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Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions

Hamilton Harty on Berlioz (1928)

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    On 17 December 1928 a meeting was held in London by a group of musicians and critics to discuss the subject of Berlioz. The participants and contributors were Percy C. Buck, M. D. Calvocoressi, Hubert J. Foss, Harvey Grace, Sir Hamilton Harty, Percy A. Scholes and Bernard von Dieren. The meeting was chaired by Edwin Evans. A full report of the meeting was published the following year under the title Berlioz. Being the report of a discussion held on December 17, 1928. (Oxford University Press 1929 [43 pp.]). See on this site the summary report on this publication by Michael Wright.

    Not all of the contributions were of equal weight and interest: at the time, knowledge and understanding of Berlioz among the general music public in Britain still had some way to go, as the report reveals. But the meeting was itself an indication of the interest in the composer that had been developing in the country during the 1920s. This growing interest was to a large extent due to the central participant in the discussion, Sir Hamilton Harty, who was introduced by the editor Edwin Evans as Berlioz’s ‘doughty champion’ (p. 1). Since his appointment in 1920 as permanent conductor of the Hallé orchestra in Manchester, Harty had been actively promoting Berlioz to audiences in Manchester and elsewhere by giving a series of performances of Berlioz’s major works: this is explicitly mentioned in the discussion.

    The following page reproduces excerpts from the discussion, and is limited to the two most significant contributions: first that of Sir Hamilton Harty himself who recounts his own experiences of performing the music of Berlioz, and second that of Bernard van Dieren, who, while fully acknowledging Harty’s key role in promoting the composer in Britain, pertinently questions Harty’s own central contentions — that Berlioz’s genius ‘was in reality more literary than musical’ (p. 10) and that his music ‘is, more than any other music, essentially programme music’ (p  11). ‘I could bear to listen to much of his music without knowing its literary and poetic implications’ (p. 13).

    Such views are questionable, and it is disconcerting to find a genuine champion of Berlioz conceding at the outset ideas which one might expect him to combat. Harty seems to be starting from a common view of music as falling into one of two categories: music is either ‘pure’ or ‘absolute music’, or it is ‘programme music’, of which Berlioz is often supposed to have been the inventor. In practice the distinction does not work: all the vast abundance of music that is set to words (such as melodies for single voices, choral works, and operas) does not fall into either category, and this includes the largest part of Berlioz’s output. As far as programme music is concerned, the Symphonie fantastique is the only work for which Berlioz wrote a programme, and in the second edition of the work (1855) Berlioz specified that it was not necessary to include the programme when the work was played on its own without its sequel, Lélio, ou le retour à la vie. Only the titles of the five movements need be included, as the author hoped ‘that the symphony provided on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention’. Neither Harold en Italie nor the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale have any ‘programme’ beyond the title of the different movements; they can hardly be described as ‘programme music’, any more than Debussy’s La Mer, where each movement similarly has no more than a title, and the work as a whole bears the subtitle ‘Three symphonic sketches’. The same applies to all Berlioz’s overtures. The overtures Benvenuto Cellini, le Carnaval romain and Béatrice et Bénédict are symphonic pieces constructed from music drawn from the operas concerned, and do not have any ‘programme’. In this they are exactly comparable to the overtures to Weber’s Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon.

    On the subject of ‘programme music’ and the misconceptions attached to it, whether in general or concerning Berlioz specifically, the reader may be referred e.g. to Tom Wotton, Hector Berlioz (1935) pp. 83-5, 96-8; Jacques Barzun, Berlioz and the Romantic Century I (1950), pp. 170-98; David Cairns, Berlioz. The Making of an Artist I (1999), pp. 362-9 (French edition [2002], I pp. 409-17); Dominique Catteau, Hector Berlioz ou la philosophie artiste I (2001), pp. 160-6.

Sir Hamilton Harty (pp. 9-19, 37-8)

    […] Sir Hamilton Harty said that it was obvious that music which had lasted so many years as that of Berlioz and which still gave rise to so much sharp disagreement must at laeast possess a certain vitality.

    ‘There is no half-way house with regard to Berlioz’, said Sir Hamilton. ‘You are either enraptured by his music or its bitter enemy. Those who dislike it seem to base their objections on the fact that in essentials Berlioz is like no other composer. To those of us who love him that is his chief glory. All the other great composers seem to possess some connecting link between them, that is, they base their practice of the art on a common understanding of a certain underlying principle. I suppose that a definition of that principle would be that music, whatever form it takes, should be logical and explainable in purely musical terms. Wagner’s music, for instance, though it was intended by the composer to be only part of a larger scheme in which other arts should have their place, still can be listened to, criticized, dissected, and logically explained purely as music.

    ‘This, I believe, is impossible in the case of Berlioz. I am prepared to agree that viewed as abstract music, Berlioz’s music is often absurdly poor and unimportant, but what his critics cannot appreciate is that it is often designedly so. Viewed from a purely musical point of view, Berlioz has no right to the title of great or even good composer. Whether he was conscious of it or not, his object was not to write great music but to be a great poet to whom music would serve as an extra illumination of certain emotions and moods.

    ‘To put it roughly, his genius was in reality more literary than musical. I am sure that this is the great stumbling block for those who have not fallen under the spell of his music. They will persist in the well-worn criticism of his melody, the weakness of his harmony, the occasional blatancy of his colour, with all the other technical shortcomings it has become usual to attribute to Berlioz. These criticisms are probably quite justified from a narrowly musical point of view, but, to those who really understand and appreciate the individual genius of Berlioz, they mean nothing at all.

    ‘Music is often a lying art in the hands of those who put musical necessity first. Berlioz’s music may often seem extravagant, even to those who admire him, but it is always truthful and sincere, for, in order to be faithful to an emotion or a thought not naturally translatable into music, Berlioz may appear to do violence to ordinarily accepted musical conventions. His works are full of instances of purely musical effect sacrificed for the sake of what seemed to him greater essential needs. There is little of his music which can really be termed abstract music. It is, more than any other music, essentially programme music.

    ‘Berlioz is more readily understood by the musically uneducated than by others who, before they can really understand him, are obliged to throw over many convictions planted in their minds by a long line of composers who possess certain basic principles.

    ‘So one continually sees the strange contrast, which I have often noted performing his works, of an audience frankly enthusiastic and a body of critics solidly hostile. During the last nine or ten years most of Berlioz’s important works have been presented by me in Manchester, and I think that it is likely that no one else in the country has studied his works at first hand as earnestly as I have.

    ‘The impression left on my mind is that Berlioz by reason of his complete originality is one of the greatest figures in musical history, but that he will always require from his interpreters and from his hearers a considerable measure of imagination. Unfortunately, to a great number of musical people the exercise of such imagination is not possible when it involves flouting principles which have hitherto been regarded as essential to great music. They will stretch the principles, but are not prepared in Berlioz’s case to jettison them entirely.

    ‘Yet I am convinced that a proper understanding of Berlioz is only to be gained by those who are willing to suspend their ordinary laws of judgement. After all, it is rather hard for a musician to believe that there can be anything more important in a composer’s work than the actual musical value of what he writes. Nevertheless, this is true, I think, of Berlioz. I do not think I could bear to listen to much of his music without knowing its literary and poetic implications. The love music in Romeo and Juliet would be a long and tedious stretch of thin music if one did not listen to it with the scene and the words of Shakespeare before one’s mind. But to a musician how beautiful is the love scene when heard not actually, but through the poet’s mind of Berlioz! Most of us are musicians simply because emotions come to us most poignantly through the medium of music. For myself, I have never felt the loveliness of that wonderful music — either in reading it or in seeing it played — as I have done in hearing it translated entirely in sound by Berlioz. It seems to me that there are no limits to the charm and sweetness of Shakespeare’s language or to the grace and beauty and youth of Juliet and of Romeo.

    ‘And yet the music itself is of thin and not very passionate texture. But it has that mysterious power of suggesting beautiful things which is, I think, the real secret of Berlioz. It is hard to define the exact quality of his music which is responsible for giving this impression. Sometimes it is the very quality of the tone of a certain instrument which seems to establish in a magical sort of way the link between the listener and a peculiar emotion or picture; sometimes it is a particular rhythm; sometimes things even more obvious.

    ‘Certainly I know that his most beautiful and impressive effects are often produced by means which are entirely unmusical, that is, as we understand the word. The opening of the first allegro in the Fantastic Symphony, for example, is often quoted as a peculiarly inept attempt at harmonization by the composer. It consists, of course, of a long, floating melody in the violin accompanied here and there by a few jerky disjointed notes on the double basses. The composer’s intention is to contrast the purity and grace and beauty of his beloved with his own baseness and awkwardness, and when it is listened to with that picture in the mind, the ordinary methods which would have been employed by another type of composer seem impossible in the case of Berlioz.

    ‘The Waltz later on is not in truth a very fine piece of music in itself. But it suggests with fidelity the kind of salon in which Berlioz might expect to meet the inspirer of his passion. The “March to the Scaffold” may seem to some to be nothing but a blur of vulgar noise. To me it is a vivid and terrifying picture of the French Revolution, with its tumbrils and guillotines and bloodthirsty processions to the scaffold. I mention this work in particular because it is more or less familiar. Other yet more important works are still unknown to us here and our only means of studying them is for the most part through the medium of a piano score. Some composers sound well enough when played on the piano — Wagner, for instance — but poor Berlioz loses everything in the process. It is quite astonishing the way his most inspired things will sound like the meanderings of a dull tedious amateur, enormously stupid and conceited, when divorced from the orchestra.

    ‘A number of severe critics of his works all the same have had no other means of forming an opinion as regards the value of most of Berlioz’s music. A few weeks ago I produced The Trojans at Carthage at Manchester. It had never been heard in London, or certainly not by this generation. The reception was enthusiastic, the criticism all more or less hostile. As usual they were all based on the assumption that, as Berlioz did not write music like other composers, therefore his work was a dull failure. I was sad that not one of these critics had seen what beauties lay behind the conventionally disappointing music.

    ‘The famous sextet [septet] was to them “a mere simple part song such as is sung at village choir reunions”. So it is, of course, but it is probably the style of music which might be sung by any gathering of guests unskilled in music. It is not by means of this that Berlioz wished to paint his picture of night in the gardens by the sea, but in the twinkling of the stars on the waters, translated so truthfully by the flutes and oboes, and the occasional soft boom of the bass drum and horns which makes one conscious of the heavy breakers on the distant beach. A more complicated and deeply emotional sextet itself would merely get in the way of a perfect picture.

    ‘The end of that opera resembles the end of The Ring. In that the scene is much the same. Dido, like Brünnhilde, brings all her distresses to the funeral pyre. But there the resemblance ends. At this culminating moment in her tragedy, Brünnhilde becomes more and more musically passionate and effective. Dido, on the other hand, becomes more and more truthful to life and indifferent to musical effect. Most of her final scene is written in low, indistinct accents, as if she were revolving in her own mind all the circle of her weariness and sorrow and was almost dead to the world and its considerations. Her final words, “thus may a Queen descend to a tomb”, could not be more dejected and spiritless. There is no musical satisfaction here — and yet, regarded from another and, I think, a higher point of view, her end is a thousand times more touching and more noble than Brünnhilde’s. But no critic found this anything more than a proof that Berlioz’s gifts were failing when he wrote those pages. The opposite was, I am certain, the case. The Trojans, however, is full of instances of definite and obvious refusal on the part of Berlioz to make a conventionally satisfying musical effect at the expense of real living truth.

    ‘It is not my intention to give further examples — these were selected at random — but in reality all Berlioz’s music is based on the same underlying principle; it merely becomes more definite and unmistakable in his later works.

    ‘I regard myself as a practical musician as level-minded as most others, and my admiration of the extraordinarily original gifts of Berlioz does not blind me in any way as regards other composers of a far greater — if more narrowly musical — type, and many years’ absorption in the work of Berlioz has only caused me to love and admire his music more and more as I have comprehended it better.

    ‘I think that I might end by combining a general appeal for patience in the appraisal of Berlioz with a hope that the exquisite pleasure I have derived from him might become more universal.’

[pp. 37-8]

    […] Sir Hamilton Harty said he was a little despondent at the tone of some of the speeches he had heard that evening. What he wanted to find out was why Berlioz appealed to him and to his orchestra and to his audiences.

    ‘With regard to his works I must tell you that the performances given by my orchestra of the Fantastic Symphony have not always been good. We were conscious of certain defects in our work until I became so interested that I set about to study the life of Berlioz, his times, and every single thing I could find about him. Then I went to the extent of telling my orchestra what I had studied. The result was that after that they began to play Berlioz in a way that made me feel as I have felt for no other music. More than that, the audience responded. You must know Berlioz’s period and understand it before you can appreciate his music.

    ‘For the most part this discussion seems to have avoided the question whether Berlioz was in himself a really great musician, or whether he was a poet and the chief joy and pleasure of his music is to be gained through a knowledge of his literary associations.

    ‘There is something magical and unexplainable in the very way he can suggest those literary implications. In a musical way, according to the lines upon which I have been brought up as a musician, I must confess that he is disappointing on occasions. It is a part of his originality that he can make me and my audience feel that we love his music, but I have not discovered why it is that I love this music.’

Bernard van Dieren (pp. 22-28)

    Mr Bernard van Dieren, who followed, said that while he did not altogether agree with some of the things Sir Hamilton Harty had said, he wished to point out first of all how great a debt they all owed Sir Hamilton, who was the first musician in this country whose love for Berlioz’s work had been demonstrated in a practical and effective way. Berlioz was one of those unfortunates about whom everybody talked and whose works very few knew. Some fifteen years ago hardly any musician in this country had heard any work of Berlioz except Faust and the fragments from Romeo and Juliet. Sir Hamilton’s energy and talent had changed the situation, and to-day one only wished that he were doing in London what he did in Manchester. Even now, how many in the room knew Berlioz’s Fugues or the score of Le Corsaire?

   With regard to the questioned musicianship of Berlioz — he did not hesitate to say that, contrary to accepted notions, Berlioz was with the sole exception of Mozart the composer with the most stupendous native gifts of the last few centuries.

    So far from attempting to do great work without having learnt the use of his tools, and dismissing the necessity of traditional technique, Berlioz, who had a great admiration for technical proficiency, obtained a command of it that, under the circumstances, was only possible for the most exceptional musical genius. This and his amazing originality could only be properly appreciated if one considered that, although he was born in a small and isolated village, he arrived in Paris with very definite notions of what he wanted to do musically. It was wrong to say he had not been ‘through the mill’. He went through all the courses at the Conservatoire; he obtained the Prix de Rome in spite of the pundits’ hostility; he consorted with musicians, and in a humble capacity performed in an orchestra and in a theatre choir. Players liked him and regarded him not as an outsider but very much as one of them: to the extent of later often giving him their time for extra rehearsal! In fact, Berlioz had (as Wagner grudgingly acknowledged) an astonishing gift for catching the popular ear. (‘Stuff that every fellow in a blue blouse wants to join in singing!’) Professional critics, on the other hand, then, as now, were mostly hostile. His intensely personal conception of harmony troubled them for one thing, but there is no finality in such matters, and Berlioz always knew perfectly well what he did and why.

    Critics also complained that Berlioz depended too much on colour. But why should colour not be acceptable as a principle of construction? Superstition looks upon the setting down of symmetrical phrases on paper as a great feat! But could not a perfectly balanced structure be also attained with colour and timbre instead of line? Berlioz could give linear form to his music with a sure enough hand, but over and above he discovered how to impart organic coherence by means of colour. The originality and musical value of this achievement was, however, wasted on people who knew his work mainly from piano extracts. His great merit was that he built up a personal and new idiom; that with no tradition to help him in this respect he formed a medium that was logically as perfectly sound as any other. No one had ever achieved so much single-handed. Surely this alone already showed a practically unequalled musicianship.

    ‘You have heard,’ said Mr van Dieren, ‘of Mozart’s celebrated feat of giving a notation of Allegri’s Miserere. But here is a good instance of a partial interpretation of happenings. It was not done at a first hearing, but after careful preparation. He heard it six times, helped and prompted by his very capable father, and even then his notation was so full of mistakes that his father destroyed the tentative score after the Pope had explained to the Archduke that the singers relied on memory and tradition. There were, therefore, legitimate excuses for Mozart, but none the less we see that it was wise to be wary of reputed feats of technical prowess in music. Those of Berlioz, on the other hand, are there for everybody to judge! In spite of all parental opposition, of mediocre early tuition, and of pronounced diplomatic hostility in Paris, the medical student from an obscure village in the South of France, unaided, carried through a revolution in music and created a new idiom that lives to-day. He was the real inventor of orchestral sonority as we know it. You may speak of Wagner, but he learnt from Liszt, and Liszt learnt from Berlioz. Wagner’s own contribution was the idea to let all available instruments play the same thing, but Berlioz first freed himself from tyrannical conventions while substituting something better. He was the first deliberately to construct music with orchestral timbres.’

    Sir Hamilton had made a point of Berlioz’s quality being mainly literary. ‘That’, Mr van Dieren said, ‘is a great heresy. Berlioz did not depend on literary implications. From a Shakespearean scene, for instance, he sucked all the music. We may feel deeply moved by twenty lines of Shakespeare, but how could the words in ordinary use from which they are made up be moving? It is the hidden music in them that makes them so. Berlioz gives us this, and as music pure that stands by its own merits. He does not make a scenario of the love-scene from Romeo and Juliet; he finds the hidden music behind it. That is the work of genius as it would be of the man who loves a woman and reveals her loveliness to others in a musical structure whose qualities derive from the intensity of the emotions.

    ‘One frequently hears that Berlioz started with enormous energy and magnificent ideas, and then became tired and empty, and soon completely collapsed. We are told that he could not sustain his first ardour, and that he ended with writing pedantic and conventional stuff which constitutes a recantation of his earlier conceptions. Nothing is more inaccurate. He started as a musician with stupendous virtuosity who could not yet completely translate his spiritual intensity into terms of music. As his musical application grew to be more precise, he produced his greatest work, and the very last of it shows the most perfect balance, the most perfectly conceived structure; it had become the wholly satisfactory and direct translation into music of his human emotions. His orchestration not only excelled in colour; along with that it had all the subtly pulsing power tempo can impart. At the same time, his line and the balanced proportions of his building need fear no comparison. The Trojans — his last opera — shows him, in addition to all this, to be the one composer of his time who could write for the voice without ever sacrificing anything of his dramatic intentions. Of this work one might say that he has actually achieved in it all that Wagner tried to do, while leaving undone all that has rightly provoked the severest censure of the Wagnerian manner.’

    The one great trouble with Berlioz remained always, in Mr van Dieren’s opinion, that his work was so little known that discussion stuck in partisan lines, and neglected the actual facts. Thus we owed so much to Sir Hamilton Harty who presented the works to us, while others only presented arguments.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997;
Page Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions created on 15 March 2012; this page created on 1st August 2019.

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