Putting Hector’s house in order

By David Cairns

© 2004 David Cairns

    Last year’s 200th anniversary of the birth of Berlioz was celebrated in this country on the scale expected, given that the once controversial composer’s music has enjoyed active support here ever since his visits in the 1840s and 1850s.

    London has long been acknowledged, even – especially – in his native France, as the Berlioz capital of the world. He might well not have been surprised by what happened here during the bicentenary: the generous amount of his music given at the Proms, the BBC’s moving Childhood of Christ under Andrew Davis in Westminster Cathedral last month and, not least, the 12-hour Berlioz Day on Radio 3 on December 7, a few days before his actual birthday – a marvellously imaginative musical travelogue, by Dennis Marks, that followed in the footsteps of the composer during his life’s journey across Europe. England, as expected, did him proud.

    Berlioz festivals also sprang up in places as diverse as Albuquerque, New Mexico – where the conductor Guillermo Figueroa revealed himself an outstanding musician and interpreter – and the little German town of Essen-Werden, where the students of the music Hochschule put on a cleverly devised and well-prepared series of concerts. This, and more, would no doubt have seemed to Berlioz as it should be. It was what happened in Paris that would have made him rub his eyes in disbelief.

    We in Britain (those of us, at least, who have come to love and cherish his music) pride ourselves on knowing how it should be performed and on performing it regularly – unlike the French, imprisoned in their received opinions, stuck in their pedantic conservatoire groove, forever bleating about incorrect harmonies and "false basses". I remember when I worked at Philips and we were recording Benvenuto Cellini, the tenor Hugues Cuenod coming to sing the Innkeeper and saying that, yes, the music was surprisingly attractive, but what a pity Berlioz couldn’t get his basses right.

    We, on the other hand, learnt early on to re-examine our prejudices and listen to his music without preconceptions. Right from the start, there were critics prepared to think again. After Berlioz’s first London concert, at Drury Lane, Edward Holmes, Keats’s friend, who had been "among the most mistrusting and infidel of the audience", acknowledged that he had been wrong: Berlioz was "a poet-musician of no common stamp", and his music, contrary to the common charge, was rich in melody. By and large, it has been the same since then.

    But the Parisians! Was Berlioz not fated to remain for all eternity the classic example of the prophet without honour in his own country? Were not his compatriots incapable of seeing the light? Would they ever be converted? Well, it seems that they have been. The most significant and dramatic sound of the year was the tumultuous cheering at the Théâtre du Châtelet in October, when John Eliot Gardiner conducted six sold-out performances of The Trojans. The Trojans applauded, rapturously, in Paris, of all places. This was the work that, in the words of the French critic Claude Rostand (then a voice crying in the wilderness), his "wilfully blind" fellow countrymen, even the Berliozians among them, had labelled a white elephant, out of pure ignorance.

    Add that the same excited response greeted the Orchestre National’s brilliant concert performances of the original version of Benvenuto Cellini under John Nelson last month, that the Orchestre de Paris has been performing the complete œuvre systematically over the past three years, and that the Bibliothèque Nationale has mounted a comprehensive and highly imaginative Berlioz exhibition (open until next Sunday), and a time-travelling Berlioz would simply not recognise the old place.

    The one thing that would strike him as depressingly familiar is that Paris (unlike the big provincial cities) is still without a decent public concert hall. The Orchestre de Paris and its conductor, Christoph Eschenbach, are camping out in a minor theatre – this at a time when the orchestra is playing, as never before, with a dedication and flair that deserve to be honoured, not least by a nation so conscious of its heritage and so concerned for its gloire. The very French row over the proposal to transfer the composer’s remains from Montmartre to the Pantheon has resulted in a stalemate. But far better to commemorate him by building a home for the Orchestre de Paris: the Salle Hector Berlioz.

    Whether or not that happens, Paris has got round to fulfilling Berlioz’s deathbed prophecy: "So they are finally going to perform my music." He has arrived. What his music needed, and suffered so long from the lack of – music stylistically so different from the 19th-century mainstream, and technically and expressively so demanding – was nothing more nor less than idiomatic performance, and plenty of it. It required to be known.

    You cannot make people like it, any more than you can make people like Wagner’s or Janacek’s or even Beethoven’s. But at least they have a chance to judge for themselves. And the fanatical naysayers, who were not content with not liking Berlioz’s, but were bent on denying its right to exist, seem to me a dwindling band, wandering aimlessly like the Queen of Night and her acolytes, in Act II of The Magic Flute, in the dark vaults beneath the temple.

    There has never been a time when so many conductors are interested in Berlioz and keen to perform him as today – and it is conductors, above all, who keep a composer’s work alive. Not long before he died, Berlioz said that if he could live to be 140, his musical life would become "decidedly interesting". He was a few decades out in his calculation, but he was right – it has.

David Cairns

Acknowledgement

This article first appeared in Sunday Times on 11 January 2004. We would like to express our deep gratitude to Mr David Cairns for granting us permission to reproduce the article on this page. 

All rights of reproduction of this article reserved. 

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