The Hector Berlioz Website

Speech given by David Cairns at the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Berlioz Bicentenary Dinner,
held at the Athenaeum, London on 6 November 2003

© 2004 David Cairns

Home Page     Search

    In November 1847 Berlioz wrote from 76 Harley Street to a friend in Paris, giving an account of his doings in London, where he had just taken up the post of music director of Jullien’s Grand English Opera at Drury Lane Theatre. The actor Macready, he said, had held a dinner in his honour. And a French friend had secured him temporary membership of his club – though, Berlioz added, “God knows what entertainment there is to be had in an English club!”

    The club, as it happens, was the Athenaeum. So it is nicely appropriate that the Royal Philharmonic Society should have organised and hosted this splendid dinner here. We may assume, from the club’s minutes, that Berlioz did attend at least once, because, the following February, he was re-invited, “for the usual period of two months”, by Lord Mahon, his previous proposer being Mr Henry Hallam, father of Tennyson’s friend. On that earlier occasion the minutes noted that Monsieur Berlioz was “a gentleman of high character and an eminent writer on the Journal des Débats, distinguished also for his musical knowledge”.

    In due course London, if not the members of the Athenaeum, discovered that Berlioz was more than an eminent writer on the Journal des Débats. The five visits he made between 1847 and 1855 established a tradition which has lasted to this day, and which explains why we are here tonight celebrating the bicentenary of his birth. He might well have settled in London, probably would have, but for the skulduggery of a certain Dr Henry Wylde, a conductor chiefly remarkable for what one observer described as his “spasmodic gyrations” and “tremulous stick”, but who was a more skilful operator behind the scenes than Berlioz. As it was, Berlioz left behind him a host of admirers and well-wishers – musicians, writers, publishers, administrators – convinced of his genius.

    In his last years Berlioz was haunted by the fear that when he was gone there would be nobody who knew how to perform his music – music so difficult to play and to get right. “The great Hector’s sword would lack a master”. That was never a danger in Germany, where a succession of conductors from Bülow to Mahler and Weingartner understood and championed it. In London, too, for the first few decades after his death his champions were all Germans (this was the period when English musical life was comprehensively teutonised). There was August Manns, who founded the Crystal Palace concerts; Wilhelm, later William, Ganz, who as a young violinist, and percussionist, played in Berlioz’s London orchestras; Hans Richter, a frequent visitor in the 80s and 90s, who despised French music – when asked why he never performed it he replied, “Zer ees no French moosik” – but who made an exception of Berlioz: Berlioz was an honorary German; Felix Mottl, who conducted the first complete performance of The Trojans, in Karlsruhe, and who visited London from time to time; and Berlioz’s friend Charles Hallé, from Hagen in Westphalia, the “pianist sans peur et sans reproche”, who settled in Paris in the late 1830s and then, after the 1848 Revolution, moved to England, where a consortium of Manchester business men invited him to form the orchestra that still bears his name.

    What were their performances like? How did they interpret Berlioz’s music? We can’t say, but presumably well enough to keep it afloat. We know about Ganz (at any rate I do) largely through the writings of Bernard Shaw. Ganz was Adelina Patti’s favourite conductor, and there is a famous account by Shaw of a farewell concert given by the diva at the Albert Hall in 1889, with Ganz conducting, just before she left for a tour of South America. Perhaps it’s not strictly relevant to my theme but I can’t resist quoting from it. The young Patti was, after all, a good friend of Berlioz, inspiring him to one of his best puns: “Oportet pati. The Latinists translate this as ‘suffering is our lot’, the monks as ‘bring the pate’, but all true lovers of music as ‘we must have Patti’ ”. [The review, which is not quoted here, is to be found in Shaw’s London Music in 1888-89, pp.53-4.]

    Though Ganz played under Berlioz he may not have learned all that much, if we are to believe Shaw, who found his account of the first movement of the Fantastic Symphony too slow: its passions, Shaw said, “can by no means be represented by an orchestra jogging along under easy sail at the rate of sixteen minims less than Berlioz’s explicit tempo”. Shaw also thought that “the substitution of bass tubas for ophicleides, now nearly always made, produces a more dignified tone in the Dies Irae than Berlioz intended. There is something peculiarly outlandish in the hoot of an ophicleide”. (Shaw was an authenticist avant la lettre.) However, he does add that “the final diabolical orgy came off with great spirit”. It was Ganz who gave the London premiere of the symphony, in 1881, for which he had special bells cast of the right deep funereal tone. Presumably they were melted down in the first world war. A pity – we need them today.

    Hans Richter seems to have been a much better Berlioz conductor than Ganz. Shaw praised his account of The Damnation of Faust warmly (July 1889). “Call no conductor sensitive in the highest degree to musical impressions until you have heard him in Berlioz and Mozart. I never unreservedly took off my hat to Richter until I saw him conduct Mozart’s great symphony in E flat. Now, having heard him conduct Berlioz’s Faust, I repeat the salutation. […] The Hungarian March I pass over, though I felt towards the end that if it were to last another minute I must charge out and capture Trafalgar Square single-handed. But when the scene on the banks of the Elbe began – more slowly than any but a great conductor would have dared to take it – then I knew that I might dream the scene without fear of awakening a disenchanted man. As to the dance of will-o’-the-wisps in the third part, Richter’s interpretation of that most supernatural minuet was a masterpiece of conducting”.

    But best of all, Shaw liked Hallé’s conducting of Berlioz. When Hallé brought his orchestra south, they showed London how Berlioz should be done. The score, Shaw said (this is again the Damnation), “comes to life in the hands of players who understand every bar of it and individualize every phrase”. Hallé, like Richter, seems to have conducted the March at the moderate, steady tempo which Berlioz prescribed but which many French conductors have been unable to resist whipping up. “The Hungarian March”, Shaw writes, “taken at about half the speed at which Lamoureux vainly tries to make it ‘go’, is encored with yells – literally with yells – at St James’s Hall”.

    With the coming of the 20th century British conductors appear on the scene: Hamilton Harty and Beecham – Tommy; also Leslie Heward, Constant Lambert and others. The inaugural concert of Beecham’s London Philharmonic Orchestra at Queen’s Hall in 1932 – one of the landmarks in the history of orchestral playing in this country – began with the Roman Carnival overture, which created such a sensation that the applause lasted for five minutes, and – though it sounds improbable, I am assured by a friend who was there that it was so – people stood on their seats to cheer. In 1960, while he was recovering from his first stroke, Beecham made plans to perform all Berlioz’s major works in a series of concerts at the Albert Hall; but a second stroke killed him before he could carry them out.

    I have now reached, however cursorily, our own time. How, in a brief summary, to do justice to all that has been achieved by the people in this room, not to mention those who went before them?

    Looked at from the outside, it might seem to the anti-Berliozians (they still exist, though I’m happy to say that they are a diminishing breed) that the whole modern Berlioz movement in this country has been a carefully planned and ruthlessly efficient conspiracy, with cells of dedicated fanatics planted at strategic points throughout the land – “a tightly knit group of politically motivated men”, as Harold Wilson described the left-wing militants at about the same time. Look, for example, at the way certain key professorships in university music departments were occupied by card-carrying Berlioz activists: Hugh Macdonald, having been at Cambridge and then Oxford, becomes professor of music at Glasgow, Ian Kemp professor at Leeds then Manchester, succeeded at Leeds by Julian Rushton. Meanwhile John Warrack, after a distinguished career as author and journalist, joins the music faculty at Oxford, where he is influential in spreading the gospel.

    Or consider how that knot of conspirators used to gather, in the 1960s, in one of those small secluded alcoves which are still a feature of Durrants Hotel in W1, after Colin Davis’s concert performances of The Trojans with the LSO or the Philharmonia, and plot to get the full score published and the opera recorded: Macdonald again, Davis himself, Warrack, Nicholas Snowman, Ernest Fleischmann, Richard Macnutt and myself. Or the fact that two of the leading Berlioz conductors of today, Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner, played in the Chelsea Opera Group orchestra in those same 1960s, where they sat at the feet of Colin Davis and imbibed the doctrine – even if their paths have somewhat diverged from his since then.

    It is a tempting idea. But the whole thing has been much more haphazard than that – or rather, it was the Zeitgeist working, it was many different currents converging, joining their streams to make a river whose course was too strong to be arrested. One of the things that in the past had held Berlioz’s music back was that it was simply not heard enough and therefore not known – it was the paucity not merely of faithful performances but of performances at all. When J. H. Elliot wrote the Master Musicians book on Berlioz which came out in 1938, he had never – as he later admitted – heard The Childhood of Christ; his not exactly sympathetic and inevitably not very illuminating account of the work was derived from the vocal score. Thanks to Beecham and Harty and others, and to visiting conductors from abroad, Berlioz performances became more frequent, and thanks to the gradual rise in the technical standards of orchestras they generally got better.

    But it was above all the advent of gramophone recording, and especially, from about 1950, of the long-playing record, followed by the CD, that was crucial. Crucial in two ways: first because its huge expansion of the repertory helped to relegate to history the notion of a so-called mainstream of music and to abolish the concept of a norm, against which a composer such as Berlioz could be measured and found hopelessly eccentric. It introduced the spirit of pluralism – that pluralism which was the one –ism that Berlioz the independent spirit believed in. Second, recording made his music much more physically accessible. Because of recording, he was ceasing at last to be a composer more talked about than actually known.

    Which brings me to The Trojans. The story has often been told, but I hope you will forgive me if I touch on it again, because the Covent Garden production of 1957, conducted by Rafael Kubelik, was in a sense the beginning of the process that has led to Berlioz being accepted as one of the great composers, and that has led to us sitting here this evening (or, in my case, standing). So much flowed from it. Individual lives were changed, as was the whole way Berlioz was looked at. The Trojans, his supreme work, had been the repository of more prejudice and ignorance than all the rest of his works put together (which is saying a lot). From now on, everything began to be seen in a new light. In that light the whole of Berlioz’s output could be revalued. And, of course, those Covent Garden performances and the revivals of 1958 and 1960 fired numerous individuals to take up the Berlioz cause, to conduct and play and sing and write and plan and promote, in the conviction that here was a great artist and a great human being whose wrongs were terrible but could be redressed.

    This time – uncharacteristically for a composer who seemed fated to suffer bad luck – the stars were working for him. By a fortunate accident of dates, the momentum gathering during the 1960s found a culminating point to aim at: the centenary of Berlioz’s death. 1969 was the focus of our united efforts. Here perhaps the word conspiracy, or at any rate premeditation, is apt. In particular, a large debt is owed to Russell Brown, who I am happy to see is here tonight. I think he was bursar of the Royal College of Art at the time. His idea of forming a Berlioz Centenary Committee as early as 1963 or 64 struck the rest of us as slightly odd, even a little premature (as Richard the Lionheart says to Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood), but he was absolutely right. It needed that amount of time. He got the Earl of Drogheda to preside, and the manager of the Westbury Hotel, Tony de la Rue, another Berlioz enthusiast, to host various functions, and Charles Longman, the press officer of Justerini and Brooks, to lubricate them.

    Almost the first action of the committee was to set up a subcommittee charged with launching a new edition of the complete works. (The old one, quite apart from its other deficiencies, had left the operas out altogether.) Hugh Macdonald was made general editor. Through the good offices of Martin Cooper, the Gulbenkian Foundation gave a large grant. The first volume, the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, was published in 1967, and two years later, coinciding with the centenary and for the first time in its strange but till then largely uneventful history, The Trojans.

    It is a great pity that Hugh Macdonald, who is now a professor in America, can’t be with us this evening. The importance of what he has done for Berlioz cannot be exaggerated. For his Cambridge doctoral thesis, Macdonald had prepared an edition of the full score of The Trojans, and this became the basis of the score that was published under his editorial direction in 1969 and used both for the new production of the work at Covent Garden and for the complete recording made in the same year. By the time the recording appeared, in 1970, the Philips Berlioz Cycle was already launched, thanks to the initiative of the Manager of the Classical Division of Philips London, Jack Boyce. He craftily placed an advertisement for the recently issued Romeo and Juliet recording in the programme of a Festival Hall concert that Colin Davis was conducting, describing it as the “first issue of the Philips Berlioz Cycle”, and our Dutch masters woke up to find themselves committed.

    To return to the New Berlioz Edition, I want to pay tribute to its work, now nearing completion (it had been hoped to complete it by the end of this bicentenary year; in fact it will run over a little, but as Berlioz will still be alive next year that is maybe no great harm). Gratitude first to the NBE’s four chairmen: Wilfrid Mellers, who held the post only briefly, but whose masterly Berlioz chapter in the Harman and Mellers Man and his Music was for many years a beacon light shining in the musicological darkness; Lionel Robbins, whose wisdom and knowledge and experience of the worlds of scholarship and business were of incalculable value; his equally influential successor Claus Moser (who to his regret could not be here tonight); and finally John Burgh, without whose determination and incisive leadership the edition would certainly not be so near its goal as it is. Then, the general secretaries whose devoted work has kept the whole enterprise going: Richard Macnutt, Ian Kemp, Paul Banks, and now and by no means least Chris Banks, whose secretaryship has coincided with the tricky problem of funding the edition’s final stages and who has solved it brilliantly.

    I have dwelt on the great pioneer days of the 60s, and they were heady days to live through. But, in this case at least, to arrive is even better than to travel hopefully. Not even the most quirky Berlioz enthusiast, surely, can feel nostalgic for the time when their hero was an outsider, an outcast, a figure on the periphery of musical history, seemingly the eternal maverick (perhaps loved partly for that reason), or can fail to welcome a time when his works are performed regularly and no longer have to be sought out in odd corners of the kingdom; when there are recordings readily available instead of found only on reel-to-reel tapes or on worn-out cassettes passed from hand to hand and at any moment liable to spew out of the machine in Laocoon-like coils. Those were necessary days, but they are over.

    There has never been a time when so many conductors, worldwide, were interested in Berlioz’s music and eager to perform it, as now. In the past there were always a few, enough, just, to hold the line. But now we have what St Paul calls a cloud of witnesses, many of them from this country: our guest of honour, Colin Davis; John Eliot Gardiner; Roger Norrington; Simon Rattle; Sian Edwards; Adrian Brown, to name only some. And reports have recently come from Glasgow, of Ilan Volkov, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, performing three Berlioz symphonies – Harold, Romeo and the Funèbre – in one day. It is, after all, more satisfactory to celebrate a conquering hero than a defeated one.

    We are fortunate to be able to do so. But I should like to recall tonight some of those who did not live to enjoy the bicentenary: the pianist Viola Tunnard, whose long and painful sufferings from motor neurone disease were lightened by her love of Berlioz; Ron Bernheim, founder of the Berlioz Society, which kept the torch alight in those far-off but still remembered days (and whose President, the great Jacques Barzun, is still going strong at 95); four other members of the society, who died too soon: Dick Maidment, Ian Martin, Clifford Smith and Ray Hyatt; Arthur Oldham, the “Ministre des Chœurs”, who was the Orchestre de Paris’ chorus master for 27 years until he was forced out, and whose death earlier this year was a shock to many; the conductors John Pritchard and Norman del Mar; Tom Heinitz, a famous convert of 1957, who went to the first night of The Trojans in a spirit of mild curiosity and to hear the new tenor Jon Vickers that everyone was talking about, and came out of the theatre five hours later a changed man, and thereafter wrote and spoke passionately on behalf of Berlioz; the painter, sculptor and writer Michael Ayrton, a dedicated Berliozian, whom I can still see pacing Bow Street during one of the intervals in the 1969 Trojans, murmuring “I fear the Greeks, especially when bearing sets”. And an American enthusiast, Alan Gore, a Berliozian hors pairs, prevented by wretched health from fulfilling his dearest wish, which had been to spend the whole of 2003 in France and England.

    Lastly, a dear friend, someone whom a few of us will never cease to cherish, Elizabeth Davison. Elizabeth was head of Arts Council exhibitions in the 1960s, so that when it was decided, by the centenary committee and the Victoria and Albert Museum, that the Arts Council should put on a big exhibition at the V&A, it fell to her to see that it happened. She knew practically nothing of Berlioz, but she set to work to hear and read everything she could, and fell under his spell. The magnificent catalogue which is still one of the prime Berlioz documents was above all her achievement. When shortly afterwards a Byron exhibition was planned, Elizabeth, who had just retired, offered to come back, but John Pope-Hennessy, “the Pope”, who was chairman of the Byron committee, as he had been of the Berlioz, said no. As a result the Byron catalogue wasn’t ready till more than a month after the exhibition opened. That the Berlioz catalogue was finished in time was thanks to Elizabeth and her gentle bullying, and the late-night sessions that she and Richard Macnutt and Jonathan Mayne and I held at her house in Camberwell, sessions that often went on till 3 or 4 in the morning.

    Nor shall I ever forget the journeys I made with Elizabeth to La Côte St André to choose objects for the exhibition. Her spoken French was rudimentary but that didn’t stop her. I can see her sitting outside the Hotel France with a group of inhabitants of the town and saying to the curé, “Vous connais…” and, despite that, somehow making herself understood. Later, by which time she was a close friend of both me and my wife Rosemary, we went back together more than once to Berlioz’s birthplace. On one occasion we took the train from Lyons to the railway station of Le Grand Lemps, a few miles from La Côte, and rang for a taxi to collect us. The hot dusty station yard had something of the look and atmosphere of those slightly sinister station yards that figure in westerns, which may have influenced what followed. While we waited for the taxi we found ourselves looking over a wall beyond which a dozen or so men were playing boules. Suddenly the men’s heads turned as one, like a herd of cattle, or a posse of gunmen, and stared silently and intimidatingly in our direction, whereupon a flustered Elizabeth blurted out: “C’est permis de regarder le jou?”

    But I don’t want to end with the past. Berlioz is more important than any of us – Berlioz and his future. I should like to propose a toast to that future. Not long before his death he said that if he could live to be 140 his musical life would become “decidedly interesting”. He was a few decades out; but his prophecy has been vindicated. In my family, during the days when Berlioz was sometimes felt to be a little over-dominant, there used to be talk of “life after Berlioz”. That hasn’t happened, and perhaps never will. Instead, I would ask you, as this great year nears its end, to drink to “Berlioz after 2003”. For him this is not the end. It is the beginning of his afterlife. To Berlioz and the next hundred years!

David Cairns

*We are most grateful to Mr David Cairns for sending us the text of his speech.

Back to Berlioz Bicentenary Special main page

Back to Home Page

Retour à la Page d’accueil