Social song and ways of utopia

Par Pierre-René Serna
© 2003 Pierre-René Serna

Translated by Michel Austin
© 2003 Michel Austin

    From the manichean perspective of contemporary ways of thinking Berlioz’s political ideas may appear at first sight imprecise or contradictory. The composer remained devoted to the French revolution and continued to worship the memory of Napoleon. He orchestrated la Marseillaise and took part in the uprising of 1830. And yet in the end he professed his attachment to monarchy and advocated a form of personal power of a higher order, which was at once absolute, enlightened and detached. At the same time he remained faithful to his first convictions, as shown by the variety of songs and marches of a revolutionary spirit which he continued to write to the end of his career. Similarly, and like many of his contemporaries, he was sensitive to the currents of utopian social thinking which permeate and mark the 19th Century from Fourier to Proudhon or Saint-Simon.

    He was accordingly enthusiastic about the socialism of a universal and metaphysical kind which was preached by Saint-Simon, as shown by the letter of 28 July 1831 to "father" Charles Duveyrier, one of the leaders of this secret and initiatory movement. In it Berlioz mentions the "political reorganisation of society" which aimed at "improving the lot of the class that was numerically the largest and the poorest". At the time he shared this infatuation with some of his musical friends: Franz Liszt, the tenor Adolphe Nourrit, his confidant Ferdinand Hiller, his lifelong friend Dominique Tajan-Rogé, but also other acquaintances – Vigny, Balzac, Sand, not to mention the future Napoleon III, who was neither a musician, nor a poet, nor one of his friends. Traces of these views, hidden but unmistakable to those who can identify them, continue to be found in his work, from the unwritten oratorio le Dernier Jour du monde (The Last Day of the World), with its small band of prophets at the forefront of ethical doctrine, as the disciples of Saint-Simon meant to be, up to the late works: the phalanstery scene which opens Act III of les Troyens (the word is used by Berlioz in a letter of 9 October 1854 to his sister Adèle), the cantata le Temple universel (The Universal Temple) which celebrates "freedom… [built] on the ruins of the old despotisms" and the abolition of frontiers, or the Chant des chemins de fer (Song of the railways). One might also point to the social inspiration behind the strike of workers in Act II of Benvenuto Cellini, a scene that is unique in opera, and to the solemn call to peace between peoples that concludes Roméo et Juliette. At the end of his life Berlioz also seemed to be attracted to another utopian ideology, of a political, medical and religious kind, that was promulgated by Vriès, a doctor, and for which he wrote the Hymne pour la Consécration du nouveau tabernacle (Hymn for the Consecration of the New Tabernacle).

    The Chant des chemins de fer was commissioned by the city of Lille for the inauguration of the new railway station, which was the former Gare du Nord transported from Paris stone by stone, and a major staging point on the new railway line which linked Paris and Brussels. In Berlioz’s career all his works arose out of an inner compulsion; commissions are exceptional, and as in the case of the Requiem or the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, they came at his own instigation. We should not therefore be misled by the pretext for the Chant des chemins de fer, which can only be the result of circumstances. In fact Berlioz did not hesitate to suspend momentarily work on his great project of the moment, la Damnation de Faust, to devote himself to it for "three nights", according to his correspondence. The spirit of the cantata, which includes refrains and verses as the form required, is a faithful reflection of the ideas of Saint-Simon in which the composer’s aspirations were immersed. This is demonstrated by the text of Janin (a journalist who was a friend of Berlioz and a well known follower of Saint-Simon), which like the Masonic undertones of The Magic Flute can be read in two ways. At first sight it seems to consist of straightforward commemorative verses, at once conventional and naïve, in the style of official French celebrations of the XIXth century. But at the outset, after the urgent chords of the orchestra, the first words sung by the tenor already imply a different interpretation and establish the intention: the "grand jour" (great day) is in fact a transposition of Saint-Simon’s grand soir (great evening), the advent of a new society. Immediately after, like a swelling rumour, the people of "workers" mentioned by the text grows in power to the sound of celebratory music ("peuple ouvrier" were the words used by the librettists Alfred de Vigny, Auguste Barbier and Léon de Wailly, all of them ardent followers of Saint-Simon, during the strike in Benvenuto Cellini). The other words, which speak of the "soldiers of peace" (the workmen) whose "crown is ready" in order to celebrate their "victory", "the people who throng together", the "human labour", "the greater, more beautiful future" and the "wonders of industry", are equally imbued with the influence of Saint-Simon (industry and industrial were key words in the social theories of Saint-Simon, symbols of technical progress whose mission it was to save humanity and lead it to divine transcendence). The words call forth rapturous music, and in the refrain and the first two verses the chorus intones alert and dynamic strains over an orchestral accompaniment full of bounce. There follows a shortened repeat of the refrain which prepares its triumphant return. And then the last verse, in the form of a coda, with the religious inspiration of its verses (already foreshadowed by the quiet prayer of the third verse which floats over seraphic strings), and treated musically as a grandiose chorale which expands to mystical dimensions, finally proclaims the convictions of the two authors of the cantata. There is no ambiguity for anyone aware of their ideological journey.

Pierre-René Serna
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NOTE

* This text was originally written for the inaugural concert of "Lille 2004", the European capital of culture, given by the Orchestre national de Lille conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus on 6 December 2003.

Hector Berlioz : Chant des chemins de fer, for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra; H 110; words by Jules Janin; composed in June 1846; first performed on 14 June 1846 for the inauguration of Lille railway station. Duration approximately 9 minutes.

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