Hans von Bülow
Two articles of 1852 on Benvenuto Cellini
© 2012 Michel Austin for the English translation
This page presents an English translation (by Michel Austin) of the original German text of two articles on Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini, written at the suggestion of Liszt by his pupil Hans von Bülow in March 1852, in connection with the revival of the opera in Weimar, and published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik on 2 April and 30 April 1852. A French translation (also by Michel Austin) is available on a separate page, as is the original German text from the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.
Two points should be noted: (1) Both articles are unsigned, though they are without doubt by Bülow, and it was common knowledge that he was their author (see e.g. a letter of Liszt to Wagner of 7 April 1852, a letter of Bülow to Uhlig of 22 April, and a letter of Wagner to Liszt of 8 September); (2) The end of the first article announces two more articles, on the text and on the music, but only one article follows. The end of the second article promises a third and concluding article, but none follows and if written it appears not to have been published; it is not clear why.
Neue Zeitschrift für Musik vol. 36, no. 14, 2 April 1852, pp. 156-9
News from Weimar.
Benvenuto Cellini, opera in four acts, libretto translated from the French by A. F. Riccius. Music by Hector Berlioz.
On March 20th the first performance, long-awaited and much talked-about, of a dramatic work by a French composer took place at the court theatre of Weimar, and it was followed on the 24th by its first repeat. Despite all the opposition he has faced at home, this composer is deservedly celebrated as the hero of instrumental music of his country, and though there is a great divergence of views among German musicians about the merits of his compositions in this field, he has in recent times earned for himself, in the eyes of all experts on this side of the Rhine, the status of a leading authority thanks to his brilliant achievements in the art of modern orchestration. Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz’s only opera, should already have been staged here on February 16th, and for the first time in Germany, to celebrate the birthday of the Grand-Duchess [of Weimar]. The regrettable delay in the performance is to be ascribed to the persistent indisposition of the leading singer, but perhaps also in part to the fairly open hostility displayed towards the initiative of Franz Liszt by others whose cooperation for the project was unfortunately indispensable.
It may not be superfluous to take this opportunity to dispel a rumour disseminated by those who are fundamentally opposed to any manifestation of Liszt’s artistic activity in Weimar. Some have tried to spread the lie in several journals that the reason for the delay was to be ascribed to the immense difficulties presented by Berlioz’s work, particularly for the singers, difficulties which threatened to ruin their voices completely, which had not been properly appreciated beforehand and only became clear once rehearsals started. There is no truth in any of this. So long as there are operatic composers whose works have a higher dramatic purpose than merely titillating the ear, and who give priority to that purpose instead of being content with donkey-work aimed at displaying vocal virtuosity that is inappropriate in a musical drama, then the old and constantly renewed complaint is heard, though it is merely a poor disguise for the vanity of singers and the laziness of performers. Composers of operas who have belonged to this more elevated tendency, Gluck, Spontini, Weber and others, have all had to suffer from this intractable problem, and Berlioz, despite a few transgressions against this tendency which weigh on the conscience of those who have blackmailed him into making such concessions, belongs with Benvenuto Cellini in the company of such composers and at heart he is manifestly a follower of Gluck’s principles. The complaint that the music of Cellini is too strenuous and possibly even damaging for the singers is in particularly bad taste, for the simple reason that Berlioz’s work is written almost throughout in the style that is approprite for a comic opera and does not exceed the duration of two and a half hours. This fact caused the management of the great Paris Opéra (the first performance of Benvenuto Cellini was given in this theatre in September 1838) to have Cellini followed by a large ballet in five acts, which was less of a dessert to the opera than the opera was an entrée to the ballet. Besides, a close study of the score easily demonstrates that all the vocal parts have been written with the greatest consideration and restraint from the point of view of the singers, their range is kept within the appropriate and natural limits of each voice, and above all there is great discretion in the orchestral accompaniment of all solo and ensemble pieces where there is no chorus. To give just one example: Berlioz will have nothing to do with the shameful misuse of trombones which you find in the new French comic operas of Auber and Adam, and keeps these instruments silent for the whole of the first act. — This therefore disposes of the assertion that more frequent performances of Berlioz’s opera would result in damage to the voices of the performers on the stage; that is just empty talk. The music of Cellini is not of exhausting length, nor does it require exceptional stamina to cope with intense passion as is often the case with tragic operas. Compared with the exertions which are demanded from singers in many a favourite modern opera, it seems even comfortable without thereby being any less rewarding. On the other hand it is true that Berlioz’s music requires from the performers a solid musical education and intelligence capable of coping with the special characteristics of such an individual personality (for example his uncommon rhythms, their variety and vitality, the originality of his melodic writing), and of conveying in performance the spirit of the composer. But anyone who has difficulty in apprehending the spirit of a composer like Berlioz will also find it difficult to follow the letter of his work. The point is that Berlioz, in his relationship with the public (and the performers of the work are the first public of a composer), belongs to those of whom Custine says qu’il faut de l’esprit pour leur en trouver [to find wit in them you need to have wit yourself].
The difficulties of Cellini diminish considerably when looked at more closely, though up to a point they are undeniable in comparison with the usual run-of-the-mill theatre operas for which routine rehearsals are sufficient. But given Liszt’s zealous efforts and the praiseworthy commitment on the part of the orchestra in particular, three weeks were comfortably sufficient to overcome these difficulties completely as regards all those involved in the performance. Thus no German theatre can plausibly use the pretext of the alleged difficulties of Cellini to avoid following the example given by the court theatre of Weimar.
Let us first deal with the usual questions about the performance of the work in question, its reception by the audience etc. before we discuss it as a whole and in detail.
While the opening evening of a new opera carries with it many risks and almost always takes on the character of a general rehearsal that arouses greater or lesser confidence, the very first performance of Benvenuto Cellini never failed to demonstrate what are the chief requirements of a correct performance of Berlioz’s music: precision and accuracy in the rendering of nuances. Here our valiant court orchestra covered itself with glory and raised itself to the level of a band of virtuoso players, which is what Berlioz’s orchestral writing demands. Equal praise should be given to the performance of the choral sections which in many places are very complicated. As far as individual performers are concerned, let us mention first M. Beck (Cellini), whose personality both as actor and as singer showed itself to be in general fairly well suited to this role; the dedication he brought to it and his capabilities have already achieved a satisfactory result, but if he could identify somewhat more closely with the character, which he interprets rather one-sidedly as too serious, ponderous and verging on the morose, then he could turn Cellini into one of the finest of his star-roles. — Next to M. Beck, Mme Milde (Teresa, Cellini’s beloved) was particularly fine. From an acting point of view her part is rather less prominent than the others, but through the charm of her singing she was able to make it so interesting (and it is true that Berlioz has provided the role of Teresa as well with brilliant and rewarding music), that we found more than enough reason not to regret the non-return of the Lark from Leipzig. This she achieved through her expressive delivery and also through her coloratura-singing, which though it does not have the pretensions of a diva is nevertheless pleasant and graceful. — In the opera the part of Fieramosca, Cellini’s rival, is not characterised objectively but presented outright by his rival as that of a miserable weakling and a boastful coward. M. Milde who sang it with his customary musicality was greeted with thunderous applause for the excellent and witty performance of his aria in the second act, though he was not able to adjust his talent, which is primarily suited to heroic roles, to move from the tragic to the comic. — One cannot hold this against him: ne forçons point notre talent [do not push your talent too far] is a rule which artists should take to heart. In general the criticism of a lack of vis comica [feeling for comedy], though to some extent lessened by the special nature of this comic element (we shall say more of this later) applies fundamentally to all the members of the present company: most of all to M. Mayerhofer (Balducci, the papal treasurer, father of Teresa), whose performance simply did not do justice to what one can expect of him, and least of all to Mlle Wolff, who in the part of Ascanio, Cellini’s assistant, showed great naturalness in her acting, and in her singing demonstrated great progress in using her pleasant voice, to which she had not yet done justice in her début as Emmeline six months ago. M. Höfer’s musical intelligence is too modest to enable him to sustain a part such as that of Cardinal Salviati, whose entry as a deus ex machina in Act III determines the progress of the action, but who is presented musically as a pompous representative of his church; his performance leaves many pious wishes unfulfilled, but at least he was adequate and did not ruin the work. The same can also be said of the few smaller subsidiary roles.
As regards the new sets, stage arrangements, the pageantry in the carnival etc. the production was outwardly extremely brilliant and only aroused in us regret at the miserly stinginess and occasional negligence shown by the management in the case of other operas in the current repertoire, in which the dramatic action is not subordinated to the music to the same degree as it is in Benvenuto Cellini.
The musical direction of the whole project was without doubt the most difficult, and particularly here in Weimar, the most thankless part of the task. We do not believe that apart from the composer himself any other currently active conductor could be so equal to it as Franz Liszt. To single him out for special praise would be like ‘bringing owls to Athens’, or to give the saying a local slant, ‘bringing court-advisers to Athens on the Ilm’.
As for the public, how did it respond to the event? — The attitude of the public weighs without doubt heavily in the balance in the natural development of thriving artistic institutions, and above all of questions relating to art, but does it not also come within the realm of criticism? If a public claims for itself the ultimate right to pronounce on works of art and artistic achievements, and demands that the dispensing of praise or blame, fame or oblivion should be its highest recompense (and that is the case), then the expert in artistic matters is also fully justified in criticising the attitude of the public and investigating whether this self-appointed supreme judge is at all capable of judgement and whether the sentences it has passed are wrong or true. The theatre-going public of today bears in any case everywhere a heavy responsibility for the worthlessness of all our theatres, and so particularly of our operas. With few exceptions one is therefore justified in having the strongest doubts about its competence to pass judgement on artistic matters: the many-headed monster is largely headless in spite of having many heads, and its chief predicate is that short adjective which rhymes with its last syllable [?]. The theatre-going public of Weimar is actually neither better nor worse than any other; in the course of time the purifying and stimulating influence of Liszt’s artistic activity has even witnessed the emergence of a small minority which displays decidedly good taste and is interested in something higher than the mere pleasure of being entertained. But here as everywhere else the majority remains incapable of any enjoyment that requires of it more than the passive behaviour of a horse going to the manger, and is incapable of taking delight in anything that does not reflect its own mediocrity; in addition it is full of prejudice, distrustful and what is more, devoid of critical opinion and passion. Now this public, which we have described in unflattering but truthful terms, attended the first performance of Cellini in a state of mind that was a mixture of natural curiosity and unfavourable prejudice frequently stirred up against the new work, thanks to the local press which automatically thinks it a good idea to take in advance a negative view of any manifestation of Liszt’s activity in Weimar. ‘They are daring to produce for us an opera which fell in Paris, an opera which will clearly ruin the voice of our favourite singers’: that is roughly the gist of these prejudices. It is easy to understand that a public in this frame of mind cannot be made to feel at home in Berlioz’s music or be fired up by it. On the contrary, except for those pieces that are lighter and more frivolous in character and for the two overtures, which were vigorously applauded, people felt very uncomfortable, out of their depth, and made to feel odd. The first performance of Cellini was therefore received rather coldly and in silence; yet the listeners gave the visible impression that they were burdened against their will with a work which had not only been imposed on them but was also imposing, and for this they were not prepared. But the second performance, rather more sparsely attended, passed by with the liveliest welcome being given to all the musical numbers and the highlights of the drama. Many a visitor to the repeat performance had occasion to modify substantially his first, too-hastily conceived impression of the work. A third performance, which it is hoped will come soon, will do the rest, that is to say bring at least in part to the work the recognition it deserves, for as the Paris critic Joseph d’Ortigue says, to understand this opera not just one but ten first performances would hardly suffice. Cellini could never become popular on our stage; the story, though entertaining, offers too little to arrest attention and no single exciting and gripping moment, and so all the fire and drive of Berlioz’s music cannot electrify the public. But the opera will, to use the technical term, keep its place in the repertoire.
On various sides it has been thought curious and surprising, and there has been a good deal of idle speculation on the subject, that Liszt should have recommended and staged in Weimar an opera by Berlioz which had ‘fallen’ fifteen years ago in Paris after three performances and had been set aside. But first, the failure of an opera in one particular place cannot in any way be the basis for judging its worth. It would be an interesting task to list all the masterpieces which the public thought fit to reject at their first performance; here we can mention briefly Don Giovanni, Figaro, The Barber of Seville, Euryanthe and we would like to complete this list on another occasion. Further, the failure of a work by a celebrated composer at the Paris Opéra can only recommend it to someone who knows what successes there mean. There is the additional circumstance that Benvenuto Cellini only had three performances in Paris, far fewer, that is, than many a fallen opera which receives so many performances before its burial that the larger part of the public has made its views clear and confirmed beyond appeal its initial negative verdict. But Berlioz’s opera fell victim in Paris to a coterie, the offshoot of that three-headed and rabid Cerberus, which for the last two decades has been jealously guarding the entrance to the great Paris Opéra. And the noble three-headed monster behaved very wisely in keeping at a distance a rival who could be very dangerous. Benvenuto Cellini is a work which despite much that is unedifying has in it more artistic worth, far more imagination, nobility and originality, than the world-famous works of those creatures. Benvenuto Cellini would probably have had successors that might have become even more dangerous; a new attempt under such ignominious conditions as the first time would probably have repelled Berlioz (for example the libretto was imposed on him) and Cellini remained his only work for the stage. Liszt’s enterprise in producing on a German stage after an interval of fifteen years an opera which had failed in Paris does not therefore require any justification. On the contrary, we see this as a fine act of justice on the part of an individual to make amends for the injustice of the general public and of a whole nation. It is no less a cause for rejoicing that it is a German stage that has provided the setting for this action; the reason why Berlioz is not recognised in his own country is that there is too much German blood in him, and should art then be confined to the narrow limits of one’s own country?
The staging of Cellini by Liszt in Weimar is a solemn protest against the complete neglect and lack of understanding shown to an artist like Berlioz who is so closely related to the German spirit. Cellini is not a dramatic work of art in the higher sense of the word, it is perhaps only a dramatic study by a musical genius. But genius cannot be denied to Berlioz: the compelling inner creativity, the originality and novelty, the energy and power, the free and complete independence of style, which we find in his works, mark these with the stamp of genius. Cellini is a work in which the genius of Berlioz is so concisely manifested, that the understanding of his spirit depends to a large extent on an understanding of his opera. Here, there and elsewhere one may hear a symphony or an overture by Berlioz as a rarity: to have organised for the first time in Weimar the performance of a larger work of his such as Cellini is indisputably to the credit of Liszt, an honour for Weimar, which may not receive recognition here but in truth is no less great for that.
We proceed now to a detailed examination of the opera itself, first the libretto, and then the music.
(To be continued.)
Neue Zeitschrift für Musik vol. 36, no. 18, 30 April 1852, pp. 204-8
News from Weimar.
Benvenuto Cellini, opera in four acts, translated from the French, by Hector Berlioz.
In the previous article we have questioned whether Cellini, taken as a whole, can be described as a work of art in the higher sense of the word. We now wish to justify this view in more detail.
It would be a complete misunderstanding to interpret our doubts as amounting to a questioning or even belittling of the high artistic value of the musical part of the opera, as it would be to equate them with the banal, ill-considered and more than cheap criticisms of the semi-literate who accuse Berlioz’s music of incoherence and eccentricity, when they themselves are not intelligent enough to understand its unity and originality.
In expressing this view we are not siding either with the opinion of those who, without providing any arguments, question whether Berlioz’s talent includes the ability to write dramatic works, and seek to present Cellini as an instrumental work, in which the vocal parts of the characters in the opera serve only as a decorative element to add to the range of tonal colours of the orchestra.
To deserve the title of a dramatic work of art, an opera must satisfy requirements quite different from demonstrating the absence of the musical shortcomings mentioned above, which do not obscure the brilliance of Berlioz’s work. The chief prerequisite for a musical drama is and remains above all the correct relationship between poet and composer, whether through its subject and treatment the opera belongs to the category of comic or tragic opera. This fundamental requirement was admittedly not demanded at the time of the composition and first performance of the work in Paris, as the faulty conception of what opera should be was then in full bloom, and its absence is what essentially prevents us from declaring Cellini to be a work of art in the higher sense of the word.
The faulty relationship of the two elements in the opera is, it should be said, by no means as obvious as in a large number of other operas. We have in mind naturally the original libretto in French by Messrs. Léon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier, since the German translation of M. Riccius, for all the dedication and thought that it may gone into it, and for all the relative merit that may be granted to it, remains nevertheless a flat lemonade of a translation. This libretto can show a number of good qualities in comparison with the majority of the more recent examples of the genre; it can therefore not be rejected out of hand, even though it must bear the main responsibility for the shortcomings which prevent Cellini from being elevated to the rank of a work of art in the higher sense, considering the undeniable and fatal circumstance that it came before the composition of the work.
In practice the libretto of Cellini deserves in more than one respect to be praised rather than blamed. The chosen subject is a noble and worthy one. The hero is an artist; his personality is as interesting in itself as it has been made remarkable in the history of his time through his memoirs; his name has acquired lasting fame through the monumental works of art that he has bequeathed to posterity. The time of the action, the sixteenth century, during which, in private life at least, human passions had scope to express themselves and had not yet been robbed of their poetry by the influence of the Reformation, and the scene of the action, the eternal city, also provide the hero with a setting that is as favourable as possible. For educated Germans this hero has become almost popular through the masterly translation of his memoirs by the ‘great heathen’ [?]. The episode taken from Cellini’s life, that of the casting of the statue of Perseus, belongs more to epic than to drama through the circumstances that surround and hinder the completion of Cellini’s masterpiece. The manner in which this episode is exploited and turned into one of the leading dramatic themes of the work constitutes one of the chief shortcomings of the libretto. But the Opera semi-seria also contains other ingredients and other leading ideas, from which there is one that we would like to single out, and the fact that the coarse multitude probably cannot understand it in the first place and then is unlikely to enjoy it particulary, should not help to discredit it. On the other hand this idea will not be unwelcome to those who are genuinely artistically-minded, and they will know how to treasure it. Concerning the attitude of a genuine artist we naturally assume that he does not make the error of overestimating himself, and is freer still from the vice of envy, that is to say that he does not invoke to his advantage the application of the principle in question, when artistic genius does not justify his pretension, and that, should it be the case that in the end he comes to realise his own inferiority, he does not use that as a reason to combat the validity of this principle in the case of superior and more gifted artists. This principle is quite simply that of the exceptional status of the artist in the social and political sphere, which can be broadened to mean in general the entitlement of an aristocracy of the mind to certain privileges, the exercise of which involves a temporary suspension of the so-called rule of law, and which therefore should never be extended to become the privileges of an entire guild, but in every case should only be conceded to particular individuals.
In Cellini the matter presents itself as follows: during the carnival Cellini abducts his beloved, the daughter of the papal treasurer Balducci and during the confusion of the crowd he kills a bully (Pompeo) who had been sent to oppose him by his cowardly rival Fieramosca, who was intending to turn to his own use Cellini’s abduction plan by changing his clothes to deceive him. After this deed Cellini manages to save himself and in the meantime his friends and disciples bring to his house his beloved. But as the pair is reunited and begin to make their preparations for escape, their flight is prevented by the arrival of the father of the abducted lady and of his rival who comes forward accusing Cellini of the murder of his friend. The temperament of the hero makes us admittedly hope that after exhausting all means of reaching an amicable agreement he will find some way or other of getting rid of his two opponents — but the unexpected arrival of Cardinal Salviati at the workshop of Cellini cuts off any attempt at a rescue. It is an artistic motive that is bringing the Cardinal to Cellini: he has come to find out about the progress of the commission made to his client, the completion of the statue of Perseus ordered by the Pope, for which he has already made many advances of money to encourage the somewhat love-distracted artist. But the forceful complaints of the enemies of Cellini he finds here, turn the benevolent patron of the artist suddenly into a stern judge of Cellini the man. Then Cellini confronts him, deeply incensed at this separation of the man from the artist, of the artist from his work and from art in general, and filled with a high sense of his worth as priest of a revelation of the divine, which began already then to claim at least as much respect as any other revealed religion. In his righteous anger Cellini is prepared to destroy his work of art with a blow of the hammer, should the Cardinal carry out his threat to entrust the completion of his work to someone else and to treat its creator as a criminal. Against his will the priest of religion is struck with awe at the priest of art, and inside the Cardinal’s soul the serene Greek spirit wins over the Roman spirit of strict state authority. On condition that Cellini completes his work of art before the following evening, the Cardinal grants him pardon for his transgression, and secures a promise from Balducci that he will obtain the hand of his daughter. After many struggles and against all obstacles and accidents Cellini fulfills this condition.
If we draw the moral from this, it presumably has to be the following: art stands above all morality, and the artist, the worthy priest of his art, has, whatever his behaviour otherwise, a justified claim to a higher worth than the plain good man and citizen. The life of an artist is of greater importance than that of anyone who is not an artist; one may already say that the existence of a number of different human atoms is not too high a price to pay for the existence of a great work of art, and if there is no sensible and convincing refutation of this assertion, then there is even less objection to be made to the requirement that the artist, the possessor of that creative power which could produce an indefinite number of works of art, should enjoy certain privileges in civil society, and — why should that not include also a qualified impunity for some transgressions he may have committed against that society? But however logical and justified it may appear that an exceptional person, such as one endowed with artistic talent, should therefore be entitled to an exceptional position in life, we are nevertheless prepared for the fact than many in the public feel obliged to protest against the more than just theoretical view that the artist stands outside the law. This is a completely natural consequence of the distorted attitude which our modern public has become accustomed to take towards the artist. So as not to encourage the appearance that we wanted to hound to death the public as the bête noire of our time, let us admit straightaway that the responsibility for the distorted relationship with the public lies with the artist himself.
Since Rossini the artist has laid down the dictatorship in the realm of music and handed it over to the public. The public no longer enjoys music naively as it used to but has turned into a carping critic — naturally, as it knows thoroughly by heart the stereotyped objects of its enjoyment and now examines the work it has ordered — anything not ordered by it will be rejected out of hand — to see whether it satisfies or not the requirements it demands of it. This carping, pleasure-seeking public that is incapable of enjoyment has become the legislator, in place of the artist who produces the work but has actually been degraded to the level of a manual worker. Disdain, even complete contempt for the artist on the part of the public as a reward for the rejection of the artist, in other words his subordination to the taste and whims of a public that is incapable of imagination even in what it demands, that is again a completely natural consequence. The modern artist must ‘amuse’, he must ‘dispel’ the conventional ‘boredom’ that was endured for propriety’s sake by the classical masters, in whose time the relationship was a different one, art exists to ‘generate pleasure’, a work of art should be ‘pleasing’, and in general the artist should play the part of a ‘glorified clown’. What are the prospects for the worth and sacredness of art and its priests, when ‘aesthetes’ accept without shame this role of clown, when ‘art critics’ preach openly these maxims as the only valid ones and seek to give them a theoretical justification!
We have introduced this unpleasant but very truthful description as an incidental digression, though it is not directly related to the object of our review, because it takes us indirectly to a more specific and clearer discussion of the thesis presented at the beginning of this article. When we declared that Benvenuto Cellini was not a work of art in the higher sense of the word, this means for us that as a work of art it is too incomplete and flawed as a whole to satisfy the public of the future, but too noble and imaginative to be acceptable to the public of the present. We have previously outlined the gist of the action, which is simple, clear, and natural; similarly for the delineation of individual characters, and the situations are highly dramatic; the style and expression are warm, lively and full of fresh and witty humour. With good qualities such as these, which unfortunately are not always immediately obvious, the public would have had no good reason to claim it was not satisfied — admittedly the German translation has weakened though not removed these qualities — and all the less so as on another occasion it shows its incompetence by reacting unhesitatingly with toleration. We are also convinced that the libretto of Cellini, coupled with music say by Flotow, could have been very well received and brilliantly effective. The principle of Flotow, to achieve through musical expression a level of banality that cannot be reached by words alone, would have encouraged greater indulgence for the libretto and the action, for their lack of modern materialism and its appropriate quota of sentimentality. In the reverse case one might put up better with Berlioz’s music, in spite of its inventiveness and freedom from triviality, if as the hero of the opera, in place of the noble and passionate artistic personality of a real figure from the history of art we were dealing with, say, a crazy historical tailor with the temperament of a mythical pubkeeper [?], if in place of the scenes from the Roman carnival the more spicy thé dansant of dead nuns or the like would delight the eye or the tasteless imagination of the viewer, etc.
That imbalance between libretto and music which, from what has been said, manifests itself ironically for someone who bases his views on the impression of the work on the public, is not actually identical with what serious criticism can censure. After drawing attention to the positive qualities of the libretto we would like to bring out clearly its shortcomings, without in the process applying the point of view of the music drama of the future to an opera written fifteen years ago. The chief fault lies in the way material which is serviceable in itself has been treated. The whole drama has been too casually conceived and bears all too clearly the mark of a dramatised excerpt from a book of memoirs. It is true that the law of unity of time and space is not violated by the successive introduction of scenes and tableaux which for example might only share individual characters and have no casual relationship with each other, and indeed a very significant episode in the life of Cellini has been chosen, the casting of Perseus, his masterpiece, and this event, or this artistic achievement — whatever name you want to call it by — provides the central thread which runs through the whole drama. Further, it is only the names of the acting and supporting characters which have been taken from Cellini’s memoirs (Cardinal Salviati, Ascanio, Balducci, Fieramosca, Pompeo), but they have otherwise been freely adapted and fused with each other, the setting of the casting of Perseus has been transposed from Florence to Rome etc., all just to serve the requirements of the drama. But despite meritorious effort the drama as a whole has not succeeded in removing these anecdotal elements and condensing the material to a certain unity of form. One of the chief flaws in the form that we must censure here is the division in 4 tableaux (which constitute 4 acts in the production on the Weimar stage, whereas in Paris each act comprised two tableaux). The aesthetic necessity of dividing any dramatic work in 3 or possibly 5 acts is so obviously inherent in the nature of drama in general, and has often been demonstrated where appropriate in these pages, that we do not need to waste any more words on it, and no intelligent person will accuse a law of nature of pedantry. The best criticism of the division in acts is given by the action, and the content of the individual acts makes this obvious. In most cases it will be felt that in the two-act drama one act is missing, that part of the action precedes the first act, or may also be only the exposition, or has been displaced to the intermediary act, or that it has been artificially connected with another part. — Whereas in the four-act drama there is an unnecessary expansion or separation of elements that belong together, or there is a superfluous appendage. Occasionally the lowering or raising of the curtain may succeed in mitigating this flaw, just as there are operas in three acts in which one act is genuinely missing and another one is completely superfluous. The four tableaux of Cellini constitute a real obstacle to the effectiveness of the whole opera; in the second act the real catastrophe, the abduction of Teresa and the murder of Pompeo by Cellini, has already taken place, while in the third the knot has been untied, in so far as it is appropriate to speak of one, in that Cardinal Salviati has been transformed by Cellini from a diabolus ex machina to a deus ex machina and has guaranteed him pardon for what has happened on condition of completing with all speed his work of art. Cellini’s character and personality do not leave us for one moment in any doubt as to the outcome. Apart from the fact that the casting of Perseus is in no way appropriate for dramatic performance, since whatever interest Cellini the artist can arouse personally, an imitation of a casting furnace cannot in any way involve any theatre-goer who does not just listen to the music, — it is for that reason completely unnecessary for Cellini to fulfill in actual reality and before the eyes of the viewer the injunction of his patron to complete his work of art. After the third act one is just as satisfied about the outcome of the drama as at the end of Der Freischütz when no one asks to be particularly informed in another act to follow about how the trial year granted by the hermit to the young huntsman Max has been spent. The librettist of Cellini has presumably had some inkling of the flatness of the final tableau and it has not escaped him that there was a danger that la fin découronne l’œuvre [the end uncrowns the work], since he has visibly tried the enliven it with a number of changing situations and small incidents, and to limit this semblance of activity as much as possible. But in vain. The fourth act is a significant drawback for the overall effect, and were we in the position to advise the composer to carry out a partial revision of the work, to improve it, enhance its worth and make it easier to appreciate, then we would vote without hesitation for the complete removal of the fourth act or tableau, and only to retain the conclusion, the casting of the statue, and transpose it to the third act, the effectiveness of which would thereby be significantly enhanced. The fourth tableau is a patchwork and even for the purely musical listener so fatiguing that it is difficult for him to enjoy it in view of the beauties of the final scene. — It would also be no less advisable in such a revision to develop the first act and give the action more variety, in particular to give the opportunity to add depth to the character of the hero; at present it is somewhat thin and deals only with Cellini’s abduction plans and their overhearing by his rival.
This then leads to another chief flaw of Cellini, which we only want to mention briefly, because in view of the characteristics popularised by the libretto and music of modern operas, we do this only conditionally and would not wish to give the impression that we were in any way sanctioning an unjust criticism of the public that is based on bad motives. It is that the drama of Cellini does not have anything that is truly moving and arresting, and is unable to generate any overwhelming excitement, while the music can justly lay claim to these qualities. The people demands of a drama that it should exhibit general human passions; the private passions and individual character of a hero who has the status of an artist (a status which unfortunately continues to be one apart) are remote from it and can only arouse its undivided interest when they are translated to a general level. In addition, the action of Cellini is in contradiction with the hero: the latter is altogether subjective, while the former is almost typically objective. For a composer bursting with such a profusion of musical ideas as Berlioz, the poetical foundation available to him could seem at times to be insufficient. Hence his frequent and always excusable attempt to raise and enhance the value and significance of the drama by his own musical means, in such a way that the means and aims of expressiveness often get confused with each other or at least are not kept sufficiently separate; his purpose is to enable the general public to understand, that is to grasp the feeling of the work as a whole. But the music of Berlioz is in general of such a subjective character, that the capacity to grasp the feeling is made even more difficult, particularly since there is no foundation to the criticism that Berlioz has transposed the whole drama into the orchestra. He has merely assisted the drama by musical means, which is either better or worse depending on the point of view. The character of Teresa has been rather neglected by the librettist, as she appears under the very general mask of a fairly conventional ‘loving sweetheart’ whose active role is not very interesting; for the interest of the drama the composer has made her attractive and individualised her through musical means, and similarly he has elevated objectively the rather unremarkable artistic patron Cardinal Salviati to become the bearer of the whole pomp and pageantry of the church that rules the world. But this frequent substitution of Berliozian humour for the purely objective comedy of the situation, which at times deliberaly disdains to make a greater impact or restricts it without the composer intending this, remains a lasting obstacle for the popularity of Cellini. Cellini may perhaps gain for itself a significant minority, but it will never win over the majority. As the aim of every minority is to become eventually a majority, so in truth for today the highest possible praise for us is to declare: Cellini is a work for the minority, but less so for tomorrow, on which we in the end count or hope very positively.
It would take us much too far if we wanted in a mere review to commit to paper all the thoughts which have been suggested to us by the audition and examination of a new musical composition, and illustrate them with examples taken from the opera. We therefore pause here to give space to a detailed review of the musical part of the work in relation to its dramatic unfolding.
(To be concluded.)
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 15 July 2012.
© 2012-2013 Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights reserved.
Back to Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions
Back to Contemporary Performances and Articles page
Back to Home Page