Some notes on Berlioz, Liszt & Wagner

by

Hugh Macdonald

© 1962-2012 Hugh Macdonald

Granta, 10 March 1962, pp. 31-34

    We are most grateful to Hugh Macdonald for granting us permission to reproduce this article on this page. At the time the article was published Professor Macdonald was a doctoral student reading Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge – it is the very first article that he published. Granta was founded by students at Cambridge University in 1889, it ceased publication in the 1970s due to financial difficulties; a new publication, Granta Magazine, later succeeded it . We have not been able to contact the editors of the original Granta to obtain their permission.

Ask Ernest Newman’s P.M.M. (Plain Musical Man) in 1845 to name the two greatest living composers and he’ll give the following answers: in Paris: — Rossini and Meyerbeer; in Leipzig: — Schumann and Mendelssohn; in Rome: — Rossini and Donizetti; in Vienna: — Donizetti and Nicolai, or perhaps Lortzing; in London: — Mendelssohn and probably Mendelssohn again for good measure. Mendelssohn and Rossini have it, since we must bear in mind the relative inferiority of Rome as a musical centre compared with Paris; even Vienna had sadly lapsed since its golden age, and the two central German cities, Leipzig and Dresden, had come into prominence largely due to the vicissitudes of music publishing. Paris never lost its reputation as the pinnacle of every composer’s ambition, particularly in the field of opera, although by all accounts the standard of production and singing at the Opéra was not unlike the present day — (and there’s still no immediate prospect of improvement). Another centre of activity was the fashionable salons where Chopin and Liszt and their less successful rivals held dilettante audiences enthralled. In our present-day concern with currents of creative activity rather than of taste, we easily overlook such men as Paganini and Meyerbeer whose works have now faded from the repertoire, but who in their own time were the most glorious representatives of two facets of their art.

Remembering that Rossini retired from active composition at an early age, the deaths of Mendelssohn in 1847 and Chopin in 1849, both still in their thirties, must have made the immediate future of music look a little barren, for there were few who could predict who the great composers of the ’50’s would be. Our P.M.M. would think of Berlioz as a Parisian music critic, Liszt as a virtuoso pianist, and Wagner as a conductor. Yet the careers of these three men were to interact in such a way as to produce, within a single decade, works that both embraced and fulfilled the whole romantic ethos thitherto, and also laid the cornerstone of a thousand and one divergent styles and formulas since.

Applying the give-or-take-one method to Mendelssohn and Chopin it would be convenient, for more than one reason, to select 1848 as the date by which all the spadework of romanticism had been done. That Schumann survived another eight years might be considered (by all except Brahms lovers) a misfortune; for his latter years were divided between the composition of larger and less characteristic symphonic works and periods of drastic mental breakdown. His pioneer work as a critic and his completely personal miniatures belong to a much earlier date. Dying an early and consumptive death was not a vogue that was limited to music by any means in that day and age, but it did perhaps contribute in this instance to a musical revolution that parallels very closely the political upheavals of this very date. Without going further into the relation between musical and political ideas than to point out that romanticism itself was a late outcrop of political and social revolution, it could perhaps be maintained that this particular revolution offers the best possible example of this interrelation. For Wagner found himself involved in seditious activity in Dresden, after six years there as Hofkapellmeister, and was expelled from Germany. The change in the character of his music was now to be complete, and from this dates the crystallization of his theory of music.

Before he left, he called at Weimar to pay a visit on Liszt, who, as a further indication of the Zeitgeist, had renounced his career as the world’s greatest pianist and settled in a relatively obscure (as far as music was concerned) Saxon town with a new mistress and the ambition to establish his name as a composer. He had met Wagner in Paris in 1840, heard Rienzi in Dresden in 1844, and conducted Tannhäuser in Weimar in 1849, yet he was still almost unaware of the new Wagner that was emerging. Even after reading the two pamphlets “The Artwork of the Future” and “Art and Revolution” in 1849 he still regarded him as one of a host of German composers trying to make a name for themselves, though having a style and a forceful personality of his own. That was sufficient, he urged, that Wagner should try to get Lohengrin, his newest opera, accepted at the Paris Opéra. However in 1850 there occurred in Liszt’s mind a complete change of attitude. Wagner’s persistent requests for money had perhaps previously been merely a burden, but now that he directly asked him to produce Lohengrin at Weimar, Liszt suddenly realised, on closer inspection of the score, that Wagner was perhaps the composer in whose hands the future of music rested, (a view that had been in Wagner’s mind for a much longer period) and in addition it would be possible thereby to put Weimar fairly and squarely on the musical map, much to the satisfaction of his employer, the Grand Duke. “You are the only man” wrote Wagner “to whom I would address this request. To no one but you would I entrust the creation of this opera; but to you I deliver it unconditionally, joyfully, calmly. Produce it where you will, even if it is only in Weimar.” Liszt replied that he was willing to place himself completely in his service, “you can place complete confidence in me, you can listen to what I have to say, and can believe me as one who is frankly devoted to you without any reservation whatever.”

In spite of Liszt’s effusiveness, there is no hint that by championing Wagner (and incidentally making him the most talked of musician in Germany), he would in any way withdraw his support from other composers. Like Schumann, he was as generous towards his fellow musicians as it is possible for a musician to be, and his total recognition of Wagner as the driving force in German music did not interfere with his admiration for Berlioz, that dated from their first acquaintance almost exactly ten years before Liszt and Wagner first met. It is not necessary to compare him with Wagner to see what a magnanimous and generous spirit Liszt in fact was. Out of the hedging and verbal cross-talk of his correspondence with Wagner, it appears that Liszt staged Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in Weimar early in 1852 partly out of his genuine appreciation of the opera’s worth and sympathy with Berlioz over the disastrous première at the Opéra in 1838, partly because he would not have Berlioz believe that his championing of Wagner and the enormous vogue of both Tannhäuser and Lohengrin after the Weimar productions implied any weakening of their mutual ties. And if Liszt’s relations with Wagner at this stage were becoming noticeably warmer, he was no less sympathetic towards Berlioz.

Berlioz had no use for autograph collectors — he described them as “gens albominables” [sic]and either threw letters away when he had answered them or else destroyed them in bulk at the end of his life when the death of his only son moved him to sever some of the few remaining ties with his former existence. Consequently the Liszt-Berlioz correspondence, like the everyone-else-Berlioz correspondence, is a one-sided affair, and there is no proof that the letters Liszt preserved represent all that Berlioz wrote to him. But the first two date from December, 1830, a few days after their first meeting, and there is one or perhaps two every year until 1852 when, after the Cellini performances in March and its enthusiastic reception in Weimar, they correspond every three or four weeks without interruption for four years. Berlioz’s spirit was completely renewed by this revival of his opéra malvenu, as he called it. Large parts of it he entirely recast to make it more serviceable on stage, and was finally free to go to Weimar in November of that year when several other of his works were performed as well.

To Liszt, although he regarded Wagner and Berlioz as the most potent musical spirits of the time, this was part of an extended programme, made possible by the success of Lohengrin, consisting of works by contemporaries, Raff, Bülow, Schumann, and Cornelius, and including such curiosities as Schubert’s opera Alfonso and Estrella. He had himself embarked on the composition of his Symphonic Poems which in many points of style form a link between the early Berlioz and the new Wagner that was now rapidly developing. When the Damnation of Faust was published in 1854, it appeared with the dedication “à Franz Liszt”, a compliment that Liszt returned in 1856 with his own Faust Symphony. Also from 1852-3 dates the Piano Sonata, possibly the finest of his numerous works for his own instrument. As a further appreciation of Berlioz’s music a long eulogy of Harold in Italy in particular and Berlioz’s method in general appeared in the “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” in 1854. He organised a Berlioz-Woche in February, 1855, and another a year later, both of which delighted Berlioz and convinced him yet again of the futility of Parisian musical life. But it is at this stage that the relationship of the two men begins to change and assume a different emphasis. The most important character in this, as in so many of Liszt’s dealings, was his égérie, the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, a formidable woman with intellectual pretensions and reputed to be the greatest cigar smoker of the nineteenth century. Without any great musical knowledge or ability she clearly probed deeply into Berlioz’s mind during his visits to Weimar, and extracted from him the promise to undertake an opera on a scale that hitherto only Wagner had contemplated. The idea of an opera based on Virgil had presumably been at the back of his mind all his life, and in spite of all his better judgments and perfectly aware of the impasse into which it would lead him, he was sufficiently fired with the idea to embark on The Trojans on his return to Paris in the spring of 1856. From this moment there begins a lively correspondence with the Princess, relating the gradual creation of the opera over a period of two years and continuing afterwards as late as 1867. But with Liszt his correspondence suffered a sudden slackening. Liszt was outwardly no more convinced of Wagner’s greatness than he had been over the last four years, but it is possible that his incessant playing of Wagner’s works on the piano (an instrument Berlioz disliked listening to as much as writing for) had failed to win him over as Liszt hoped. Even a cursory glance at the gigantic score that Berlioz was about to undertake shows that it owes little or nothing to the style of the even more gigantic scores that Wagner was currently working on. A hint of a possible rift (if indeed there was a rift) is given by Berlioz to his friend Morel on May 23rd, 1856: “There were some extraordinary scenes at Weimar over Wagner’s Lohengrin, but it is too long a tale to write…” Edmond Hippeau, when engaged on a biography of Berlioz in 1882, wrote to Liszt to enquire about this very matter and received the following reply:

“De l’année 1829 à 64 mes relations avec Berlioz furent les plus simples. Entière admiration de ma part; cordialité de la sienne. Ainsi à Paris et Weimar, où je tiens à l’honneur d’avoir fait représenter et dirigé son Benvenuto Cellini — oeuvre admirable, magnifique, du plus vif coloris et rhythme, surabondante de mélodies non fades, dont je souhaite la glorieuse rehabilitation à Paris…

Après 64, sans sotte brouille personnelle, la question alors brûlante Wagner (très attiédie maintenant) mit un froid entre Berlioz et moi. Il ne pensait pas que Wagner soit comme le destin du drame musical de l’Allemagne, dépassant Beethoven et Weber.”

At least then there was an estrangement; but if, as Liszt says, the cause was a difference of opinion on the Wagner question a date as late as 1864 is unlikely since that particular sore point was attiédie even then, certainly as far as Berlioz and Liszt were concerned. But although there is a gap of as much as two years in their correspondence from 1856 to 1858, it continued sporadically afterwards, and the Princess was in constant touch with Berlioz. Only is Wagner mentioned in a cursory, strictly factual, tone: “I hear he’s settling in Florence; understandable. I don’t know Switzerland, but I prefer Italy.” Rather bewildering train of thought this, and the subject is immediately changed to the inexhaustible topic of musical small talk.

August Göllerich, who was born early enough (to his lasting satisfaction) to break into the Liszt circle in the 1880’s, badgered his hero about every aspect of his earlier life, including his relations with Berlioz. In reply Liszt recalled the early 1850’s when he had played Berlioz the slow movement of his Faust Symphony; Berlioz was — “I promise you” — moved to tears. But, said Liszt, “since the Graner Mass, when he directly intrigued against me, war es aus zwischen uns.” Now the Graner Mass was completed in 1855, so no doubt Berlioz had this too played at him on the piano at Weimar. And its style betrayed, in Berlioz’s opinion, a type of religiosity that was as hollow and meaningless as the whole Abbé façade that Liszt now assumed. Curiously enough there are many moments in this work which it would be reasonable to assume, from our knowledge of Berlioz’s own religious works, that he would have delighted in. But the “intrigue” must refer to the occasion in March, 1866, when Liszt came to Paris to conduct this work. It was a great success, but Berlioz wrote to Ferrand next day: “Quelle négation de l’art!” “It wounded and upset me,” recounted Liszt “how Berlioz and d’Ortigue treated me, since they maintained that the Graner Mass contained unresolved dissonances. I once asked them to dinner and produced for dessert the score of the work with the request that they should point out the dissonances. They were completely dumbfounded.” Other sources tell us that, rather than quarrel, Berlioz left. On another occasion when Liszt was conducting one of his symphonic poems in the Salle Erard, Berlioz left in the middle with the comment “the negation of music.” There may be some anecdotal confusion here.

The Princess at once started lecturing Berlioz on musical aesthetics, the one subject on which he would accept no persuasion from one so obviously bigoted as she was. “You propound in regard to music,” he replied “a paradoxical theory of ancestry and descendance, which, if you will allow me to say so, is palpably absurd and libellous to me. It is as if you were to accuse me, with philosophic calm, of being a liar and a thief. This made me indignant. I passionately admire several works by descendants and I heartily detest several illustrious ancestors given over to the production of ugliness and falsity, old Ganymedes who have been pouring out tepid water all their lives and calling it Nectar. Times, epochs, nationalities, periods, are all the same to me. Nothing would be easier than to prove that to you. But let us forget about these systems designed for the needs of a single cause, we might just as well discuss theology…

“You are kind enough to ask me what I am doing, thinking, and reading. I do nothing but endure my incessant pain and my unfathomable ennui. Night and day I wonder whether I will die in great pain or in slight pain; for I am not so foolish as to suppose I could die without pain…”

This turning against the other’s work appears to have been mutual, for Liszt told Göllerich that although he had once championed the Symphonie Fantastique, with time he was gradually less impressed by it, since it was all in an irritated, overexcited mood. The best movement, he thought, was the third. The Damnation of Faust contained, for him, some very fine bits, but on the whole he did not like it. With this very real difference of opinion on the subject that concerned them more than any, their conversation and correspondence in the ten years 1856-66 must have been severely limited. In November, 1859 Berlioz attempted to get Liszt elected to the Institute. “Is it as a composer or as a virtuoso that you are presenting M. Liszt?” he was asked. “As everything,” he replied, “Does that satisfy you?” But this attempt failed (Verdi was nominated instead), although Liszt subsequently became a foreign member of the Académie des Beaux Arts. And it was a cordial gesture in return for a similarly unavailing attempt to get Berlioz appointed Generalmusikdirektor at Dresden in 1854. When Liszt came to Paris in 1864, Berlioz wrote to Ferrand: “Liszt has been spending a week in Paris; we dined together twice, and as musical conversation was prudently avoided, we passed some charming hours. He has gone back to Rome where he is playing the music of the future to the Pope — who wants to know what it means.”

Reference to his continual bad health, as in the letter to the Princess quoted above, is an almost constant feature of Berlioz’s letters in the last ten years of his life. He very nearly died in the autumn of 1859 and never fully recovered. No wonder Liszt (and others) found him irascible towards the end of his life. Perhaps this fact also gives Beatrice and Benedict, his last work, an almost unearthly quality, as it were the voice from beyond the grave, but it does emphasise too the position of The Trojans as the climax of his creative activity, and in spite of momentary predilections for his other major works (such as the much quoted reference to the Requiem in 1867) there can be no doubt that he regarded this amalgam of all the monumental, Virgilian, Shakespearean, dramatic, and lyrical features of his previous work as his greatest contribution to musical art. He could then die content, were it not for the infamous world into which he had brought this opera. He would have been even more convinced of its greatness if he had ever seen it worthily staged. The view that some critics have expounded that Berlioz reached his zenith in the 1830’s with the Requiem and Romeo and Juliet is usually based on closer acquaintance with these works than with his later ones and his supposed rate of composition. “In the ’50’s” wrote Romain Rolland in “Musiciens d’aujourd’hui”, “it was not that he had lost any of his artistic mastery; on the contrary, his compositions became more and more finished; and nothing in his earlier work attained the pure beauty of some of the pages of L’Enfance du Christ or of The Trojans. But he was losing his power; and his intense feeling, his revolutionary ideas, and his inspiration (which in his youth had taken the place of the confidence he lacked) were failing him… He groped his way hesitantly and unsteadily; he hardly understood what he was doing… One might say that his genius become a stranger to him: it was the mechanical work of an unconscious force, like stalactites in a dripping grotto. He had no impetus. It was only a matter of time before the roof of the grotto would give way.“ This he follows up with the argument that since Berlioz composed at white heat in his youth, devising his own system of notation to keep pace with the flow of inspiration, the rate at which he composed The Trojans betrays a lack of inspiration. But with a great many commitments to journalism, publishing, and foreign tours, it was no mean feat to complete The Trojans, a score on at least twice the scale of any of his others, in two years, almost exactly the same gestation period as Tristan and Isolde, to which Rolland would never impute any lack of inspiration. Ernest Newman in a similar vein wrote (“Musical Studies”, 1905): “Knowing what extraordinary promise he was giving in 1838, we can only regard the last thirty years of his life as a failure to redeem that promise, at all events in its entirety… Berlioz failed to beat out for himself the new forms that might reasonably have been expected from him by those who had followed his career from the first.”

Was it not Wagner’s achievement that he did beat out the new forms and style of the music of the future? And is it to Berlioz’s discredit that he was content with the stylistic status quo? This simple fact explains every personal difference between the two men, and no amount of attempted reconciliation by Liszt would bring either to change his views. In any case the Princess and Marie Berlioz were both bitterly jealous of Wagner and made matters perpetually worse. Berlioz was one of the few composer-critics who could divorce personal feelings from objective criticism, and his failure to comprehend Tristan was completely in keeping with the musical tenets he had laboured so long to expound, and not due to Wagner’s undoubted intractability as a man. For The Trojans is living proof that his own romantic world was not Wagner’s. Not only does it embrace the whole romantic era in style, but it reaches even further back to Spontini and Gluck in form and conception. It is not difficult to trace reminiscences of his earlier works, for example the Symphonie Fantastique, the Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale, and many parts of Benvenuto Cellini, but in particular the completely romantic “dramatic symphony” Romeo and Juliet, for in this very personal interpretation of Shakespeare the climactic moment is the “Scène d’Amour” when the orchestra unfolds “the finest piece of music that ever came out of Gaul” while the voices are silent. Berlioz explains in the preface: “C’est parce que la sublimité même de cet amour en rendait la peinture si dangereuse pour le musicien, qu’il a dû donner à sa fantaisie une latitude que le sens positif des paroles chantées ne lui eût pas laissée, et recourir à la langue instrumentale, langue plus riche, plus variée, moins arrêtée, et, par son vague même, incomparablement plus puissante en pareil cas.” Similarly the “Royal Hunt and Storm” before Act IV of The Trojans dispenses with individual voices and, albeit with balletic representation, describes the central episode of Virgil’s story. Its dramatic relevance is crucial. From that point on the sublimity and aptness of Berlioz’s inspiration is as inevitable as Aeneas’s abandonment of Dido and her subsequent immolation. Not a note of the last two acts can be faulted on aesthetic grounds.

Direct comparison of The Trojans and Tristan and Isolde is not particularly fruitful, for the difference in the two composers’ methods in their approach to the musical drama is self-evident. Equally unhelpful is the attempt to prove that Wagner “borrowed” all his ideas from Berlioz’s works. Similarities are, I suppose, to be remarked upon, however slight, in an age where diversity is the norm. But the mere fact that the two operas are historical confreres (the first act of Tristan was completed four days before The Trojans) drawn from the musical melting-pot of the 1850’s indicates the nature of this particular turning-point. How could the decade that witnessed such a radical step forward in the history of music offer the leisure and mental stability for a nostalgic and comprehensive review of the past? 1848 was Wagner’s and Liszt’s revolution, not Berlioz’s, who was again unaware of the new spirit that Tristan represented. Its features have been treated on the lines of the dialectic as the true beginning of the modern age, for the rift that was bound to follow the romantic era was signalised on the one hand by Tristan, finished in 1859 (although it was not in fact staged then, the prelude had been played in concerts and was sufficient indication of the nature of the rest), and on the other by the manifesto that appeared in the “Berlin Echo” in the spring of 1860 above the signatures of Joachim and Brahms. In addition it is worth noting that the flourishing school of nationalist composition received particular impetus in Russia from the liberation of the serfs in 1861 and in Bohemia from the end of Austrian domination in 1860. Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and Marx’s “Critique of Political Economy” were, too, features of a world in which Wagner’s art could flourish and develop, but in which Berlioz could only languish. “To him pragmatic flexibility, the plurality of arts, individuals, and styles was the desired norm. He did not want to teach anybody any doctrines, still less pose as an omnicompetent oracle” is Professor Barzun’s summing up.

Liszt, too, was out of his depth in the new generation. He could only fall back on the “consolations of religion” and the cult of himself as a father figure, particularly for aspiring pianists, based on the worldwide reputation he had laboured so hard in the 30’s and 40’s to establish. As a composer his greatest achievements were past. Wagner was the one member of the Dreigestirn to survive as the most vital creative force of the succeeding generation. Liszt had foreseen this, but Berlioz had not, and in a long wave of Wagnerian hysteria he was to pay dearly for this insistence on his own critical standards. Now that the mists have cleared his true stature is emerging, and there are indications too that Liszt as a composer is receiving wider and more scrupulous attention. Then we shall see whether his chameleon-like personality gave him a chance of sustained creative power or not. With Berlioz there was never any divergence from the strict demands of his musical conscience, and if ever anyone arrives at absolute standards of criticism, this will surely be his ultimate grace.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 1 October 2012.

© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights reserved.

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