musical Polemic 

By Hector berlioz

Le Corsaire, 12 August 1823
(correspondence section)

Translated by Michel Austin

© 2003 Michel Austin

Monsieur le Corsaire,

    Have you become an extreme dilettante? This must be the case, since in your issue of the10th of this month you published a dialogue between a lover of buffoonery and a lover of the Opéra, whom you call Crifort (Loud-Mouth). This purports to prove that La Vestale would be better placed at the Théâtre Italien than at the Opéra. M. le Corsaire, how can you put forward such a proposition?

    The part of La Vestale may not be performed adequately. The triumphal march may be constantly disrupted by that accursed bass drum which does not play in time, because it is placed too far from the orchestra to be able to hear it. The orchestral accompaniment may be too loud in several places. But why is this great role badly played? It is because Mme Branchu is no longer playing it, and despite her great talent it is doubtful whether Mme Pasta can come near our great tragic singer in this kind of music. Why do they shout at the Opéra in a number of passages? It is because the pitch used there is a tone higher than it should be. M. Levasseur admittedly does not shout, but is he capable of replacing Dérivis and of singing without runs the tremendous finale of the second act?

    Why is the orchestra so noisy? It is because Spontini’s scores are too heavily orchestrated. A flimsy orchestra would play them piano, but only because it has half as many players, or because it would omit three parts out of four, to allow the cadences and portamenti of García to dominate all the more.

    Before passing judgment you have to study the question in depth. You must read the scores to know whether it is the orchestra’s fault or that of the composer if they sound too noisy, and that is what your fanatical dilettanti are not prepared to do. I call them fanatical advisedly; I need only mention what I heard them say at the last performance of the Marriage of Figaro. One of them said to a friend as he came in: “Today I am only coming to kill time, they are playing Mozart.”

    That fellow is a champion of Rossini. A moment later a conversation with a champion of Mozart begins, and the subject moves to Gluck. “Ah! Gluck, he says in a dismissive manner, I was not talking of that man, because he never wrote any music; all he could write was plainsong.” That shows real judgment! The same was true of verdicts passed on many other composers. The champion of Rossini was talking about the opera Virginie, in which he said he had discovered an aria which he thought was quite good. What a relief – M. Berton would be delighted to hear his piece commended by such a discerning amateur.

    Who in truth could deny that all the operas of Rossini put together cannot sustain comparison with just one line of recitative by Gluck, three bars of an aria by Mozart or Spontini or any chorus by Lesueur! That, at least, is my view, and I am no fanatic of French music.

    Yours etc.

HECTOR B……

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Editor’s note: Although the views expressed in this letter could be refuted or at least qualified, we have not hesitated to publish them, as this is a matter of editorial impartiality. We believe in fact that this musical polemic may be of interest, and that it is by juxtaposing conflicting opinions that the path which leads to truth is illuminated.

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