Poe’s short stories, and the Gothic novels. The words which Berlioz uses to characterise the chorus: “sombre”, “sourde”, “sinistre”, “lugubre”, “menaçante”, “mystérieuse”, would serve equally well if applied to The Fall of the House of Usher, or The Castle of Otranto. After the “froid de la mort” and “noir chaos” of the chorus of the shades Lélio’s thoughts return once more to Shakespeare, this time in order to castigate the critics of his day who did not appreciate the genius of the English playwright. Lélio’s “O, une pareille société, pour un artiste est pire qu’un enfer!” is the same anguished cry uttered by all the great romanticists, in continual revolt against residual neo-classicism and incipient Victorianism. This attitude of revolt explains to a large extent the envy expressed by the romanticists for such societal outcasts as bandits and beggars, whom they envisioned as liberated men, free of the bonds of convention and law. The Pirate and The Beggar of Espronceda, Weber’s Der Freischütz and Byron’s Don Juan are all expressions of this feeling. In Lélio this is represented by Lélio’s exultant “Voilà la Vie” as he hears the first strains of the Chorus of the Brigands, which follows the chorus of the shades. The pirate captain and his cohorts shout forth their joy in life and their disdain for women and romantic love. Although a woman may pretend to mourn her murdered lover for a while, she can soon enough be induced to drink wine from his skull. Immediately following this expression of irony and cynicism is a most tender and romantic section, both in the narration and in the remarkably beautiful Song of Bliss sung by a tenor who represents the imaginary voice of Lélio. “L’ivresse de l’amour”, “ce tendre abattement est plus délicieux” and “ma rêveuse amante” contrast strangely with the inconstant ladies “folle d’ivresse” of the Brigand’s Song. After this vision of ideal love Lélio dreams of eternal rest with his beloved under a tree from which would be hung an aeolian harp to fill his grave with never-ending music. This desire for rest and repose, though the exact opposite of the desire for adventure and the bandit’s life, was equally strong in the romanticist movement, and accounted for some of its most beautiful works. After the aeolian harp section (a short orchestral passage with bits of the Song of Bliss interpolated) Lélio rouses himself from his depression by calling upon music, his particular muse, his “maîtresse fidèle et pure” to lift him from his despondency and immediately sets to work on his Fantasia on Shakespeare’s Tempest. This Fantasia, with alternating orchestral and choral passages, is the longest and to my mind the least successful of the six sections of Lélio. Romanticism had two besetting sins, and unfortunately the romanticist movement is remembered now more for these sins than for its virtues. The first of these was a sickly, cloying sentimentality which represented the degeneracy or exaggeration of legitimate romanticist sentiment. The novels of George Sand and some of the lyrics of the English romantic poets displayed this flaw, and the sugar-coated accompaniment to the opening chorus of the Tempest Fantasia as well as the chorus itself (to a lesser degree) fall into the same error. The second major sin of romanticism was empty bombast, exemplified by the huge costume dramas of Hugo, and by the banal, Tchaikovskian finale of the Tempest Fantasia. Fortunately, Berlioz did not often get caught in either of these traps for the artistic unwary, but neither was he able to avoid them entirely. After another snatch of the idée fixe, Lélio ends, much as it began.

    In his monodrama Lélio, ou Le Retour à la Vie, Hector Berlioz not only wrote some magnificent music; he not only anticipated by almost 100 years the “original conception” of Arnold Schoenberg’ s operatic monologue Erwartung; he also displayed the romanticist wares of his era in the most complete, exhaustive and magnificent fashion imaginable. Lélio would deserve to be known for that, if for nothing else. Romanticism, in the correct meaning of the word, is one of the two great possible human attitudes towards life and art, and in this writer’s opinion, by far the more creative and exciting one. Despite the wry faces of legions of musty critics and scholars, as long as there are human beings with emotions there will be romanticists “ pour toujours.”

Norman A Bailey



* This contribution is the edited version of Norman Bailey’s article as published in December 1955 in the American Berlioz Society’s Newsletter, vol. 2, No. 7, pp. 3-6. The Society was based in New York and had ceased to exist by the late 1950s.

We would like to express our gratitude to our friend Mr John Ahouse, a member of the former American Berlioz Society, for sending us a photocopy of the article and giving us some information about the Society itself.

* At the time of publication of this article on the site (March 2004) we were unable to locate the author of the paper, the editor of the Newsletter or anyone associated with the management of the Society. We were delighted to receive an email from Dr Bailey himself on 20 March 2008; he kindly granted us permission to retain the article here. Dr Bailey is currently Chairman of Global Resources and Solutions, LLC. For a short biography please see the list of contributors on the Berlioz Bicentenary Special main page.

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