Excerpts from Berlioz’s correspondence (on a separate page, in French)
This page is also available in French
CG = Correspondance
CM = Critique musicale (1996- )
NL = Nouvelles lettres de Berlioz, de sa famille, de ses contemporains (2016)
This is an English version of the page in French entitled Mémoires de Berlioz: Extraits de la correspondance du compositeur, which seeks to outline the history of the composition of the Mémoires, and is based primarily on the evidence of the actual Mémoires and of the correspondence of the composer. The original text of the letters has not been reproduced on this page, but links to the individual letters, which are to be found on the French page, are provided throughout. The page is similar in intention and design to a series of other pages on Berlioz’s previous books, the Voyage musical en Allemagne et en Italie (1844), the Soirées de l’orchestre (1852), the Grotesques de la musique (1859) and À Travers chants (1962), but with numerous obvious differences, which are due to the very nature of the Mémoires. Berlioz’s previous books were written by him with a view to immediate publication, and were to a large extent composed of articles previously published by him, though often revised for the new publication. The Mémoires by contrast were from the outset intended only for posthumous publication, and the final version, printed in 1865 but stored away in Berlioz’s study at the Conservatoire (CG no. 3026), was only made available to the general public after the composer’s death. Furthermore, when Berlioz started to write his autobiography in 1848 he could not know what its conclusion would be. His account was intended to be truthful, as the author stressed in his Preface and emphasised in a number of letters to his friends (CG nos. 2186, 2984, 3026), but it was also a work of art that was composed with the greatest care. In his correspondence Berlioz constantly refers to the trouble he took in polishing his writing (CG nos. 2296, 2316, 2864, 2982, 2984, 3002). This was partly a matter of style, but partly also of the organisation, selection and presentation of the subject matter. An artist to his fingertips, Berlioz was anxious to avoid repetition, while still giving a comprehensive view of his career. And finally he needed to find a satisfactory conclusion to his work. The task of composition was to last for years and divides into a number of stages, with more or less extensive pauses in between each of them. In the event the search for a conclusion lasted ten years, from 1854 to 1864, and the writing of the Mémoires was only finally completed in 1865.
Berlioz started to write his Mémoires in 1848. The Preface bears the date 21 March 1848; at the time Berlioz was in London, where he had been appointed conductor of the Drury Lane Theatre. The page on Berlioz in London outlines the circumstances in which the writing of the Mémoires was undertaken, and there is no need to repeat this here. But it is necessary at this point to go back in time to provide an overall view of the origins of the work.
March 1848 was not the real starting point of the writing of the Mémoires. ‘My life is a novel which interests me greatly’, wrote Berlioz to his friend Humbert Ferrand in a letter of 12 June 1833 (CG no. 338). From an early date in his career Berlioz sought to arouse the interest of the public, not only in his music but also in his life, and both came together in the Symphonie fantastique of 1830, in which he was the protagonist in a work which was subtitled ‘Episode in the life of an artist’; the work was soon to receive a sequel in the monodrama Le Retour à la vie, written the following year during his trip to Italy of 1831-1832. Both works were presented together in two concerts at the Conservatoire on 9 and 30 December 1832, and on 23 December, between the two concerts, there appeared in the Revue de Paris a biographical article on Berlioz written by his friend Joseph d’Ortigue, which was itself inspired by an autobiographical sketch provided by Berlioz himself. This sketch provides in summary form a first draft of the early chapters of the future Mémoires, from his childhood at La Côte-Saint-André up to the concert of 9 December at which his idol the actress Harriet Smithson, with whom he had fallen in love in 1827, witnessed the performance of the symphony and the melologue which she had inspired (see the introduction by Pierre René Serna and the document itself on this site). The penultimate paragraph of the autobiographical sketch reads: ‘All this makes this biography read like a novel’. The letter to Ferrand cited above seems to echo these words. More than twenty years later, when the Mémoires were finally completed and printed (though not yet made available to the general public), Berlioz described to Estelle Fornier the work as ‘a historical novel, or rather … a romantic history’ (CG no. 3026; 17 July 1865).
Even before he had left Italy Berlioz started to publish in various journals, from March 1832 onwards, a series of articles which related his experiences in Italy, to which were soon added from June 1833 onwards another series of articles on the competition for the Prix de Rome prize. These series were pursued for several years up to October 1836 (CM I pp. 69-83, 91-7, 99-105, 107-12, 153-65, 211-13, 215-19, 239-44, 313-41; CM II pp. 155-68, 263-70, 521-9, 567-70, 571-5, 577-81).
A few years later, in December 1842, Berlioz undertook a new trip which he had long been planning, this time to Germany, and as soon as he was back he started to publish in the Journal des Débats a series of letters relating that trip; these were reproduced in their entirety in his first book, the Voyage musical en Allemagne et en Italie in two volumes, which appeared soon after in August 1844. The book also reproduced a number of his earlier articles, on the Prix de Rome and the trip to Italy, with in addition a selection of articles of musical criticism and short stories. The work thus combined autobiography, musical criticism and fictional writing, and anticipated his later books, from the Soirées de l’orchestre to the Mémoires, which were to reproduce a great deal of the material of the Voyage musical of 1844.
1848 was for Berlioz a pivotal year, both in his personal life with the death of his father, and in his career as a musician, with all the negative consequences of the revolutions of 1848 which swept Europe. It was also a turning point in his activity as a writer. In January he was contemplating the possibility of an English edition of his first book, the 1844 Voyage musical en Allemagne et en Italie, which would give him the opportunity of revising the work and adding several articles written in the meantime (CG no. 1161; 14 January 1848). The plan was not followed up, and Berlioz seems to have abandoned it fairly quickly. The Preface to the Mémoires, which bears the date ‘London, 21 March 1848’, alludes to the Voyage musical as follows:
A book I published a few years ago, and which is now out of print, contained, together with short stories and excerpts from articles on musical criticism, the narrative of some of my travels. Well-intentioned minds have sometimes expressed the wish that I should revise and complete these disjointed notes.
When Berlioz started to draft his Mémoires the implication was that he now considered that the autobiographical part of his 1844 Voyage musical required not only to be completed, but replaced in the long run by the new work that he was now undertaking on his Mémoires. As is well known, they were going to incorporate a revised version of the Italian chapters of the Voyage musical as well as the ten Letters on his first trip to Germany of 1842-1843. Similarly, the chapters of musical criticism and the short stories in the Voyage musical were later to be absorbed and supplemented in new books that were still to come, from the Soirées de l’orchestre of 1852 to his last collection of essays À Travers chants of 1862. In the long run the Voyage musical of 1844 was due to suffer the same fate as many of the compositions of his early years, from the Messe solennelle of 1824-1825 to the Rob Roy overture of 1832: that of serving as a quarry from which he could draw for the compositions of his mature years (see Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings).
As mentioned above, the Preface to the Mémoires bears the date ‘London, 21 March 1846’. During the following weeks Berlioz drafted the first four chapters, then suddenly, on 10 April, he interrupted his narrative near the end of chapter 4, because of the great demonstration by the Chartists in London which he went to witness. Further down, in a note dated 12 July, he relates how he had been unable to continue his narrative since then and was now returning to Paris, where on 16 July he describes the catastrophic state of affairs after the recent riots. He then decided to resume writing his Mémoires: ‘Examining the past will also help to divert my attention from the present’.
With a few exceptions it does not seem possible to date precisely when the subsequent chapters were written, up to chapter 59, at the end of which Berlioz adds the date ‘Paris, 18 October 1854’. This large group of chapters constitutes the largest part of the Mémoires, and was therefore written between March 1848 and October 1854, though these chapters reproduced in a revised form numerous sections which had already been published elsewhere. Chapter 48, which deals with Benvenuto Cellini in 1838, was written in 1850, as is specified in a footnote added by Berlioz later, at the earliest after 1852. The following chapter, which deals with Roméo et Juliette in 1839, was probably written soon after, but a footnote was added some time after the concert in London of 24 March 1852. Chapter 58, which deals with the year 1848, was written before 1854, as emerges from two footnotes to the chapter which were added in February and August 1854. Similar footnotes were added by Berlioz before October 1854 to chapters dealing with earlier events; see chapter 35, Letter I and Letter IX about the first trip to Germany.
It must be emphasised that Berlioz’s correspondence is of no help in assigning a date to the writing of the various chapters. Berlioz seems to have decided to maintain total silence on his work on the Mémoires for several years, even with his close friends and the members of his family. The first explicit mention of the Mémoires occurs in a letter to Liszt dated 24 January 1854 (CG no. 1696); it shows that he had mentioned the subject recently to Liszt and his circle of friends in Weimar, presumably in the latter part of 1853 (Liszt saw Berlioz in Paris in October of that year, then again in Leipzig in December). Berlioz’s letter is in reply to one from Liszt requesting to see the manuscript of the Mémoires for biographical information; this Berlioz dcclined for the time being, because of concern over the safety of the manuscript. At this point chapter 59 was not yet completed, but probably in the process of being drafted.
The long chapter 59 deals on its own with the whole period from 1849 to October 1854. The tone is now very different from that of the earlier chapters:
I cannot wait to finish these memoirs, writing them is for me almost as tedious and tiring as writing a feuilleton; besides, when I have completed the few more pages that I intend to write, I believe I will have said enough to give a fairly complete idea of the principal events of my life and the range of experiences, activities and sorrows in which I am destined to move… until I stop moving altogether.
The part of the journey that I have yet to travel, however long one may assume it to be, must surely resemble to a great extent the part that I have already travelled.
Continuous narrative, even in summary form, is now out of the question; instead the reader is given a sombre picture of misfortunes and setbacks. First the death of his eldest sister (4 May 1850), then that of his wife Harried Smithson (4 March 1854), after which Berlioz declares:
I have nothing more to say about the two great loves which exercised such a powerful and long influence on my heart and my thoughts. One of these is a childhood memory [Estelle Dubœuf, later Fornier] […] The other love appeared to me with Shakespeare [Harriet Smithson] […].
At this point, after the failure of his attempt in 1848 to make contact with Estelle, it seems that Berlioz was no longer expecting ever to see her again. He continues in chapter 59 with a pessimistic view of his present situation and of his future: the opposition he faces, especially in France and in Paris, his reluctance to undertake a large-scale work for the stage (an allusion to Les Troyens), and even his refusal to pursue the composition of a symphony he heard in a dream. On the other hand he is well received abroad, especially in Germany, and he concludes the chapter by thanking Germany, England and Russia for their welcome, as well as his friends in France and in the world, but pouring all his scorn on the ‘madmen, dogs, stupid bulls … the snakes and insects of every kind’ which he hopes to forget before he dies. The chapter thus ends on an ambiguous note, and leaves many questions in the mind of the reader.
It should be pointed out at this stage that Berlioz’s three other books, the Soirées de l’orchestre, the Grotesques de la musique and À Travers chants, were yet to be written and published, long after the start of the writing of the Mémoires, the first in 1852, the second in 1859 and the third in 1862. All three works contained passages of an autobiographical character, notably in the Soirées the visit to Bonn in August 1845 and the trip to London in 1851; in the Grotesques the trips to Marseille and Lyon in June and July 1845, then to Lille in June 1846, and the visit to Baden-Baden in 1857; and in À Travers chants the trip to Baden-Baden in 1861. All these narrative episodes could well have been included by Berlioz in the Mémoires which he had been drafting since 1848, but he did not do so, and this must have been deliberate. It is as though Berlioz had wanted to relieve the Mémoires of an excess of narrative material which might have upset the economy of his autobiography, and so relegated these episodes to other books where they were better placed.
The date 18 October 1854 written at the end of chapter 59 is significant, though Berlioz does not say so: it was the eve of his wedding with Marie Recio, who had been his companion since at least 1842. Marie Recio is the great absentee from the Mémoires, and has absolutely no place among the ‘great loves’ which influenced Berlioz’s ‘heart and thoughts’. In this first draft of the Mémoires there is only one allusion to her, at the beginning of chapter 51, when Berlioz, relating the start of his musical travels abroad in 1842, confides that he had ‘a travel companion who since then has followed him in his various excursions’. Marie Recio is not named. Her name was to be found in the first version of the 5th Letter about the first trip to Germany, first published in the Journal des Débats (12 September 1843), and reproduced soon after in the Voyage musical of 1844, but it disappears in the corresponding version of the Mémoires. When Berlioz started writing the Mémoires in London in 1848 he was now on his own after Marie Recio’s return to Paris. Thereafter Berlioz tried for a long time to remain quiet about the very existence of the Mémoires, and especially to conceal the fact from Marie Recio, who was now his wife (cf. CG nos. 1965, 1975, 2094bis, 2296, 2325). The wedding of Berlioz and Marie Recio is only mentioned much later, in the Postface of 1864, but out of context and only in connection with her death (13 June 1862) and the transfer of the remains of Harriet Smithson to the Montmartre cemetery in February-March 1864. Right up to the end of the Mémoires Marie Recio remains consigned to anonymity.
Chapter 59 of the Mémoires is the last one to have been given a number by Berlioz: this suggests that at that point Berlioz believed he had brought his continuous narrative to an end. Another indication of this is that Berlioz was now prepared to send a copy of the manuscript to Liszt, in answer to Liszt’s request of the previous year (CG no. 1965); he was also now thinking of the possibility of a German translation of the Mémoires (by Richard Pohl), to be published posthumously, as with the French edition that was suggested by Michel Lévy, the publisher of the Soirées de l’orchestre. But Berlioz had his doubts about his possible translator, and the question of a German edition was left in suspense for the time being (CG nos. 1965, 1975, 1995, 2074, 2094bis).
The following year (1856) Berlioz took another initiative, which at first sight seems rather surprising. Until then he had been very reticent about the existence of the Mémoires, but he was now prepared to show the manuscript to an outsider, Eugène de Mirecourt (this was a pen-name; his real name was Charles Jacquot). His intention was to provide de Mirecourt with biographical information for a short book on the composer in a series called Les Contemporains (Contemporaries). Berlioz lent his manuscript in May but soon asked for it back early in June (CG no. 2134); the book was written in haste within a few weeks and appeared during the summer (the author’s preface is dated 3 August 1856). The complete text of the book may be found on this site, with an introduction outlining what is known of the relations between Berlioz and de Mirecourt.
Berlioz’s decision was probably related to the candidacy he submitted in May 1856 for a seat at the Institut which had just fallen vacant: he was hoping for favourable publicity. He was in fact elected on 21 June, well before the publication of Mirecourt’s book. When it eventually appeared Berlioz was justifiably dissatisfied with the result (CG no. 2186; Post-Scriptum): a hasty and ramshackle compilation, full of mistakes and fiction, it was an example of bad journalism which, despite its good intentions, betrayed both the spirit and the letter of the original. Berlioz must have regretted placing his trust in the author (he never mentions his name, whether in the Mémoires or in his correspondence). But he now added to the Mémoires the Post-Scriptum, which is the text of a long letter, dated 24 May 1856, which he had sent to de Mirecourt in answer to the latter’s request for information. As well as the original manuscript of the Mémoires, de Mirecourt had borrowed a number of elements from this letter (see for example pp. 53-7, 69-70, 82-7 in his book). The complete text of the Post-Scriptum deals more fully with the theme of chapter 59, the obstacles that Berlioz had to face in his career, but adds an important new passage on his musical style.
Two years later Berlioz now stated publicly that his autobiographical work ‘was now completed’ (CG no. 2291, between May and September 1858; see below). It is hard to imagine that this Post-Scriptum was meant to be the last word of the Mémoires, but years were to elapse before Berlioz added anything to the text of his work. He did however continue to add from time to time a few footnotes to bring his existing text up to date (see chapters 16; 46; 48; 53 [end of the chapter]; the Second trip to Germany Letter III; Chapters 54 and 59 footnote 4 and footnote 8).
Initially Berlioz had no intention of publishing his Mémoires in his lifetime (CG no. 1965). But in 1858 he changed his mind. On 13 February 1858 he published in the weekly Le Monde Illustré excerpts of what was to be later chapter 53 of the Mémoires, concerning the large concert he gave in 1844 (see the page Hector Berlioz: Mémoires d’un musicien, with citation of the letters of 1858 and 1859 which deal with it). At first Berlioz did not appear to want to go any further, but a few months later the editor of the journal persuaded him to begin a series of articles of the same kind; they appeared in the journal between 25 September 1858 and 10 September 1859, and consisted of articles excerpted from the existing chapters of the manuscript of the Mémoires. But these were only fragments which, as the title indicated, related to Berlioz’s career as a musician and not his personal life, which he had no intention of publishing in his lifetime (CG nos. 2291, 2332, 2348, cf. 2186). As to why he had now decided to publish part of his Mémoires, he admitted that it was only because he needed the money (CG nos. 2334, 2348).
This publication, though truncated, caused something of a stir, and Richard Pohl suggested to him to have the articles translated into German (CG no. 2355). Berlioz’s reply seems to have been negative, though a few years later Pohl kept pushing the idea, but without success (CG nos. 2663, 2678, in 1862), though he was to publish later (in 1864) his German translations of Berlioz’s other books. Subsequently Berlioz continued to envisage a German translation of the Mémoires (which would be published posthumously, as with the French edition; cf. CG no. 3044). A group of letters of 1866 deal with the plan for a German translation, to be published by Heinze in Leipzig, the publisher of Pohl’s translations of the three other books by Berlioz, but this was to be entrusted to a different translator than Pohl. But the project fell through (CG nos. 3097, 3102, 3103, 3134, 3140, 3146, 3164).
The publication in 1858-9 of the Mémoires d’un musicien raises an intriguing question. This was the first time that Berlioz acknowledged publicly the existence of the Mémoires, which he had begun in London in 1848 and considered in 1858 to be now complete (cf. CG no. 2291, published in part in the Monde illustré of 18 September 1858). It seems highly unlikely that this publication could have long been kept hidden from Marie Recio’s attention, even though Berlioz continued to prefer to keep quiet about the existence of the work (CG nos. 2296, 2325). What may have been Marie Recio’s reaction is not known.
Apart from the correspondence with Richard Pohl in 1862, there does not seem to be any other allusion to the Mémoires in the known letters of Berlioz between 1860 and 1864. In 1858 Berlioz was letting it be understood that the Mémoires were now complete (CG no. 2291, reproduced in the Monde illustré). But in the long run it was not plausible that Berlioz could maintain that position and omit saying anything about his subsequent career and the works he wrote after 1854, notably Béatrice et Bénédict and Les Troyens. A footnote added in 1858 to chapter 59 raises a question concerning this latter work: ‘What is going to happen to this vast work?…’ The question is left without an answer.
In Berlioz’s mind the end of 1863 marked the end of his active career. He had now completed his last opera Béatrice et Bénédict which was successfully staged in August 1862 and 1863 in Baden-Baden, and in April 1863 in Weimar. Les Troyens was staged at last at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in November and December, though in a truncated version. In October Berlioz published his last feuilleton for the Journal des Débats, and finally resigned from the paper in March 1864. Shortly after he wrote to the Grand-Duke of Weimar: ‘My task is now accomplished. Othello’s occupation’s gone […] I am no longer writing any prose, or verse, or any music’ (CG no. 2857; 12 May 1864).
From two letters of Berlioz to his son it is known that in the early months of 1864 — when exactly is uncertain — he had undertaken to write a supplement to his Mémoires, the Postface, which related what was ‘worth telling’ (racontable) in the last ten years of his life after 1854; this supplement was completed before the end of July (CG nos. 2864, 2870). The Postface is not itself precisely dated, unlike chapter 59 and the Post-Scriptum. ‘It is now nearly ten years since I have concluded these memoirs’, he writes at the start, and ends by saying ‘I am now in my sixty-first year’. The chapter begins with an echo of the letter to the Grand-Duke of Weimar: ‘My career is over. Othello’s occupation’s gone’. There follows a summary of the main events in the intervening period, and in particular a long passage on the performances of Les Troyens, then several pages on Béatrice et Bénédict and his last concerts in Germany (Lœwenberg) and in France (Paris, Strasbourg). The Postface concludes with a return to his private life. It mentions first and almost by the way his second marriage (in October 1854!) and the death of his second wife (in 1862), who is still not named, and comes back finally and at greater length to his first wife Harriet Smithson, and the transfer of her remains to the Montmartre cemetery in February-March 1864. The disillusioned tone of the concluding paragraph echoes that of the end of chapter 59: ‘My contempt for the foolishness and dishonesty of men, my hatred for their abominable ferocity, have never been stronger, and I say to death at every moment: « Whenever you are ready ! » What is she waiting for?’
When concluding the Postface Berlioz assured his son that his Mémoires were now truly complete: the narrative of the last ten years ‘closes and brings the work to a definitive conclusion’ (CG no. 2870). Events were soon to contradict that assertion.
The Postface concluded with the disappearance of Berlioz’s two wives*, but throughout the chapter there is no mention of Estelle Fornier, who had played a central role in the composer’s early years and whom Berlioz had briefly seen on his return from Italy in 1832 (Mémoires, chapter 3). In 1848, after the death of his father, he had made a long return visit to Meylan and had tried to resume contact with Estelle, but the letter he wrote to her remained without reply (chapter 58). In 1854, according to chapter 59 of the Mémoires, he apparently did not expect ever to see her again. But footnotes added in 1854 to chapter 58 show that he had nevertheless tried to find out about her on several occasions, and that he knew that she was in fact still alive — which leaves a question in suspense in the mind of the reader, and presumably also in Berlioz’s own mind.
The sequel is well known: in September 1864 Berlioz conceived a wish to travel to Dauphiné, first to Vienne to see his nieces and their father, then to Grenoble and Meylan, in the hope of seeing Estelle again at last: their first meeting after more than thirty years took place in Lyon (23 September). From the moment he returned to Paris he then started a regular correspondence with her, which was to continue until 1868. The narrative of the last months of 1864, a decisive turning point in his life, is contained in the Voyage en Dauphiné, which was written almost immediately after; it bears the date 1 January 1865 and brings the Mémoires to a final close.
According to Berlioz it was Estelle Fornier who suggested to him the idea of finishing his Mémoires (CG no. 2984). Yet at the end of July 1864 Berlioz was still thinking that his Mémoires had already been completed (CG no. 2870): it was therefore Estelle Fornier who encouraged Berlioz to write the Voyage en Dauphiné, in which Estelle becomes once more the central figure that she had been in his early years. The Voyage en Dauphiné comes after the numerous other travels that punctuate the career of Berlioz; they were all musical travels, in Italy, in Germany, in central Europe, in Russia, and in England. But his last travel was no longer a musical journey, but a journey back to his native land; it completed the circle and brought back the two themes that had run through his life: love and music. ‘Why separate the two? They are the two wings of the soul’. The question posed at the end of the Postface now finally receives its answer: Berlioz ‘can now die without bitterness or anger’.
The correspondence of Berlioz for the year 1865 shows the central part by Estelle Fornier in the final drafting of the Mémoires. There is now suddenly an abundance of letters which deal with the Mémoires in detail, but the largest number of these (14 letters) is addressed to Estelle Fornier, and even the intimate confidante of the composer since 1856, Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, comes far behind (4 letters).
Still according to Berlioz, it was also Estelle Fornier who advised him to have the text printed (CG nos. 2984, 2999, 3002). The manuscript was sent to the printer in February 1865 and the printing was finally completed in July (CG nos. 2970, 2976, 2978, 2982, 2984, 2999, 3002, 3006, 3010, 3026). Berlioz sent a copy to Estelle Fornier (CG no. 3030), and during a trip to Geneva in August to pay a visit to her, he made a few supplementary corrections in his own copy (CG no. 3034). In September he had a corrected copy bound which was intended for her (CG no. 3044).
By having the text of the Mémoires of 1865 printed (with a few final additions made after the 1st of January: see chapters 22, 36 and 48), Berlioz fixed his text in an immutable form. He could no longer modify or add to what he had written, should he be tempted to do so, and in this way he protected himself against the risk of seeing a still uncertain future disturb the relative peace in which the Mémoires come to their conclusion.
*Note: Omitted here is the episode of Amélie, known from the later account of Ernest Legouvé in his Souvenirs (Chapter XVI, paragraph 9) and through a letter to Princess Sayn-Wittenstein dated 30 August 1864 (CG no. 2892), but on which Berlioz is completely silent at the beginning of the Voyage en Dauphiné; see David Cairns, Hector Berlioz vol. II (1999) pp. 683-5, 722.
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