By Hector Berlioz
Translated by Michel Austin
© 2003 Michel Austin
This page is also available in French
Euphonia is a small town of twelve thousand souls, situated on the slopes of the Hartz, in Germany.
It can be thought of as a vast conservatory of music, since the practice of this art is the only task to which its inhabitants devote themselves.
All Euphonians, men, women, and children, concern themselves exclusively with singing, playing instruments, and everything directly connected with the art of music. The majority are at one and the same time instrumental players and singers. A few who do not perform music devote themselves to the manufacture of instruments, and to engraving and printing music. Others give their time to research in acoustics and to the study of all physical phenomena which relate to the production of sounds.
Instrumental players and singers are organised in categories in the various quarters of the town.
Each voice and each instrument has a street which bears its name, which is inhabited solely by the section of the population which practices that particular voice or instrument. There are streets for soprano singers, basses, tenors, contralto singers, violins, horns, flutes, harps, etc., etc.
It goes without saying that Euphonia is governed in military fashion and subjected to an authoritarian regime. Hence the perfect orderliness which presides over study, and the wonderful results that art has derived from this.
In fact the Emperor of Germany does everything in his power to make the condition of the Euphonians as happy as possible. All he asks in return is to be sent two or three times a year a few thousand musicians for the festivals he gives in various parts of the empire. It is rare for the whole town to be away all at once.
On the other hand, for solemn festivals that are devoted exclusively to artistic purposes, it is the audience that is required to travel and come and listen to the Euphonians.
An amphitheatre, comparable to those found in Greek and Roman antiquity, but built on vastly superior acoustic principles, is devoted to these monumental performances. It can accommodate on one side an audience of twenty thousand, and on the other ten thousand performers.
The Minister of Fine Arts selects from among the population of the different towns of Germany the twenty thousand privileged members of the audience who are allowed to attend those festivals. His choice is always based on the degree of intelligence and musical culture of the individuals concerned. Despite the vast interest which these gatherings excite in the whole empire, no one who is known to be unsuitable and unworthy of attending would be admitted under any pretext.
The education of the Euphonians is organised as follows. Children are trained from a very early age in all manner of rhythmic combinations. In a few years they are taught to make light of difficulties in irregular divisions of the bar, syncopated forms, the combination of incompatible rhythms, etc. Then comes the study of notation, which runs in tandem with that of instruments, and a little later the study of singing and of harmony. When they reach puberty, the time when life flowers and passions begin to be experienced, the aim is to foster in them a feeling for truth in expression and thus for beauty of style.
This rare ability to appreciate truth in expression, whether in the composer’s work or in the interpreters’ performance, ranks above all others in the judgment of the Euphonians.
Whoever is shown to be completely devoid of this ability, or to take pleasure in hearing works that are false in expression, is mercilessly banished from the city, even if he is gifted with outstanding talent or an exceptional voice. The alternative for him is to accept demotion to some inferior task, such as the manufacture of gut strings or the preparation of skins for the timpani.
The teachers of singing and of the various instruments have under their orders several deputies whose task it is to teach special skills in which they are acknowledged to be masters. Thus in the classes for violin, viola, cello and double-bass, in addition to the main teacher who supervises the general study of the instrument, there is one who teaches exclusively pizzicato, another the use of harmonics, another staccato playing, and so on. Prizes are instituted for agility, true intonation, beauty of tone and even for fineness of tone. Hence the wonderful piano nuances which the Euphonians alone in Europe know how to produce.
The signal for working hours and for meals, for assembly by quarters, by streets, rehearsals in large or small groups etc. is given by a gigantic organ placed at the top of a tower which rises above all the buildings in the city. This organ is powered by steam, and its sound is such that it can easily be heard at a distance of ten miles. Five centuries ago the talented maker A. Sax, to whom we owe the invaluable family of brass reed instruments which bears his name, suggested the idea of an organ of this kind to perform the function of bells, but in a more musical way. He was dismissed as a lunatic, as also happened earlier to the unfortunate man who talked of the application of steam to sailing and railways, and as was still happening two centuries ago for those who persistently looked for methods of steering navigation by air, which has changed the face of the world. The language of the tower organ, a telegraph for the ear, is only intelligible to the Euphonians. They alone are familiar with telephony. The full potential of this valuable invention was sensed in the 19th century by a certain Sudre, and one of the harmony prefects of Euphonia has developed and perfected it to the point it has now reached. They also have telegraphy, and the directors of rehearsals need only make a simple gesture with one or both hands and their baton to indicate to the performers that they must play this particular chord, whether loud or soft, followed by this particular cadence or modulation, that they must play a given classical work with the full orchestra, or in a small section, or in a crescendo, with the various groups making their successive entries.
When they want to perform a large new composition, each part is studied separately for three or four days. The organ then announces the sessions in the amphitheatre, starting with all the voices. Under the direction of the singing masters they are heard by centuries, each of which constitutes a complete chorus. The breathing places are then indicated and determined in such a way that never more than a quarter of the mass of singers breathes at the same place, and the voice production of the full chorus does not betray any noticeable break.
The work to be performed is rehearsed at first with attention to literal fidelity, then to the main dynamics, and finally to style and EXPRESSION.
Any movement of the body which indicates the rhythm while singing is strictly forbidden to the choristers. They are also trained to keep silence, a silence so complete and deep that 3,000 Euphonian choristers gathered in the amphitheatre, or in any other auditorium, would make the buzz of an insect audible, or could give a blind person placed in their midst the illusion of being entirely on his own. They have managed in this way to count hundreds of bars and to attack a chord for the full chorus after this long silence without a single singer missing his entry.
The same procedure is followed with orchestral rehearsals; no part is allowed to figure in an ensemble before it has been auditioned and examined critically by the prefects. The full orchestra then works on its own; finally the orchestral and vocal ensembles are brought together when the various prefects have declared them to be sufficiently well rehearsed.
The full ensemble is then subjected to the composer’s critical judgment; he listens from the top of the amphitheatre which the public will occupy. And when he feels fully master of this vast and intelligent instrument, when he is sure that all that is left is to indicate the vital nuances of the tempo, which he feels and can convey better than anyone else, then the time has come for him to become a performer as well, and he ascends the podium to direct the performance. A tuning fork fixed to each desk enables all the players to tune unobtrusively before and during the performance; practice runs and the slightest sounds from the orchestra are strictly forbidden. An ingenious mechanism which could have been invented five or six centuries earlier, if anyone had made the effort to devise it, and which responds to the conductor’s movements without being visible to the public, displays before the eyes of each player, close to him, the beats in the bar, and also indicates precisely the different nuances of forte or piano. In this way the performers sense immediately and instantly the intentions of their conductor, and can respond as quickly as do the hammers of a piano to the hand that presses the keys. The maestro can then say in all truth that he is playing the orchestra.
Chairs of musical philosophy are held by the most learned men of the time and serve to spread among the Euphonians healthy ideas on the importance and purpose of the art of music. They teach a knowledge of the laws on which it is based and precise historical notions on the revolutions through which it went. It is to one of these professors that is due the peculiar institution of concerts of bad music to which the Euphonians go at certain times of the year in order to hear monstrosities which where admired throughout Europe for centuries, and which students were even taught to compose in conservatories of Germany, France and Italy. The Euphonians come to study them in order to learn what faults must be avoided at all costs. Such are the majority of cavatinas and finales of the Italian school of the early nineteenth century, and the vocal fugues in compositions of a more or less religious character of the periods preceding the twentieth century. The first experiments of this kind to be carried out on a people whose musical feeling is today perfect and exceptionally refined led to rather strange results. Some of the masterpieces of bad music, which were false in expression and ridiculous in style, but nevertheless bearable if not pleasing to the ear, moved them to pity. They thought they were hearing sounds from children mumbling a language they could not understand. Some pieces made them burst out laughing, and it proved impossible to continue with the performance. But when they reached the singing of the fugue on Kyrie eleison from the most famous work of one of the great masters of our old German school, and they were told that this piece had been written not by a lunatic but by a great musician, who was only following the example of other masters, whose example was in turn followed for a long time, their dismay was indescribable. They were deeply upset by this humiliating disease and recognised that even human genius could be affected by it. Their religious feeling and musical sense protested against these ignoble and unbelievable blasphemies, and all at once they intoned the famous prayer Parce Deus, so true in expression, as though they wanted to make amends to God in the name of music and musicians.
As everyone has a voice of sorts, each of the Euphonians is required to train his or hers and to have a grounding in the art of singing. The result is that the string players in the orchestra who are able to sing and play at the same time make up a second reserve chorus, which the composer uses on certain occasions – their unexpected entry can sometimes produce the most astonishing effects. Singers in their turn are obliged to know the mechanism of some stringed and percussion instruments, and occasionally to play them while singing. In this way they are all harp players, piano players, and guitar players. Many of them are able to play the violin, the viola, the viola d’amore, and the cello. Children play the modern sistrum and harmonic cymbals, a new instrument which produces a chord every time it is struck.
The parts in roles for the stage, and the vocal and instrumental solos, are only given to Euphonians whose ability and special talent make them best qualified to perform them well. The selection is made through a painstaking competition, carried out in public in front of the entire people. All the time needed is spent on it. When they were due to celebrate Gluck’s decennial anniversary, eight months were spent in the search for the singer most capable of singing and playing the part of Alceste; nearly a thousand women were auditioned in turn for this purpose.
In Euphonia there are no privileges granted to certain artists to the detriment of art. Leading singers are unknown, and they have no proprietary claim to title roles, when these roles are in no way suited to their particular talent or physique. The composers, ministers and prefects lay down the essential qualities required to hold properly a particular part or represent a given character; a search is then made for the most suitable person, and once found he is immediately elected, even should he be the most obscure person in Euphonia. It can sometimes happen that our musical government’s searches and efforts remain fruitless. Thus in 2320, after fifteen months searching for a singer for Eurydice, they had to abandon the staging of Gluck’s Orphée, because they could not find a young woman beautiful enough to represent this poetic figure and sufficiently intelligent to understand the character of the part.
Great care is taken over the literary education of the Euphonians. They are capable of appreciating up to a certain point the beauties of great poets of ancient and modern times. Those among them whose ignorance and lack of culture in this respect is complete cannot ever aspire to any of the higher musical functions.
In this way, thanks to the enlightened policy of our emperor and his tireless dedication to the most powerful of the arts, Euphonia has become a wonderful conservatory of monumental music.
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