The Russia that Berlioz visited

By Linda Edmondson

© 2003 Linda Edmondson

    Berlioz visited Russia on two occasions, the first in the late winter of 1847; the second at the end of 1867. His first trip was made after the financially disastrous première in 1846 of The Damnation of Faust in Paris. Berlioz was disgusted with Paris and its philistine audiences and was determined to recoup his losses by giving concerts elsewhere in Europe. Balzac had assured him that he could make 150,000 francs on a concert trip to St Petersburg and Moscow. Berlioz, who knew Balzac well, quickly appreciated the extravagance of this claim, but was fairly confident of making some profit at least from the tour, as indeed he did.1

    His second visit was made almost twenty one years later, when Berlioz was exhausted and ailing. The devastating news of the death of his son Louis had reached him early in the summer. He was no longer composing – or conducting. He was in constant pain, often depressed and (in his own words) ‘virtually good for nothing’.2 Yet the invitation to return to Russia revived his spirits and his energies as nothing else could – even though, as David Cairns so movingly describes, the visit itself finished him off.3

    The dates of his visits – and the long interval between them – is obviously of interest to a biographer. For a historian of Russia they are significant for quite different reasons. These might not seem immediately relevant for an understanding of Berlioz’s life and works, particularly as Berlioz did not plan his visits to St Petersburg and Moscow to immerse himself in Russian culture and history, but instead to conduct some of his own works and those of his gods. Even on his first visit, when he was still physically fit, all he claims to have seen of Moscow’s glories were the exterior walls of the Kremlin. And the classical architecture of St Petersburg, with its wide river and elegant canals, served mainly as the backdrop to his infatuation with a young singer in the chorus.

    All the same, Russian society and politics impinged on his life there in many ways, good and bad. Positively, the autocratic political system proved to be of great advantage, particularly in St Petersburg, where he was offered the benefit of imperial patronage and a guaranteed audience on both trips. In 1847 he arrived armed with a letter of introduction from the King of Prussia to his sister, the Tsarina. For his second trip twenty years later he was officially invited by the Russian Musical Society, whose patron was another German-born princess, the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, sister-in-law of Nicholas I and aunt of the reigning tsar, Alexander II.

    Formally, musical life in St Petersburg was strictly controlled by the Imperial Theatre Directorate, which made every attempt to restrict the growth of private entrepreneurship. Only a year before Berlioz’s visit, an imperial decree had confirmed the crown monopoly on Russian theatres, by prohibiting privately sponsored concerts. This ban significantly affected the timing and extent of his tour. Berlioz had had to travel in the depths of winter because the theatre directorate did not permit any orchestral concerts during the opera season (which began in September) and it was only when this ended, at the beginning of Lent, that concerts could be arranged. In effect, it was a five-week orchestral season. Rosamund Bartlett tells us, in her book on Wagner in Russia, that this was one factor preventing Wagner’s music catching on immediately. The ban appears to have been repeatedly challenged. Two further decrees followed, in 1854 and 1856, in a possibly vain attempt to maintain imperial control over musical life in the capital.4

    A five-week orchestral season would have put paid to any fantasies Berlioz might have entertained of quitting Paris permanently for the official patronage of St Petersburg. And though he was greatly taken with all sorts of flattering proposals for a permanent and official position in St Petersburg, which might have allowed him to get his dramatic works staged in the imperial theatres, nothing came of these ideas, the Tsar having indicated that the imperial budget would not stretch to it.5 For the purposes of a relatively short tour, however, the institutional deficiencies of St Petersburg musical life were no hindrance. Having obtained the vital official introductions, Berlioz immediately found his path cleared of most of the obstructions – particularly financial ones – that dogged his life in Paris and frustrated his efforts to get his music performed in his own country.

    On the other hand, the Memoirs provide us with a vivid testimonial to the negative power of bureaucracy in Russia. After his first triumphant reception in St Petersburg, he travelled to Moscow and met his first obstacle, in the form of an elderly official who required confirmation that Berlioz could play an instrument before permitting him to conduct an orchestra in the only available auditorium, the Hall of the Nobility. Though the official was overruled by ‘an obliging colonel’, the regulation made it impossible to put on more than one concert in the entire three weeks of his stay in what he – like so many others before and after – described as this ‘semi-asiatic’ city.6 It was also here in Moscow that the censor took exception to the libidinous words of the students’ Latin chorus in Faust, despite Berlioz’s assurance that the censor in St Petersburg had passed them. It is worth noting, however, that the Moscow censor’s power was not limitless and, according to the Memoirs, Berlioz got away with the chorus by making sure the offending words were unintelligible.7

    At a personal level, his encounters with Russian musicians and music lovers on this first visit must inevitably have been affected by censorship and fear of the secret police and by the various restrictions on free movement around Russia and with the outside world. The educated public who attended his concerts and entertained him all spoke fluent French and there would have been few linguistic barriers to conversation. But at least in the closeted environments of drawing rooms and official soirées there must have been significant constraints on all sorts of topics, especially in the highly sensitive realm of contemporary cultural politics in Russia.

    Only a couple of weeks before Berlioz left Paris for Russia in February 1847, the radical writer, Alexander Herzen, had set out from Moscow with family and entourage on the long journey to Paris, birthplace of the Revolution, city of dreams and refuge for a circle of Russian and Polish émigrés. Herzen had apparently not intended this journey to be permanent emigration, as it turned out to be. But his departure from Russia and the misfortunes he had suffered (and brought upon himself) since his first arrest in 1834 – as well as the campaign he had had to wage to get permission to go abroad – were telling indicators of the oppressive political environment at home.8 The writer, Ivan Turgenev, has left an eloquent account of the intellectual’s existence in the St Petersburg of the 1840s:

‘... in the morning, perhaps, you have had your proofs returned to you, all scored and disfigured by red ink, as if covered with blood. You may even have to pay a visit to the censor, offer him vain and degrading explanations, or justifications, and listen to his verdict, often derisory, from which there is no appeal... If you were to cast a mental glance around you, you would see bribery flourishing, serfdom standing firm as a rock, the barracks on top of everything, no courts, rumours rife that the universities are to be closed...trips abroad becoming impossible, impossible to send abroad for a sensible book…the hissing of denunciations creeping along their way. Youth without common ties and a common interest, all terrorized and subdued...’9

    The ruler responsible for this miserable state of affairs, Nicholas I, had come to the throne after the death of his brother Alexander I late in 1825. A succession crisis precipitated a revolt that had been brewing for some time among several élite regiments in St Petersburg and the south of Russia. Fired by western revolutionary and liberal ideas, the conspirators intended to overthrow autocracy. They had little chance of success. Not only did police informers infiltrate the secret societies; the conspirators themselves were far from united in their aims – some wished to proclaim a republic; others to create a constitutional monarchy. The Decembrist revolt was doomed from the start and quickly put down. Nicholas was one of the interrogators at the Winter Palace over the following day and night. Five of the rebels were hanged; many more were sent into Siberian exile for life.10

    In the light of what was to follow in the half-century after his death, the reign of Nicholas may seem a time of predictability and security – though perhaps the security of a prison, rather than a prosperous and stable society. Nicholas’s son, Alexander II, would be assassinated by terrorists in 1881. His great-grandson, Nicholas II, would be overthrown in 1917. Nicholas I himself was a man obsessed with order and regimentation. Like his brothers, he was fascinated by the army and had served in the last months of the campaign against Napoleon. Even without the Decembrist revolt, he would still have considered it his mission to preserve Russia from disorder and maintain the rigid social hierarchy. His concern for state security led him not only to police his own Empire vigilantly, but to ensure that Europe too did not fall victim to revolution and disorder. He was alarmed by the overthrow of Charles X in France in1830 – the July Days that Berlioz so enthusiastically witnessed – and had to be dissuaded from intervening to prevent revolutionary contagion spreading eastwards. (It was, after all, only five years after the Decembrist revolt). Only months later his troops were faced with an uprising in the Kingdom of Poland, which took almost a year to suppress. In the aftermath, Poland’s limited constitutional autonomy was removed and Poland became an 'indivisible part' of the Russian Empire.11 When revolutionary upheaval threatened Austrian Poland in 1846 and the whole of Europe in 1848, Nicholas again took up his role as ‘Gendarme of Europe’. In 1849 he sent a huge force of Russian troops to Hungary to quell the revolution against Austrian Habsburg rule.

    Berlioz was fortunate to have made his visit in 1847. After the upheavals of 1848, the final years of the Emperor’s rule were darkened still further by the spectre of revolution and conspiracy. Censorship became more prohibitive, the agents of the Third Department – the secret police – stepped up their surveillance of dissidents; private letters were routinely opened; societies were infiltrated. Among those arrested for conspiracy in 1849 was the twenty-eight year-old Dostoevskii. Along with twenty others, he was subjected to a terrifying mock execution in Semenovskii Square in the centre of St Petersburg, before being sent to Siberia. He was not allowed back to Russia until four years after Nicholas’s death.

    However threatening the reign of Nicholas I may seem to us – and however sensationally it was portrayed in the West at the time – this was also the era of the celebrated Golden Age in Russian literature, first primarily in poetry, then in prose. It was the age of Pushkin, Gogol’, Lermontov, of Eugene Onegin and A Hero of Our Time. It was the period when a Russian intelligentsia began to develop – not always in conflict with the regime – and when literature (by women as well as men) began to develop as a profession. And it was the period when a distinctly Russian musical culture emerged.12 Glinka’s Life for the Tsar had its première in1836. Ruslan and Liudmila, based on Pushkin, followed in1842.

    Nicholas’s reign also needs to be seen in the context of European politics of the post-Napoleonic settlement. Authoritarian government was the norm. Even in Britain, with its parliament and much-trumpeted freedoms, political protest was met with violence (as at ‘Peterloo’ in 1819) and the campaign for the 1832 Reform Act was accompanied by rioting in the streets. National liberation movements in much of Europe were still in their infancy and immediately suppressed. Berlioz’s early years in Paris were spent under the restored monarchy, a regime that in many ways was comparable to that of Nicholas I. And Berlioz arrived in Paris only six years after Napoleon’s final defeat and only thirty-two years after the overthrow of the ancien régime – a feudal system not so different from the one he found in Russia in 1847.

    So did Berlioz experience a frisson of horror and apprehension as he planned his visit in 1847? It would appear that his worst (and justified) apprehensions were of the appalling journey he would face and his fear of freezing to death. But he was certainly well aware of the fearsome reputation of the tsarist police. His immediate impressions confounded these expectations. After a horrifying journey from the Russian border to St Petersburg by iron sledge, over roads that he described as like ‘an angry sea frozen solid’, he eventually arrived in the capital.13 As he writes in the Memoirs:

‘From what I had heard in France of the strictness of the Imperial Police, I expected to have my bundles of music confiscated for a week at least; they had hardly been touched at the frontier. But nothing of the sort occurred. The police did not even ask me what they contained, and I was able to take them with me to my hotel. A pleasant surprise! (p. 421)’

    Moreover, as soon as he had arrived, he was invited to meet all musical St Petersburg that evening at the home of two brothers, Counts Mikhail and Matvei Viel’gorskii [Wielhorsky], both musicians and patrons of music. Far from being uneasy in the exalted company of Petersburg’s cultural and social élite, or horrified by the highly stratified society, Berlioz seems to have revelled in it, writing in some amazement of the glittering audiences who attended his concerts and the fine reception given to him by the Tsarina and her children, including the future Alexander II.

    His positive response to this should cause no surprise. Berlioz had prepared the ground for his Russian trip by dedicating the Symphonie fantastique to Nicholas I (a most inappropriate dedicatee!) when the score was first published in 1845. Berlioz had fled Paris blaming its alleged philistinism and bourgeois tastes for the failure of The Damnation of Faust. His response to the wave of revolution in 1848 was almost wholly negative – in his preface to the Memoirs he writes, with characteristic hyperbole: ‘the juggernaut of Republicanism rolls across Europe. The art of music, long since dying, is now quite dead.’14 None the less, he was not a monarchist. And while he was gratified by the praise showered on him in St Petersburg, he was not taken in by royalty, as can be seen from his satirical comments on the Prussian king and his courtiers whom he visited after leaving Russia. What had so impressed him (apart from the money he earned) about his visit to St Petersburg (much less so about Moscow) was the extent of imperial patronage. Though it would be hard to imagine Berlioz as a reactionary, his frustrations in France and England might well have led him to agree with the judgement of Gogol’: ‘A state without an absolute ruler is like an orchestra without a conductor’.15

    By the time Berlioz returned to Russia in 1867, much had changed. Alexander II had succeeded his father in 1855, right in the middle of the humiliating war in the Crimea. He soon indicated the need for major reform and modernisation, while emphatically upholding the principle of absolute rule at home and the Holy Alliance in Europe. Awareness of the extreme under-development of Russia and its growing empire; fear of peasant rebellion; and the urgent need to modernise the armed forces all combined to promote the idea of reform and renewal among Russia’s policy makers and among the educated public. Liberals within the state hierarchy – and in the universities and the rapidly expanding world of journalism – exerted an influence on the government such as they had never previously known and would not enjoy in later decades. These included Berlioz’s patron in 1867, the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna. She is well-known among historians of Russian music as a highly educated patron of the arts. But she is remembered too for providing a haven for liberal thinkers and bureaucrats in the reign of Nicholas. On the accession of a new ruler, her salon became the focus for discussion of the planned reforms.16

    The late fifties and early sixties were also the time when political radicals could openly express opinions that ten years earlier would have sent them into Siberian exile, incarceration or emigration. And from the safety of his London exile, Alexander Herzen used his Free Russian Press to publish two new journals – The Polar Star (Poliarnaia Zvezda) and The Bell (Kolokol). These could be far more outspoken than even the radical publicists in St Petersburg or Moscow, whose writings were still censored. Herzen’s journals and pamphlets were, of course, eagerly read and argued over, not only in émigré circles, but in the homeland itself.

    The ‘Great Reforms’, as they became known, introduced major innovations in governance: local self-government (on a restricted franchise), judicial reform (including trial by jury), expansion and modernisation of education and extensive reform of the armed forces and military recruitment. These and other reforms survived – some, only just – for the next half-century, until the collapse of tsarism in 1917. The most celebrated of all the reforms – the most symbolically powerful – was the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Historians are still arguing over its impact on the Russian economy and on the lives of the peasants who were freed. It certainly did not solve the entrenched problems of Russian agriculture. But its emblematic significance – and its impact on the lives of the former serf-owners, the landed nobility – are well documented.

    For example, the minor serf-owning gentry – such as Musorgskii’s family – were effectively ruined by it. Like so many of his contemporaries, Musorgskii had to take a minor position in the civil service to replace the income he would previously have enjoyed from serf labour and feudal dues. He survived there for four years, until 1867, when he was dismissed in what Caryl Emerson calls a ‘routine downsizing’ in his department.17 His poverty and his loneliness as a newly-arrived city dweller also led him to join a commune. Anyone familiar with the radical and highly tendentious writings of Nikolai Chernyshevskii, will recognise this experiment in shared living that became all the rage in the early sixties. Chernyshevskii immortalised it in his novel, What is to be Done? Tales about New People, which he wrote in the Peter Paul fortress, after being arrested for revolutionary conspiracy in 1862. Musorgskii was no student radical and never espoused the fashionable 'nihilism’ of those years, so his two-year sojourn in a commune is all the more remarkable.18

    It would be a mistake to see the transition from Nicholas I’s reign to that of Alexander II as a passage from darkness into light. The heady climate of reform lasted only a few years. Although a later generation of liberal, educated Russians looked back to ‘the sixties’ as a radiant time of free expression, progress and social experimentation, the clouds quickly gathered over the new regime – Chernyshevskii’s arrest was one indicator of the change. Student protest, radical politics, the Polish insurrection of 1863 and the first attempt on the Tsar’s life in 1866 – all led to greater surveillance and prohibition, though to nothing like the extent of Nicholas I’s reign.

    It is doubtful whether Berlioz would have had any inkling of this when he returned to Petersburg in 1867. For one thing, he was ill and concentrated his remaining energies almost exclusively on his concert tour. Secondly, he was again under imperial patronage. His concerts were an enormous success and he was generously rewarded. And thirdly, in his encounters with the musical life of the 1860s, he would have seen an opening up, rather than a closing down, of opportunities. Increasing censorship of political journalism in the late sixties did not mean a contraction in journalism over all. The so-called ‘thick journals’ –  monthly compendia of literature, criticism, philosophy, history and political commentary – provided the educated public with its first opportunity to read extensive articles and bulletins on music and regular reviews of performances. Russian musical life became more professionalised, along with the growth of the professions overall in this period. With Elena Pavlovna’s patronage –  not always appreciated by its beneficiaries –  the first ever Russian Musical Society was founded by Anton Rubinstein in 1859. (Berlioz was made an honorary member during his visit.)19 Within only a few years three conservatoires were established, in Warsaw (1861), St Petersburg (1862) and Moscow (1866).

    The impetus towards professionalisation was part of an overall concern to make Russia a modern and ‘western’ (therefore ‘civilised’) society – more efficient, more productive and better equipped to assert its role as a great power. But a preoccupation with the nation’s ‘renewal’ and its ‘identity’ produced negative responses that were no less imbued with nationalism. Instead of trying to emulate the West, traditionalists sought inspiration in Russia’s imagined past and its ‘slavonic’culture, and they were openly hostile to the West and the process of modernisation. The establishment of the Russian Musical Society and the conservatoires aroused just such conflict. On the one hand, providing a thorough-going education for young musicians was the only way to create a ‘Russian tradition’ of professional music-making and composition. From the mid-eighteenth century, Russia’s imperial patrons of music had willingly depended on westerners – mainly Italian – for their composers and performers. For a century the imperial orchestras had been largely made up of foreign musicians – Berlioz’s orchestra in St Petersburg in 1847 was mostly German. Italian opera dominated the stage.

    Now Russia would provide its own musicians and its own inspiration. One problem for the opponents of western influence was that this native school of musicians would be trained in the western tradition and its repertoire would depend overwhelmingly on western ‘masters’, whose model would inevitably threaten the development of a genuinely ‘Russian’ tradition if the native genius were not carefully nurtured. An ideological conflict between ‘westernisers’ and ‘slavophiles’, which had begun to rage among Russia’s writers and intellectuals a generation earlier, now became the battleground for composers, musicians and music critics, whose conflicts were often based as much on personal antagonism and rivalry as on ideas.20 In addition, there were profound disagreements over the desired role of the state and the imperial administration in musical education, concert promotion and other aspects of musical life. The Free School of Music, founded in 1862 as an answer to the St Petersburg Conservatoire, was one attempt to by-pass imperial control, as well as providing free elementary music education to ‘persons of all estates’.21

    There was more than a hint of anti-semitism in these conflicts. Anton Rubinstein, Jewish-born but an Orthodox convert, was the architect of the Russian Musical Society and the conservatoires. His relationship with his patron, Elena Pavlovna, was prickly at the best of times (he was no diplomat), and their repeated conflicts finally led to his resignation at the beginning of 1867. In the meantime, he had become the butt of two men, the composer Aleksandr Serov and Vladimir Stasov, a prolific art and music critic, patron of ‘The Five’ (the ‘Mighty Handful’), and Berlioz enthusiast. Neither man could stand the other, but both poured contempt on Rubinstein’s attempts, as a ‘foreigner’, to dominate Russian musical life. ‘Mr Rubinstein is a foreigner with nothing in common either with our national character or our art’, wrote Stasov in 1861. Rubinstein had in fact been born in the Russian Empire and thought of himself as a Russian. Serov wrote the following year,‘Thus ... we Russians voluntarily yield to the oppression of talentless foreigners, musical Yankels who, as Gogol put it in Taras Bulba, are ready to "lay bare whole provinces".’22 ‘Foreign’ was by no means invariably a euphemism for ‘Jewish’ in the discourse of the time, but here it almost certainly was.

    Berlioz himself became involuntarily drawn into the rivalries and disputes between the Russians. Rubinstein’s departure from St Petersburg and its musical life in 1867 left both the Conservatoire and the Russian Musical Society without a director. It also left them without a conductor for the society’s orchestra and chorus. Balakirev – the leader of the nationalist ‘Mighty Handful’ and long-time antagonist of Rubinstein – was proposed as a replacement for at least the coming season. Elena Pavlovna was less than enthusiastic and insisted that the board also invite a renowned conductor from abroad to share the season. The board suggested Berlioz and the Grand Duchess visited him when she was in Paris, inviting him to conduct six concerts. He was to be paid 15,000 francs and all travelling expenses would be covered. Berlioz willingly accepted and set off for his triumphant – and uncontroversial – tour only weeks later. The response to Balakirev’s concerts was not so positive, either to the programmes, which contained a high proportion of Russian and ‘modern’ western compositions (Schumann, Liszt and Wagner), or to the performances, which Serov, for one, found ‘limp, characterless, bad’.23

    Berlioz was given an unpleasant reminder of these musical politics some months after he had returned home. He reported indignantly to his friend Stasov that he had been asked to ‘speak ill of a Russian artist’, when Elena Pavlovna was engineering to have Balakirev removed in favour of a German conductor, Max Seifriz.24 Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz had all been invited to recommend Seifriz, but only Berlioz was asked to denigrate Balakirev as well.25 He refused, of course, but the Grand Duchess finally got her way and Balakirev was removed in the spring of 1869, a month after Berlioz’s death. His letter to Stasov, written with some effort in August 1868, was almost the last he ever wrote, and the last of any substance. ‘I feel I am going to die,’ he wrote. He asked Stasov to write to him, if only a few lines, and sent his greetings to Balakirev.

Linda Edmondson



* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the "Interpreting Berlioz" conference, London , 15-17 November 2002.

1. The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, translated and edited by David Cairns (London, 1969), p. 419.

2. Letter to Humbert Ferrand, 8 October1867. Correspondance générale de Berlioz, general editor Pierre Citron, vol. VII, edited by Hugh Macdonald (Paris,2001) p. 603.

3. David Cairns, Berlioz, vol. II, Servitude and Greatness,1832-1869 (London, 1999), pp. 765-73.

4. Robert C. Ridenour, Nationalism, Modernism and Personal Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Russian Music (Ann Arbor, 1977) pp. 5-6.

5. Letter to his sister Adèle, 25 April/7 May 1847. Correspondance générale ed. Pierre Citron, vol. III (Paris, 1978) p. 420.

6. Memoirs, pp. 424-5, 429. Compare Wagner: 'So now I’m in Asia, really in Asia, my child.' Rosamund Bartlett, Wagner in Russia 
(Cambridge, 1995) p. 26. 

7. Memoirs, p. 431. The Moscow censor was not the only one to object to these lines. On the same page Berlioz records the protest of a critic in Dresden after a performance of Faust in 1854.

8. E. H. Carr, The Romantic Exiles. A Nineteenth-Century Portrait Gallery (Harmondsworth, 1968) pp. 14-22; Alexander Herzen My Past and Thoughts, translated by Constance Garnett (London, 1968), vol. II, pp. 590-99.

9. Quoted by Leonard Schapiro, Turgenev: His Life and Times (Oxford, 1978), p. 38.

10. W. Bruce Lincoln, Nicholas I. Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias (Bloomington, Indiana, 1978), p. 47; Anatole G. Mazour, The First Russian Revolution, 1825 (Stanford, 1961,reissue).

11. Lincoln, Nicholas I, p. 135.

12. Ibid. p. 238. Stuart Campbell (ed. and trans.), Russians on Russian Music, 1830-1880(Cambridge, 1994), p. xii.

13. Memoirs, p. 420.

14. Memoirs, p. 29.

15. Quoted by Lincoln, Nicholas I, p. 246.

16. W. Bruce Lincoln, 'The Circle of the Grand Duchess Yelena Pavlovna, 1847-1861', Slavonic and East European Review
vol. 48, no. 3 (1970), pp. 373-87.

17. Caryl Emerson, The Life o Musorgsky (Cambridge, 1999) pp. 37-40.

18. ibid. p. 41.

19. Vladimir Stasov, Selected Essays in Music, translated by Florence Jonas (London, 1968), p. 167.

20. See Ridenour, Nationalism, Modernism and Personal Rivalry.

21. Ibid., p. 127.

22. Both quotations in Campbell, Russians on Russian Music, pp. 74, 81.

23. Ridenour, Nationalism, Modernism and Personal Rivalry, pp. 145-9.

24. Letter to Stasov, 21 August 1868,Correspondance générale, vol, VII, pp. 708-9.

25. Ridenour, Nationalism, Modernism and Personal Rivalry, p.152.

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