The Hector Berlioz Website


By Christian Wasselin

© 2003 Christian Wasselin

Translated by Michel Austin

© 2003 Michel Austin

    This page is also available in French

    Berlioz was a musician by vocation. As a child he could have exclaimed like Aeneas in Les Troyens: "L’impatient destin m’appelle" ["Impatient fate summons me"]. But in practice he had to keep saying to his father for many long years: "I am being driven in spite of myself towards a magnificent career." Doctor Louis Berlioz was admittedly a sensitive man, imbued with common sense attitudes such as were current in 1815: the XVIIIth century had left its mark. But he could not be reconciled to the idea that his son would not be a doctor, nor even a lawyer. And yet he had done everything in his power to make sure his son would become a respectable man who would follow a sensible career. But to no avail. Through dedication and will-power Hector became a musician and not a doctor.

    We should not be misled by appearances. In reality, Berlioz was a musician from a very early date. Though his musical training was severely constricted by the limitations of La Côte-Saint-André before it could develop in Paris, his training for music started much earlier; it was much more intense and stimulating, rather like a vast plateau that was open to all the winds.

    It was young Hector’s good fortune to grow up in the Dauphiné, and to experience at the outset the power of sounds and open air noises, independently of any theoretical training; he was of course also able to respond to them. The roar of a thunderstorm, the songs of shepherds in the mountains, the rhythmic striking of a smith’s hammer on the anvil, all the sounds of the ambient world and their constantly reverberating echoes – all these had a lasting influence on his feeling for space and contours in music. Before he had heard music that might nowadays be described as ‘intellectual’, Berlioz heard sounds. This did not prevent him from coming across music written by human beings, in a house here or at a festival there, in the form of romances or excerpts from comic operas of the XVIIIth or early XIXth century, which were frequently set in pastoral contexts. This small-scale musical form had its own importance in his training: it was a romance from a comic opera, adapted to a religious text, which provided him with his first musical impression, on the day of his first communion. Berlioz’s devotion to the romance dates from his childhood and adolescence, and he expanded it subsequently to turn it into real melody, but without ever disowning its simplicity and nostalgia.

    His education also made him a very special case among composers. Berlioz was a highly literate musician. Alone of his contemporaries Mendelssohn enjoyed a humanist education of comparable depth. (Schumann, whose father was a bookseller, saw his life clouded from an early date by bereavement and illness, and so cannot be compared with the other two.) Poetry was the other element that fertilised Berlioz’s love for music: for all its modest scope, the romance lies at the juncture of the song of the natural world and the breath of great poetry, rather like a small sand bank lying between the convergence of two turbulent rivers.

    Let us attempt to define the contribution made by each of these two elements to the making of Berlioz the musician.

1. Landscapes

    Berlioz writes in the first chapter of his Memoirs: "As the name indicates, La Côte-Saint-André is built on the slope of a hill, and dominates a fairly wide plain – a rich, golden and lush expanse of land, whose silence conveys a sense of dreamy grandeur, further enhanced by the surrounding chain of mountains to the south and east, behind which rise in the distance, laden with glaciers, the gigantic peaks of the Alps." The word silence is here particularly significant, as though music was about to emerge out of the landscape. Just as the sea is the element that separates for land-dwellers but unites for sailors, so too mountains are for Berlioz points of reference. From childhood they were part of his universe. The Alps form the horizon behind the plain of the Bièvre, while they also suggest to young Hector the land of Italy that lies behind them.

    Olivier Messiaen resembles Berlioz in certain respects. "I love nature in all its forms, and I love all landscapes, but I have a special affection for mountains because I spent my childhood in Grenoble. Like Berlioz I saw from my early years the mountains of the Dauphiné, and places of a particularly wild character that are among the most beautiful in France, such as the glacier of la Meije, less famous than the Mont Blanc but certainly more awesome, more pure, and more separate."

    Very soon Berlioz came to conceive music as a land without borders in which he turns to good use anything he listens to. Unlike many a virtuoso apprentice he was therefore not committed from the age of three or five to the royal road of a musical career. Although he learned the flute and the guitar, gave up medicine in order to study music, and later was awarded the Prix de Rome, music for him was never reduced to a mere technique. His critical sense was too sharp and his education too vast for him to be satisfied with accumulating opus numbers as others produce large quantities of legal documents. Each of his works is an adventure and a prototype, and even nowadays to perform any one of them is an experience, a journey within a world that demands to be explored.

    Berlioz’s music always retained a gentle and adolescent element which is testimony to his long years of apprenticeship in the raw. Nothing moved him like a ‘ranz des vaches’: in the opera Les Francs-Juges he introduces shepherds and imitates the playing of bagpipes answering each other across the mountains. In Italy he wrote a little melody inspired by a ‘ranz des vaches’ (Sur les Alpes, quel délice!) which later was given a new harmony and became le Chasseur de chamois. More seriously, he introduced a ‘ranz des vaches’ in the "Scène aux champs" of the Symphonie Fantastique. This changing atmosphere of this movement conveys successively repose, anguish and loneliness, up to the final storm, which is as much a spiritual upheaval as a meteorological disturbance. It is a reflection of a sensitivity that is entirely captivated by the universe. Debussy made the mocking witticism: "It is more profitable to witness daybreak than to listen to the Pastoral Symphony." Yet the Fantastic Symphony does not mimic the natural world, but is a substitute for it. It is not the countryside but nature which Berlioz depicts in music, a world less welcoming and more motherly, hence more suffocating, and the same will also be true later with the Damnation of Faust. The hero of the Fantastique instead of yielding to the friendly landscape aims rather to grasp it himself and is in the end absorbed in it.

    While in Italy Berlioz behaved again as a disciple of Rousseau: he was intoxicated with travelling on foot in the country, escaped from the spurious civilisation that Rome stood for, and was on the lookout for adventure. But though Rome was a city drenched with sun, and thereby devoid of shape, it was also the city of the seven hills and a place reverberating with enchanting echoes (the sounds of the Corso, the shouts of children in the distance, the tower bells of churches far away, etc.): in spite of himself Berlioz must have been captivated by Rome.

    Once back in France, Berlioz chose to live not in the heart of Paris but at Montmartre, which at the time was a hill covered with vines and windmills. He frequently described as a refuge the house where he lived with his wife, soon joined by a young son: "we are so peaceful here in our hermitage. There is nothing but nightingales singing under our windows all day and night, and they are beginning to weary me". (The word hermitage is noteworthy, and very reminiscent of Rousseau.)

    It is nature which gives Berlioz’s musical geography its bearings. Just as ink is the lifeblood of a work, so too an organised sheet of music paper conveys the spatial layout of the performers. Berlioz’s orchestra is a landscape, not only through the impressions derived from hearing it play and sing, but also through its visual impact in a concert hall – or through its invisibility in the case of instruments off-stage. In 1830 the word used to describe the ensemble of instrumental players, positioned on a steep gradient on the stage of the Conservatoire, was a cliff of musicians. (The Foreword to the score of Roméo et Juliette is extremely precise on this point.) In some buildings, when the fanfares of the Requiem ring out without warning, they seem to come from a different level and from another world, unheard and invisible, as though falling from a comet. The surprise effect here is like an instrumental coup de théâtre.

    The orchestra is a world and also an abyss, as Weber, one of Berlioz’s favourite composers, has taught us. Weber wrote in 1807: "To perform a musical composition is to contemplate a landscape. […] Strange to say, for me the landscape moves about in time." That is the same feeling that is experienced when listening to the "Scène aux champs" of the Symphonie fantastique: in between the playing of the cor anglais and the oboe one can apprehend physically the silence of the landscape, one can hear nature unfolding like an event that transcends the listener – an event, or rather its opposite: an intangible entity, rather like the infinite breath of the world.

    Berlioz’s orchestra is terraced in the manner of terrace cultivation. The flat surfaces, ridges, depths, distant perspectives, in short the outlines can all be perceived; this is the musical geography of an artist who recreates the world not in an abstract way, with ideas or theories, but by physical means, with the help of sounds. Berlioz is Prospero the magician who stirs and calms the elements at will. This gives its full meaning to the characteristic sentence in the Traité d’instrumentation: "Every sounding object used by the composer is a musical instrument."

    Timbre, silence and acoustics are closely related in Berlioz. Messiaen says that "Berlioz is the first to have understood the role of specific timbre". The clarinet was the only instrument Berlioz could use in the tomb scene of Roméo et Juliette to express the awakening of Juliet, because it is the only instrument that can emerge from silence. This is far removed from the normal approach of composers, and far also from the blend of wagnerian sound. As Christophe Deshoulières writes, "the background in Berlioz is really silence, and not the compact texture of strings which provides the unifying element in German symphonic writing from Mendelssohn to Wagner, from Schumann to Brahms". On this canvas of silence Berlioz places the colours of his orchestra like stars and planets. That is why Berlioz’s music, however rich it may sound, is never woolly or thick.

    Music of this kind cannot of course be played on the piano, as timbre and space are here all-important. Space means the space of the music itself, but also the place where it is performed. Berlioz was one of the very first musicians to concern himself with acoustics and the connection between the works performed and the dimensions of concert halls: "Beyond a certain distance, although the sound can still be heard, it is like a flame that can be seen but whose warmth is not felt. I repeat, music must be heard at close quarters; from a distance its principal charm is lost. One can hear, but one does not vibrate. Now it is essential for the listener to vibrate in sympathy with the instruments and voices, and thereby experience genuine musical feelings."

    The ideal is to share music among a select audience. There is a need for the intimacy and warmth which enable emotional communication: Berlioz’s concert hall is like a hamlet crouching at the foot of a mountain of sound.

II. Poetry

    Music for Berlioz is concrete, physical, tangible and immediate, and not abstract: this reflects the influence of landscapes, not that of the piano. Lesueur grasped this when he stated that Berlioz exuded music from every pore. Music is also conveyed by words. But it is imperative to discard prejudices and received opinions, as for example regarding Berlioz as a clumsy musician who relies on poetry like a crutch. On the contrary, it is poetry that enabled Berlioz to achieve his grand design: never to write the same work twice, but rather to invent every time a new form.

    La Fontaine’s Fables, Paul et Virginie, la Nouvelle Héloïse, le Génie du christianisme, the Estelle of Florian (which inspired his very first opera, now lost) and of course the Aeneid were for the young Berlioz allies in his urge to liberate himself, until such time as, ten years later, came the revelation of Shakespeare and Goethe, "the silent confidants of my sufferings, the interpreters of my life".

    In 1829, while writing Cléopâtre for the Rome Prize competition, he could not resist writing as an epigraph to the Meditation which is the central episode of the score a sentence from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: this romantic statement of faith could only irritate his judges and belittle the conventional poem which he had been given to set to music. At this time Berlioz had just published his Huit Scènes de Faust, his first serious attempt at eroding established genres. This work constitutes an astonishing whole which defies the categories, a unique work of the kind that Berlioz liked to conceive: it is neither a song cycle, nor a sequence of pieces of stage music, nor a cantata, nor an opera. The aim was not only to pay tribute to Goethe but to create a Faust that would be valid in its own right and not as a paraphrase. Significantly each of the scenes was prefaced with a quotation selected from Shakespeare and from the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore: Berlioz had just set nine of them to music. It will be noted incidentally that the last song in the cycle, "Élégie", is the first attempt by a composer to write a romance based on a prose text (from the pen of Louise Sw. Belloc, unlike the previous eight, which were translated from the English by Thomas Gounet).

    The woman he loved, who was born in Ireland and played Shakespeare’s roles, then inspired him to write a score which opens up a radically new world in symphonic literature: the Symphonie fantastique. More striking is the fact that Berlioz, despite the Huit Scènes, does not appear to have exhausted the theme of Faust. "I have had in mind for a long time a descriptive symphony of Faust which is fermenting in my head", he writes before even completing his Huit Scènes, and while also going back to his Francs-Juges. His aim was to offer the latter work to the Opéra after it had been turned down once already by the Odéon. This attempt was also a failure and he was moved to try his luck in the concert hall: "We are going to stage the symphony as would be done for a grand opera." The work was provided first with a dramatic title (Episode in the life of an artist) and then with a programme printed on pink paper and handed out on the day of the first performance, and it resembles an autobiographical novel set to music: "The following programme must therefore be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements, and it determines their character and expression." The beginning of each movement of the symphony is a curtain raiser in sound, and each theme is like a stage appearance.

    When eight years later Benvenuto fell at the Opéra, Berlioz thought of a novel idea that had not been attempted so far: the result is the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, which is perhaps the most developed attempt to demonstrate the evocative power of music. The words are set out in the score in an illuminating manner which forces them to admit their own inadequacy. "Quel art dans sa langue choisie/Rendrait vos célestes appas ?/Premier amour, n’êtes-vous pas/Plus haut que toute poésie ?" ["What art in its choicest language / could render your heavenly attractions? / First love, are you not / above all poetry?"] Juliet and Romeo are all the more eloquent as their voices are silent and the ecstatic instrumental music expresses on its own their confessions, torment, and death. In the preface to the score Berlioz explains: "The very sublimity of this love made its depiction so dangerous for the composer that he needed to allow his imagination a freedom which the literal meaning of the words sung would have denied him. Hence the resort to instrumental language, a language which is richer, more varied, less finite, and through its very imprecision incomparably more powerful in such a situation."

    The words in Berlioz belong to the corporeal and to immanence. Music for its part expresses the flight of imagination and transcendence. It is the soul of the work, but also of the building, whether concert hall or theatre, which is filled with the music. Berlioz used the expression "musical architecture" to refer to some of his scores. It is enough to listen the opening of the Requiem to sense how, just as a spark turns into a flame, the music emerges from silence, blossoms and brings to life the walls and the entire space of the building where it is being performed.

    The dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette did not have any posterity. When it came to the Damnation of Faust, subtitled first ‘concert opera’ then ‘dramatic legend’, the framework changes again. The theatre is here the world, since this is a theatre for the mind, a new figure of utopia, despite – or rather because of – the numerous stage instructions that are to be found in the score. The stage instructions have the same function as the quotations in the Huit Scènes de Faust. They are meant to open up dreams as the world is too small for Berlioz. They are the spurs of music.

    Les Troyens, his musical legacy and the goal of his whole life, finally brought together the poetry he had discovered in his childhood and his relentless drive to compose a new score that did not have any model. It will be understood that in Berlioz words are there to narrate the world, and music to emancipate oneself from it. Literature for Berlioz does not serve to illustrate subjects but to invent forms. It is a way of fixing the boundaries of even the most beautiful flower garden and of escaping them through irrepressible song. With nature as its space and poetry as its horizon, the music of Berlioz composes the most extraordinary song of all.

Christian Wasselin

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