Felix Weingartner on Berlioz
This page presents an English translation (© Michel Austin) of five essays by Felix Weingarnter on Hector Berlioz. They were published by Weingartner in 1912 in a collective volume entitled Akkorde. The original German text of these essays is reproduced in a separate page, and the essays are also available in a French translation (also © Michel Austin). The essays are reproduced here in the sequence in which they appeared in the original publication. They are as follows:
Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz: some reminiscences
Hector Berlioz: a commemorative essay for the complete edition of his works (1900)
What can we learn from Berlioz? (11 December 1903)
Berlioz’s alleged ‘lack of invention’ (11 December 1903)
The Berlioz centenary celebrations in Grenoble (August 1903)
This page is also available in French
Akkorde pp. 70-81 — German text — French translation
I had never seen him on stage and I already loved him, this courteous opera hero, who sings so beautifully and does so little; I loved this finely chiselled score, which resembles one of the works of art of the celebrated master-goldsmith, whose name it bears.
My first acquaintance with the opera Benvenuto Cellini was due to the tenor Anton Schott who was famous in his day. He had performed the title role under the direction of Bülow in Hanover and was very proud of his achievements. A performance of this work was at the time an event. It had the reputation of being so unusually difficult and was so decried because of its modernising tendencies, that hardly a stage would risk itself with it. In France  and in London  the work had fallen flat. Liszt, the tireless champion of every genius, had taken Berlioz under his protection and produced Cellini in Weimar [1852, 1856]. At first he did not find anyone to follow his example, except for Bülow in Hanover .
I procured myself a piano score as soon as I could, but did not understand at first where these exorbitant difficulties were supposed to be. It looked so simple, set out in such a melodious way, with arias, ensemble pieces, choruses and finales, as in the old-style operas. It was only when I was able to see the full score later in Weimar, that I understood wherein lay the difficulties. It is precisely the simplicity of the design and the sunny clarity of Berlioz’ musical style that require exceptionally scrupulous study. There is no room here for sophisticated tinkering, everything here needs to be in its proper place, carefully balanced and shaded down to the smallest details. The opera is easy in its details, but exceptionally difficult as a whole. It requires the right kind of bel canto singers. Lyrical tenors with a heroic ring in their voice and style of delivery, as the title role requires, are not easy to find. The role of Fieramosca needs a high baritone with an exceptional gift for involuntary humour and light exaggeration. The women’s roles are less demanding, a good Teresa and a good Ascanio can be found on most stages. The most important requirement is a fine feeling for rhythm. Singers who are not exact at every point should be kept away from this work. The choral parts are tricky but rewarding. The orchestra is handled with delightful finesse.
When I got to know Benvenuto Cellini¸ the opera stages were already heavily influenced by Wagner. The more Wagner dominated the repertoire, the further receded the possibilities of good productions of older operas that rely on the art of fine singing. Yet when later I embarked on a career as opera conductor I never gave up the hope of one day being able to bring to life in a complete performance this masterly and special score.
On the small stages where my first appointments took me, this was by definition out of the question. In Hamburg and Mannheim there were problems of casting. And so I came to the Berlin Opera in the year 1891 without having achieved my pet project. Here the opportunities were much more favourable. A good and large orchestra, extensive stage resources, the baritone Bulß with his high voice, who as an actor was also eminently suitable for Fieramosca, and Gudehus, who though a Wagner-singer deserved consideration as he was very familiar with Cellini, since gradually Leipzig and Dresden, where Gudehus had previously been engaged, had followed the examples of Liszt and Bülow. But the obstacle was to be found at the highest level. The general manager at the time, Count Hochberg, had an invincible aversion for everything that was reputed to be modern. Although I had repeatedly performed works of Berlioz in concerts with the greatest of success, and though I tried to make it clear to him that there was no question here of the kind of music for which he had such an aversion, but rather that this was a work which followed thoroughly the ways of old operas, though in a very imaginative manner, he could not be induced to take on Cellini. Several years passed in my activity at that theatre. I had already fought many battles and overcome unbelievable obstacles when one happy day I was surprised with the news that the general manager had finally decided to give Cellini under my direction.
Work soon started. By a clever move I had managed to bring Ernst Kraus to the Berlin Opera. With the acquisition of this artist, who was still young at the time and combined the most beautiful tenor voice that could be heard in Germany at the time with an ideal stage presence, the perfect incarnation of Cellini was found. Bulß was still there, Frau Herzog was a superb coloratura singer and Frau Goetze an artist who was excellently suited for Ascanio. Nobody knew the work, and so exceptionally they were compelled to turn to me for advice on the casting of the roles, which otherwise was out of the question. They also sought my advice over details of the staging, and this too was against the tradition of the Berlin Opera, though the greatest care was taken to make sure that none of the artists would overstep the limits of what they could do as dictated to them by higher authority. I therefore had the rare joy of being able on this occasion to produce a work according to my own ideas. Everyone carried out their task with enthusiasm and dedication. Kraus sang Cellini magnificently. Bulß was exactly himself in his role. In real life he was fond of putting on coquettish airs, and this was most appropriate for him in this role. Frau Herzog in the part of Teresa provided a real fireworks display of brilliant coloratura. I recall with pleasure the advice she gave me in a passage which I had not correctly understood. I had the feeling that the second part of her aria in the first act was trivial, and suggested to her that we should only play the first part. Then one day she said to me during a rehearsal: « I believe you are taking the tempo too fast, let us try it more slowly! » And indeed at one stroke the noble grace of this piece came through. I took that as a demonstration of how productive the collaboration of intelligent artists and an open exchange of views can be. A singer with fine sensitivity can often have a better feeling for tempo and delivery than a opinionated time-beater who thinks he is infallible.
The stage-sets were really good in the circumstances of that time; only the end, the scene of the casting of the statue, completely failed to come off. I had suggested that we should not do away completely with the casting-mold and allow part of the head of the glowing statue, still covered with cinders, to be visible. But the head-manager at the time, Herr Tetzlaff, always was a man of effects. He maintained that it was imperative that the whole of the statue should be seen, otherwise the end would fall completely flat. I did not have enough authority to be able to prevent this, and so there appeared at the end of the opera a Perseus whose horrifying resemblance to the original would have been enough to cause Master Cellini to turn in his grave. But there could nearly have been an even more dangerous incident. One day when I arrived for a rehearsal I noticed that a large number of models of the statue of Perseus were being unloaded in front of the opera-house. As is well known, in the third act the model is standing in Cellini’s workshop. I went quite innocently on stage and expressed casually to Ernst Kraus my surprise that so many models of the statue were being brought into the theatre. Kraus answered in his Bavarian dialect: « Yes, I have to smash one at every performance ». At first I did not understand his answer, then suddenly the terrifying truth dawned on me. At the following rehearsal my anxious fear was confirmed. The head-manager had given instructions that Cellini should smash the model instead of the casting-mold. I tried to make him understand that that would be complete nonsense, but Herr Tetzlaff, who was very touchy and was already clearly rather annoyed that I should have ventured to make some comments about the staging, obstinately held his ground. This would have an excellent effect, he said. I went to talk to Ernst Kraus and said to him: « Ernst, you must be on your guard, if you do what Tetzlaff wants, the blame will fall on you. » Kraus, who always inclined to over-confidence, seemed to take a particular pleasure in executing the completely absurd instruction of the head-manager, in the belief that only Tetzlaff would take the blame and not himself. But that could not be allowed to pass. I turned to the general manager himself, and explained the matter to him in emotive language. Count Hochberg was extremely careful with Tetzlaff, whom he held in the highest regard; he took the view that Tetzlaff must have had good reason to do what he did, and he could not interfere with him at all. I took the piano score, pointed out to him the stage instructions, but none of that was of any help. The Count said that it was only a matter of nuance, and one should leave that to the manager. Eventually inspiration came to my rescue, I know not how. I took the full score, which contained the French text, brought it to Count Hochberg and asked him to read through the original. « Can you imagine, your Excellence, » I said, « what they would say in Paris, if by chance they find out how we in Berlin ignore the instructions in a French masterpiece? » That seemed to work. The following day the wonderful nuance had been removed « following instructions from on high », and the numerous models of the statue of Perseus are probably to this day still resting in peace, unbroken, in the stores of the Berlin Opera.
The production was a brilliant success. It really carried everything before it. Teresa’s aria provoked a storm of applause that lasted for minutes; the trio between Cellini, Teresa and Fieramosca would have had to be encored, had this not been prohibited by the house-rules of the Berlin Opera. The scene in the inn, where Lieban in the small role of the innkeeper provided a delicious episode, was very entertaining, as was the carnival which was staged in a very lively manner. The rather flatter impression made by the third act rose to the heights of the earlier success in the magnificent scene of the Cardinal. What music accompanies the entrance of this crafty prince of the Church! What grandeur! How wonderfully are the truly patronising, condescending smiles conveyed, behind which lie the grimmest of thoughts. What modern opera can boast of having a scene comparable to this one? Both overtures were also no less effective than the opera as a whole. Rarely have I seen the public of the Berlin Opera so enthused.
The success also seemed likely to be lasting. The following performances attracted a large audience, and the public continued to show the same enthusiasm. Unfortunately, after the fourth performance Kraus had to begin his leave of absence in America, and the title role fell to another singer who was not able to attract the public to the same extent. After another four performances Cellini disappeared from the repertoire. Many years later I learnt that it was again scheduled for rehearsal, and I was glad to hear that they thought of me on this occasion.
Berlioz has never been a child of Luck. His works lie outside the mainstream. His compatriots did not understand him in his lifetime, and to this day do not value him highly enough. In Germany, it is true, he has taken a firmer foothold with his symphonic works, but for a long time he has not achieved the popularity that he deserves. Benvenuto Cellini in particular is an opera that like few others deserves to earn a lasting place of honour in the repertoire. It has all the necessary prerequisites: rewarding roles for singers, good opportunities for deploying splendid stage-effects, a wonderful orchestral language, an abundance of melodies in the vocal and choral sections. And yet this work will always remain a stranger, and when it scores occasionally a brilliant success, as was the case in Berlin, external circumstances intrude which prevent it from going any further and gaining access to larger circles. Had Kraus been able at the time to stay in Berlin, I am firmly convinced that Cellini would have become a repertoire opera. — Or is it really the case that only a work of dubious and coarse taste is capable of attracting the mass of the public? —
Liszt called this work the French Fidelio. That is too high a praise, as there is a wide gulf between Cellini and Fidelio, which even a genius like Berlioz could not cross. But in spite of this the saying of Liszt is valuable. It is more beautiful and fruitful to go too far in one’s enthusiasm for a significant work, than to want to belittle it through childish carping and one-sided emphasis on its shortcomings. If there was more enthusiasm in our age as a whole, and especially more active enthusiasm, then creations like Berlioz’ Cellini would achieve a lasting place in the repertoire, and there would be no room for many insignificant novelties, which are even a threat to good taste and receive more publicity than all the works of Berlioz put together.
Anyone who has once had the good fortune, as I have, of hearing Liszt speak about Berlioz, and experiencing how his bright eyes would light up and the conviction with which he would speak, would have received an unforgettable impression. From an artistic and human point of view this impression was more exciting than the most delicately nuanced criticism, which may be justified concerning details of Berlioz’ works, but in general misses the point. —
When I took over the direction of the Viennese Court Opera [January 1908] I toyed from the start with the idea of giving Benvenuto Cellini. I wanted to start with it. But at the time no suitable singer for the role of Fieramosca was available. It was also not possible to count on the excellent Slezak for the part of Cellini. His contract had not been renewed, and when I assumed the post of Director the expectation was that at best this singer would only be available for Vienna on a short-term basis. But for Cellini a performance that is completely above criticism is perhaps even more imperative than for any other masterpiece, for with every new production it must win over its audience afresh like a new work, and for Vienna Cellini was in practice a novelty. So I waited. I had nearly lost sight of Cellini when a stroke of luck brought to the Court Opera two excellent artists, Miller and Hofbauer. My departure from the Vienna Opera had already been decided when these two singers arrived, and I had only a few months left as conductor. If I still wanted to carry out my plan I had to move fast.
Rehearsals started, the fairly high costs were generously authorised, and this enabled me to provide the work with a sumptuous staging which far surpassed the worthy efforts of the Berlin production. In Vienna as in Berlin everything proceeded with efficiency and enthusiasm, the rehearsals were most stimulating, though misfortune very nearly caught up with the genius who had created the work. It would nearly have ceased to be possible for me to conduct the rehearsals up to the actual performance, as my period as director had now expired. Cellini was performed as the very last production which I directed at the Court Opera [25 February 1911].
I have never before enjoyed the performance of an opera so much as this one, as on this occasion the ‘other day’ did not exist for me. The ‘other day’ almost inevitably conspires to bring the artist down from the high sphere to which his achievements have elevated him. The friend who has pressed your hand the evening before with tears of enthusiasm in his eyes, is on the following day noticeably cooler, as he has heard or read somewhere or other that something was not quite right. From every side gossip and whispers reach the ear of the artist, why was this done this way and not that, and again, why that way and not this, indeed, why did he do the whole thing at all. If the ‘other day’ has progressed as far as the evening, then all too often the artist has the opportunity to reflect in despair, how 24 hours ago, as he prepared to present to the public his work as an artist, everything appeared in such a bright light; how he, if everything went according to his best efforts, was able for perhaps a full three hours to believe really that he was floating on the heights of existence, and could still surrender to this happy dream up to the time when he went to sleep, and how now, so soon after, everything has turned pale, and the echo of his achievement appears to him so very different as it is reflected by the mutterings of what is known as public opinion; that if he happens to be by chance the director of a theatre, another concern arises which is calculated to stifle his joy for a long time, namely the miserable box-office receipts. Already on the ominous ‘other day’ there is no lack of the most sincere and categorical assurances that the new, or the newly-rehearsed opera, will make any money. When finally and at long last these assurances have been made with so much eagerness and goodwill, until such time as the public decides to hold back from seeing the work in question, then you come up against the fact that it is not making money. The figures for the box-office receipts continue to decline, and finally the theatre manager has to say that all the enthusiasm and hard work expended were in vain, and that once again the mutterings were right in the end. How much good money has already been frittered away in this manner in order to make way for Talmi [i.e. base gold].
This ‘other day’ did not exist for me on the evening of that performance of Cellini in Vienna. Free from worries about the sequels and about what would happen afterwards in Vienna, I allowed the spirit, the beauty and the incomparable charm of the work to cast its spell on me. I knew and I know today, that Cellini will not die, and experienced it with convincing certainty in every bar. There is such a thing as real music of the future, and Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini belongs to it. In my hands the magnificent orchestra of the Court Opera, the singers on the stage, who played their roles to perfection, the splendid sound of the choruses, the beautifully scenic stage-sets, all paraded brilliantly in front of me to my delight, so that often I no longer had the feeling of being myself the conductor, as I could forget about technical aspects, given the forces that were so completely familiar with my intentions, and I had simply become an ideal spectator and listener. No worries about box-office receipts could unsettle me, and the forecast ‘that it will not make any money’ could not reach me. With a joyful nod of my hat I had already said farewell to my office where I had spent three years working very hard. I knew that after the performance a small circle of trusted friends would be around me, and that already on the following morning the first train would be taking me away from the clouds of my time as Director of the theatre to the pure heights of the Semmering.
And so this evening turned to an incomparable and unforgettable delight, such as an artist can rarely experience, and at the same time to a memory that can never be dimmed for me.
Akkorde pp. 154-63 — German text — French translation
On January the 1st 1900 the works of Hector Berlioz have fallen into the public domain in accordance with existing law, and on this day an edition of all his compositions, published by Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipzig and edited by Charles Malherbe and myself, started to appear. The scores, purged of errors and misprints, the translations of all the texts in German and English, the excellent quality of the musical print, and also the very reasonable asking price in comparison with previous editions, will without doubt make Berlioz’s works available to a wider public. Although a great deal has already been written about Berlioz, it may therefore not seem superfluous if today I add a few words on the subject.
Until now his works have not been as widely disseminated as they deserve to be. To some extent Berlioz may be considered fortunate to have avoided the kind of professional over-exploitation which has taken Wagner’s music dramas so far from their original intention, and yet the future still has many debts to pay off.
If one attempts to evaluate a great man, one must consider him not only as a phenomenon in his own right, but also see his significance for his contemporaries and for posterity. In his art Berlioz was a pioneer, but the path which he opened up is not littered with wrecks, but adorned with the monuments he created; he was not a destroyer, but a creator, a force that was eminently positive. His musical sensitivity was fortified by a glowing love for his great predecessors, whatever country they belonged to. He remained true to this love to the end of his life, and his writings provide in countless places eloquent testimony to this. In addition his was a spontaneous, vigorous and independent personality. The word originality, so often misused or even abused, can be applied to him in its fullest sense. He was in truth an original musician, perhaps the most original who has ever lived. In the youthful works of even the greatest composers we can often recognise the traits of their predecessors, to the point of finding it difficult to distinguish between them, and it is only in their later works that their individuality begins to emerge. But in the earliest published compositions of Berlioz, the overtures Waverley and Les Francs-Juges, and also in the Mélodies irlandaises, we can already hear an individual voice. It is Berlioz that we hear, complete and authentic in every bar and every phrase, though it may not be yet the great Berlioz of the later works. From the first to the last note that he wrote, his works have an unmistakable personal look, which no one will forget the moment they have properly understood it. One might go so far as to assert that his originality was so great that it could even protect him from imitation. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner have had their imitators, but Berlioz never. His great individuality did not consist in believing that in order to appear original he simply had to be different, cobble together eccentric sequences of notes instead of melodies, illogical dissonances instead of harmony, dislocated bars instead of rhythms, and embellish this strange concoction with a high-sounding title. Rather, his works sprang as a unified whole from within himself, and the finished details had as one objective to convey a single and living vision that was inseparable from his own personality.
He dreamt of gigantic orchestras and often required them, but for the majority of his works, and frequently for the most outstanding ones, he was satisfied with instrumental forces which were hardly any larger than those of Beethoven’s symphonies. At times the grotesque audacity of his harmonies can shock. And yet the musical character of the piece always makes it understandable why this audacity should be admissible at precisely this particular point. And how disarmingly simple are his themes, his modulations, and the structure of entire pieces and works. The reason why he often achieves the most beautiful results with the greatest simplicity, and only resorts to exceptional means when they are absolutely necessary, is that his works sprang not from empty ambition but from a deep inner necessity. Berlioz was no seeker, but an inventor, and in the best sense of the word a great inventor. That is why it is also a mistake to classify him exclusively as a composer of programme music.
Think of the broad and ample melodies that greet us in the first movements of the Symphonie fantastique and Harold en Italie, and also in the overture King Lear: these are no sweet and insinuating melodies in the manner of Weber or Schubert, but harsh and violent themes which in their turbulent tenderness could almost be painful were they not so beautiful. To mention but a few of the many possible examples, think of the knightly elegance of Cellini’s love-song, which we also hear in the overture Carnaval romain, of the solemn theme which announces the arrival of the Cardinal, and finally of the wonderfully tender and passionate themes of the Love Scene in Roméo et Juliette. — How was it ever possible to accuse this artist of being devoid of invention and sensitivity, who could command such a wealth of melodic inspiration? To justify giving him the title of being a ‘great inventor’, one could point to the melodic but also to the rhythmic variety of his compositions, which deserves a special study to bring it out fully, and also to his ability to give powerful expression to a whole range of human feelings. To convey pathos in an original way he finds the right expression, just as he does for humour. His art encompasses equally the terrible and the supernatural, as it does the tender and the loving. Besides, nothing with Berlioz is half-baked or blurred, every gradation of human feeling that he seeks to express is presented to us vividly. That is why he can be thought of as a Classic in the fullest sense of the word.
The majority of his symphonic movements are cast in traditional forms; he could not see in them anything conventional or outmoded, as he mastered them and knew how to fill them with individual content that arose from his innermost being. His innate respect for his great predecessors saved him from the impulse to be an iconoclast, and also from the childish arrogance of regarding significant works of the past as outdated and of no further relevance. The formal perfection and clear structure of his movements, the lucid clarity of his musical feeling, which made him polish with loving care even a seemingly incidental detail in an accompaniment, these bring him close to the old masters. On the other hand the occasionally bizarre, fantastic or even pathological character of some of his poetic subjects give him a certain affinity with romantic composers. Yet he is separated from these by the great passion that is the hallmark of his personality and of his works, and by his thoroughly manly and heroic character, which contrasts with the soft feminine sentimentality, the passive and often elegant dreaminess which is characteristic of the majority of composers who came to the fore around the middle of the 19th century.
Among the works for voice and chorus the new edition will also bring to light many gems that are yet hidden. But Berlioz’s principal and vital element was the orchestra, whose capacity and power of expression he raised to a previously unsuspected height. If Schumann and Chopin were the great poets of the keyboard, Berlioz was the great instrumental poet, and together with Brahms the most important symphonic composer after Beethoven and Schubert. Even in his vocal works it is the orchestra that is treated with loving care, though it is always handled with such fine artistic sensitivity that it is kept subordinate to the voices. His symphonic and vocal compositions, especially the great Requiem and La Damnation de Faust, constitute monuments among his work and in music in general. On the other hand, as a composer of operas he is far outclassed by the dramatic genius of Wagner. He was no poet of the calibre of Wagner, and like the old masters he chose his texts more for the musical possibilities they offered than for their content, just as in general he remains true to the traditional forms of opera. It therefore seems quite ridiculous to see that when his operas are performed nowadays, about half a century after they were written, they are always judged from a Wagnerian perspective. Benvenuto Cellini, his best work for the stage, was composed before the movement for reform that was initiated by Wagner, and when he wrote Les Troyens Berlioz was too old to let Wagner’s art, to which he could never be sympathetic, have any influence on him. Should the happy circumstance arise that an opera-house undertakes to produce an opera by Berlioz, one should leave aside once and for all Wagner and the insights he has brought. There is enough that is beautiful and magnificent to be found in the music, which will compensate for the weaknesses of the libretti.
If one tries to form a view of the impact our master had on his contemporaries, one finds at first little more than timid amazement if not open hostility. No ‘Societies’ were formed to promote the diffusion of his works, no pamphlets, introductions or commentaries written to interpret every performing instruction as though it was a divine revelation. The great composer had to struggle through disappointments and failures, and often waste his best energies in earning a living. He must have looked with the childlike eye of a genius on a world that took the external peculiarities of his works to be their essential features, and mocked as the offspring of a half-crazed brain what had flown naturally from his soul. One man only understood him fully and stretched his hand out to him, his great contemporary Franz Liszt. Berlioz’ influence on him as well as on Wagner is unmistakable. Both benefited especially from his art of orchestration. When Wagner began to emancipate himself from the decorative orchestration of Rienzi with its mass effects, he relied partly on Weber, who introduced dreamy softness and romantic fragrance to the orchestra, and partly on Berlioz, who brought to it brilliance, glitter and the force of a fascinating imagination. He then increased the power and richness of the orchestra through the addition of new instruments, as well as by the polyphonic development of the musical material.
In my book on The Symphony after Beethoven I have explained more fully how Berlioz, through what I have called there the ‘dramatic-psychological variation’ of a theme, served as a model for Liszt and Wagner. There is also another way, which I will explain in a moment, in which Berlioz has acted as a pioneer: I mean the superimposition of several themes, which is also to be traced back to psychological intentions. When the old masters make two or more themes run concurrently, this takes place in the form of the fugue: for example Bach in his double and triple fugues, Mozart in his Requiem, Beethoven in the finale of the Ninth Symphony. But Berlioz combines together two themes in a completely open piece, in which the poetic intention is always unmistakable. In the middle of the joyful bustle of the carnival in the Cellini overture, the weighty theme of the Cardinal rings out, and might well be able to stifle the jubilation. Romeo’s love song drowns out victoriously the festive sounds of Capulet’s bal. During the Witches’ Sabbath in the Symphonie fantastique the gruesome tones of the Dies irae ring out. Berlioz’ delight at his invention was so great that he would normally write above these passages the words Réunion des deux thèmes, as though he was worried that otherwise the juxtaposition might pass unnoticed. How well did Liszt turn to good use this compositional device of his predecessor, when he made Tasso’s noble and melancholic melody float above the joyful scherzo in F sharp major. The dreamy poet, lost in his thoughts, wanders through the sunny gardens of flowers of Ferrara. How splendidly the three main themes sound together at the conclusion of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger! Walther’s Love Song (the melody) has overcome the rigid precepts of the Guild of Masters (the theme in the bass). They march on, but illuminated by the light of poetry. The sounds of the song of the corporation of David, the King of Singers, in delicate diminution (middle voices), seem to entwine themselves like fresh green leaves to form a crown over the head of the victorious Singer-Poet.
The movement, which Berlioz initiated and was carried on by Liszt and Wagner, continues to this day, and is commonly described as ‘progressive music’. But this progress has subsequently frequently assumed the character of debasement. Berlioz undertook to give musical expression to poetic subjects, but, except perhaps in one case which does not need to be discussed here, never forgot that the musician must above all always write music and not explanations in sound. But subsequently some have gone so far as to tie the music bar by bar to a programme, and to force it to convey realistic, sometimes even commonplace descriptions of events. With Berlioz instrumental refinement never took precedence over the elevation of the musical thought, whereas in many modern compositions it is only their instrumental refinement that can fleetingly captivate the listener. Berlioz, starting from a poetic intention, varied his expressive and melodious themes and would play them against each other at the decisive climax. But nowadays we find pieces where in almost every bar two or three short-breathed little themes are shaped and reshaped many times over and packed into each other: but no sign of a single great and expressive theme. That is no longer art, but artificiality.
But we have no reason to look gloomily at the future. We have seen that Johann Sebastian Bach was able to fashion true polyphony out of the many-voiced amusements of the composers of the Netherlands. So too we can confidently expect the future to bring forward again a ‘great inventor’, who will boldly take possession of the undoubtedly developed compositional methods of the musical experiments of our time, and use them in the service of true art. But even in the happy case of such a progressive development, no one should look down on Berlioz, whom we celebrate as the progenitor of our new music, and see him as someone who has ceased to be relevant. Scientific doctrines and philosophical insights may be overtaken by better ones and die out. But out of a great work of art speaks a genius that is forever young, untouched by the changes of time and taste. Its individuality can never be suppressed, as nothing can be compared to it. And in the case of Berlioz we do not really have to fear that he will ever cease to be ‘modern’, as he bears the surest sign of immortality — he never had anything to do with fashion!
Akkorde pp. 164-70 — German text — French translation
A quick and confident answer to the question posed in the title would be: ‘instrumentation’. But no, that is something that cannot be learnt so easily, not even from Berlioz, for there is no such thing as instrumentation as a general concept, dissociated from the particular works. To orchestrate well means to arrange a composition from beginning to end in such a way that it cannot become or be anything other than a piece for orchestra. A good orchestrator will be very careful to invent a melody that is suitable, for example, for the nature of the oboe and into which the oboe-player will be able to breathe his spirit. He will not write a melody in a casual way and then, possibly when the whole piece is already complete, wonder whether he should entrust it to an oboe, a clarinet, the violins or several instruments together. When he sketches his piece the orchestral composer must already hear it in orchestral terms, because the same sequence of notes takes on a constantly changing character, as soon as it is played by different instruments. That is why keyboard music, chamber music and compositions for orchestra have so little in common, and so I am sure I am not wrong in asserting that it is not just the structure, the polyphony and the colouring, but the process of composition itself that must already be different in its earliest stages, depending on what particular musical genre the work belongs to. A theme for a string quartet would be unusable in a piano sonata or a symphony, and the same is true the other way round.
After the old masters, among whom I would in this case also include Mendelssohn, it was Brahms who completely mastered the special characteristics of the different musical genres and their subdivisions, and kept them separate. His keyboard and chamber music are not orchestral in character, his orchestral music is always genuinely symphonic, and never orchestrated keyboard music. Liszt’s orchestral scores occasionally betray, though far less that those of Schumann, that their creator’s heart was closest to the keyboard. Wagner and Berlioz live and weave in the orchestra, Berlioz to such a great extent, that his works refuse to lend themselves to direct arrangement for that all-purpose instrument the piano. When arranged for this instrument his music loses not only its fragrance and colour, but to a great extent its expressive power. For his works piano excerpts are even more than with other masters solutions of last resort.
Routine was something unknown to Berlioz. Every work of his has its own orchestral identity. Hence, as I indicated at the start, there is no such thing as Berliozian instrumentation, but as many kinds of instrumentation as there are works by him, and each of them has its own face. He only uses those instruments that he absolutely requires, and knows how to extract from each one of them only what is characteristic for the particular passage; as a result the musical passage is conceivable only in this particular orchestral dress, and would not sound right in any other. Occasionally he omits completely an instrument that is otherwise regarded as indispensable in any orchestral score, for example the bassoon, while he assigns an unusually important part to another group, for example the trumpets or flutes. His orchestral forces are sometimes gigantic in scale, then again of normal proportions, sometimes even small, but always arranged in such a way and treated as the work requires. Berlioz has not orchestrated, but composed poetry for the orchestra.
If we want to learn from him in this field — and that is something we can do — we should not be satisfied with concocting some surprising sound effects. To imitate peculiar features of Berlioz would have no value, as these features only have meaning and purpose in connection with his musical ideas, and again conversely it is only the peculiar features of the ideas that condition what is remarkable in the instrumentation. Berlioz gives a splendid example of how to give to musical ideas the only appropriate instrumental dress, which on its side displays the ideas in their correct light and so gives clarity and shape to the orchestral piece. If we can achieve the same with our own musical ideas, then we are worthy pupils of the great Frenchman. If the ideas themselves are great, then the result is masterpieces, which carry immortality with them. ‘Only so many notes as is necessary’ was Mozart’s golden answer to the emperor Joseph. To reach the point of being able to give the same answer, in all modesty and self-restraint and with a pure heart, seems to me the highest goal that a creative musician can aim at, as regards the agreement of ideas and execution.
Did Berlioz really have great musical ideas? — It is astonishing that this question is still asked, and even more difficult to explain that it is often answered in the negative. Mozart and Beethoven have been accused of being devoid of invention and lacking in melody, whereas fashionable contemporary celebrities were all the more eagerly credited with them. The masters died, but their works lived on and spoke with ever increasing force to succeeding generations, until gradually these had no option but to hail them as ‘classics’. Nowadays even the most unmusical person no longer doubts that Mozart and Beethoven had great ideas, for they are now definitively classics, in whom one always holds in the hightest esteem those very features which in their lifetime were most vehemently decried. Wagner’s melodic style has openly sensual and often erotic characteristics. The feelings this aroused were so strong that people sought to approach his music even from a moral point of view. They felt stirred in their most intimate emotions by these glowing sounds. But as in contemporary social life questions of sensuality are approached with a feeling of shame, the first reaction was one of resistance, in partly genuine and partly feigned indignation against Wagner’s music. Then the contrary impulse set in noisily and changed to languid acceptance, which on the appearance of Parsifal assumed completely the smack of eye-turning holiness. The battle for and against has long been fought over. But now the public will comfortably yield to the rustling surge of ‘infinite melody’, from the Venusberg to the Castle of the Grail. The youngest girl may attend The Walkyrie without blushing, and nowadays if anyone applied to Wagner the verdict of Beckmesser on Walther Stoltzing, ‘Not a trace of melody’, he would make a fool of himself.
The sensuous allure and magic of Wagner’s sound-world will be sought in vain in Berlioz. The beauty of his music in melody, harmony and orchestration is lean and chaste, and whether in the intimate or the graceful parts, in the passionate or the grotesque sections, it is strict in its severity. The favour of the general public has turned to Wagner’s muse, the young, blond, voluptuous and radiant woman. Her maidenly older sister, with the dark hair, the deep eyes, the fine thin lips and the features of Diana, is regarded with respect, but few know her rich spirit and love her strong, magnificent soul. The general public has yet to be convinced that Berlioz’ works contain a boundless wealth of magnificent melodies and expressive themes, that he was a master of composition as there have been few. Criticism continues to hover around him, which in the case of Wagner who was ten years younger has long come to an end.
Against facile preconceptions and mindless prejudices words have little effect, though a constant stream of good performances of his works may do, the success of which continues to grow with the public. May Berlioz’ idealism be a shining example to guide us; thanks to it he always directed his mind towards what is lofty and great, and preferred to endure failure than wander into ways that the voice of his heart advised him against.
There is a third and important point on which Berlioz should teach us a warning. Leaving aside earlier and outdated attempts, he provided the impetus for the development of a branch of music which is called programme-music. He did indeed want to depict through his music, but he was so fully conscious of the ways in which his art was distinct from its sister arts, that though he may have occasionally treated musical form rather freely, he never destroyed it completely for the sake of pictorial description. On the contrary, he zealously guarded against losing sight of all boundaries. He never was an ‘innovator’ for its own sake, he did not speculate with his reforms on the craving for sensationalism of the uncritical masses, but rather gave expression in music to what filled his heart, and did so seriously, alone, and truthfully. Though his imagination may have wandered off into adventurous ways, a dedicated seriousness held him back from excesses which lose all contact not only with the nature of music but that of art as a whole.
I have developed my views on this at length in my essay The Symphony after Beethoven, and also on the cases where in my view Berlioz went astray, and I refer those who wish to investigate the subject to this work. But today, on his hundredth birthday, may the master be allowed to speak and expound his thoughts in his own clear way, which should be taken to heart by those who, filled with presumptuous self-confidence, think they should shape their creative work in the belief that ‘Everything is permitted’. In a letter to princess Sayn-Wittgenstein Berlioz tells of two musicians [Hans Bronsart and Joseph Joachim], who are still alive today though they have since completely recanted their earlier tastes and works, and who had sought to write music that was ugly, offensive and even dissonant, with the explicit intention of ‘attracting attention’ and ‘irritating the ear’. Berlioz then adds this hearfelt comment [CG no. 2219, 24 March 1857]:
Good heavens! These young men are mad, or rabid! Can one imagine doctrines like that? to turn discordance into a system! to provide in this way lethal weapons to the practitioners of routine, to the invertebrates in art, so that they can beat up and kill the pioneers who work so hard to clear new land. This is dreadful! I must confess that it makes me mortally sad. I would rather go back to the earliest sonatas of Mozart or even of Pleyel, than to descend to such abominations. […]
And then there are fools who come to me to say: you must like this, don’t you? — How flattering! Yes, I like that, as one emjoys drinking vitriol, or eating arsenic…
Thus does the ‘father of modern music’ teach us in no uncertain terms that arsenic and vitriol, or as Liszt would also say in similar cases, ‘sawdust and nitric acid’, are occasionally of real use, but that the purpose of art is not to produce corrosive irritants and shocks that grate on the ear, but to concern itself with four things, without which there is no art at all: Proportion, Form, Truthfulness and Beauty.
Akkorde pp. 170-3 — German text — French translation
One has read, one reads, and one will probably read again, when the concert societies and possibly even a few theatres will have celebrated the composer’s hundredth birthday, that though Berlioz may have been a great master of colour, the founder of modern orchestration, also a brilliant writer and everything else possible, he was unfortunately not a musical ‘inventor’, in short he was completely lacking in musical inspiration.
Many years ago some critic had the notion that Berlioz started off by thinking up some instrumental effects, and then in a manner intelligible only to the aforementioned critic fitted the music ‘on’, ‘under’, ‘about’ or ‘all around’ these effects. This opinion was then mechanically repeated everywhere; people were happy to be able at last to say something about him which had an air of profound wisdom, and which enabled one to dispose with equanimity of a phenomenon one did not comprehend.
As a music student I went on repeating this kind of twaddle for some time, so long as I only knew Berlioz from the examples in full score in his treatise on orchestration, where indeed a number of neat orchestral tricks are listed. But I soon thought it preferable to have a look myself at his compositions rather than repeating what others have said. The first of his scores that I was able to obtain was the overture to Benvenuto Cellini. I opened it with due prejudice. The bright opening in G major struck me as fresh and joyful. Well, I thought, here at least is a genuine theme! On page 3 I came across a pause with a change of time and tempo. Aha, I said to myself, this is where inspiration ends and instrumental trickery begins! The first pizzicati of the basses did not seem to me to make sense, I did not know what they were leading to. A further six bars which seemed to contain the beginning of a melody in the woodwind did not convince me. So that is it then, I thought, as everyone says, inspiration is indeed his weak point!
But what is this? I can hardly believe my eyes. Immediately after these six bars begins a wonderful and broad melody, played by all the string instruments, which rises and ends in a most expressive phrase. I read and re-read this magnificent theme, a full 23 bars long. On re-reading it I can also see that the pizzicati of the basses, which I could not understand at first, were only the preparation for a new theme, which is now played in the low register of clarinets and bassoons: a complete melody of 12 bars, of which excellent use could be made in variations. The ‘beginning of a melody’ in the wind instruments was merely a transition, which now returns and leads to the main section of the overture, the Allegro deciso con impeto.
In truth I was only at the introduction, and here were already three great and expressive themes, among them a melody of truly classical beauty. The man cannot have been so lacking in inspiration, I said to myself quietly, ashamed of having foolishly repeated this twaddle instead of first looking at his works for myself.
In the Allegro I meet first the theme with which the overture started, though now with a different accompaniment. It is soon joined by a completely new figured motif, which again adds up to a complete phrase of 21 bars. But that is not yet the real subsidiary theme, which soon follows regularly in the key of D major; once again, a thoroughly charming and elegantly developed melody!
I now started to laugh, partly with joy at the discovery of this treasure, partly with fury at the short-sightedness of human judgement. This was now already the fifth great theme, every one of them beautifully shaped and with a character of its own, wonderfully developed, varied, enhanced and brought to its culmination, and rounded off effectively! — And that is how these composers who are supposedly ‘lacking in invention’ appear in the eyes of many critics and of the public!
I read the score through to the end with delight. But from that day on there was for me another great name in the republic of composers. And today, on the hundredth birthday of this great man, I issue this call: «Have a careful look at this little overture to Benvenuto Cellini. It is not an overblown symphonic poem with a title to storm the heavens. You do not need for it a guiding thread which has to explain to you little crumbs of themes and scraps of melodies with more words than they have notes. This is a simple, straightforward overture to an opera, such as the old masters used to write. It lasts a mere ten minutes, yet how rich is the material from which it is built, how accomplished its form and how new its content. Then acquaint yourselves with the other works of Berlioz, and with the vast majority of them you will have the same experience as I had with the overture to Benvenuto Cellini. Above all take one thought to heart: First learn to know a work before you pass judgement!»
Akkorde pp. 218-30 — German text — French translation
See also An autograph document of Felix Weingartner
One of the most individual figures among all composers, a fiery spirit, a thorough romantic and visionary, but refined through the classical masterpieces of Gluck and Beethoven, whom he never ceased to admire and study: that is Hector Berlioz as he stands before us. « Maintenant on va jouer ma musique » : these words are supposed to have been spoken by the master just before the end of a life that was rich in setbacks and dogged by incomprehension. It cannot be said that this prophecy has been completely fulfilled, at least as regards « maintenant », since it was only a few decades later that Berlioz’s works began to find their audience. But they are finding it to an increasing extent, and as the number of performances multiplies so the enthusiasm of the public and the interest of musicians increases. I could observe this both in Germany and abroad, and in my repeated visits to Paris I could notice an increase in the number of devotees of Berlioz, though a small number of his works were already more popular there than in Germany.
I have expressed my views on Berlioz repeatedly and at length, and do not want to repeat what I have already said. I want this time to report on the beautiful festival which was organised by the capital of the Isère department, in whose territory Berlioz saw the light of day, to celebrate the centenary of his birth. On December 11th a hundred years will have elapsed since Berlioz was born in the friendly town of La Côte Saint-André. A hundred years — a long time to bear witness to his own fame, but at times even too short for that fame! It is a real blessing that we human beings, though according to Kant’s doctine Time is supposedly only an a priori mode of thought of our brain, nevertheless hold on firmly to the concept of time; hence the passing of a century is always very easy for us to understand, and it also stirs our conscience. Men whom we rarely think of if ever, suddenly become alive for us when an anniversary brings back their memory, and we reflect how we should celebrate them. If all we feel is a guilty respect for their works, then a celebration is like a soap bubble which for a brief moment simulates bright colours, and then dissolves into grey drizzle. But if the man celebrated is the author of vital and life-enhancing works which do not betray any sign of age, then a fiery beacon shines bright and wide through the lands and thousands gaze at it with amazement.
Should a hostile fate have long denied to a master the fame he deserves, such a celebration will stimulate renewed involvement with his works; they will become better known and their popularity will increase. That is the advantage of centenary celebrations, and Berlioz’ works should also benefit from this advantage, now that their creator has fortunately become old enough to be counted among the immortals. Grenoble has started, Paris will follow, and in other countries too, probably especially in Germany, there will be more opportunities than before to become familiar with Berlioz’ powerful and impressive music.
I was pleasantly surprised when I received the invitation from the city of Grenoble to attend the celebrations for Berlioz’ hundredth birthday as the representative of German art, and to assume myself part of the direction of the festival concerts; I saw that as a recognition of what I had sought to do for the great French composer. I therefore gladly set off on the hot and long journey from the beautiful land of Berchtesgaden via Munich, Lindau, Zürich and Geneva, and there on a passenger train which took nine hours for a short distance, though the picturesque journey from Culoz via Aix-les-Bains to Grenoble provided rich compensation. Late in the evening I arrived in the clean city with its attractive location. A vast crowd of people was swarming around in the streets, the tricolour flag fluttered from every house and blue-white-red banners were suspended over the streets. Between them stood out in bright letters the words « Centenaire Berlioz » or simply « Hector Berlioz ». It is normal in France to have « concours » as part of the festival, which take the form of competitions of choral societies, military bands, wind ensembles and so on, for which prizes are awarded. For two days already the jury had been tirelessly busy listening and adjudicating. Various groups were moving along the streets with their insignia, playing and singing, and displaying any prize they had won to the admiring and jubilant crowds. Particularly striking was a small group of Algerian singers with their brown faces, their fez and white coats. They were the lucky winners of a prize, and talked and gesticulated loudly and with great animation; between this one kept hearing again and again the Marseillaise, sung and played by brass and wind instruments. All this kind of activity went on into the early hours of the morning, with the result that, as I had unfortunately been given a room on one of the side streets, there was hardly any question of getting any sleep though I was very tired.
The next morning it was pouring with rain, and there was continuous lightning and thunder. The inauguration of the statue was supposed to take place around 10 o’clock. Around half past ten a deputation arrived which informed me that because of the weather the unveiling had been put off till 5 in the afternoon. So I had plenty of time to move to a hotel in a quieter location, where I met many friends from Paris and soon felt at home. A good sleep made up for the noisy night, and when I woke up the weather had become brighter. We therefore made our way to the inauguration with our spirits raised. But our expectations were wrong. The bad luck which pursued Berlioz throughout his life, and which according to him constantly stood in his way whatever plan he conceived, seemed now, a hundred years after the birth of the master, not to have lost any of its force. As we approached the square of the celebration, a storm such as I have rarely experienced fell from the mountains straight on to the city with astonishing speed. The dark blue, sinister clouds seemed to envelop us, and we had hardly reached the shelter of the grandstands when it was already pouring down with unheard-of fury. It was total confusion. Gentlemen in their suits, ladies with parasols and in bright dress, soldiers with their musical instruments, all sought shelter under the grandstands. A small group of street youngsters had squatted all around me, and took a lively interest in the gilded crown of palm leaves which I had in my hand. They could not understand at all why the ribbon was black-white-red and not blue-white-red. After I had explained to them that these were the colours of Germany, they thought that my name may have been « Auguste », as the ribbon carried the date « 17 August », and they then tried hard in their hilarious pronunciation to decipher the inscription in German.
At last the rain stopped, the grandstands emptied except for the official personalities, and the celebrations could begin. But it was necessary not to waste time, as a new downpour could be expected at any moment. After the Marseillaise, sung by children’s voices, had faded away, the President of the Festival Committee, M. de Beylié summed up in a few words the speech he had prepared, and to the sounds of the Rakoczy-March in Berlioz’ arrangement the veil was lifted amidst lively applause.
The statue itself cannot be compared to the fine and noble Berlioz-monument which stands on Place Vintimille in Paris in the centre of a bed of flowers. The head and figure, and the whole layout there have greater refinement and intimacy, the somewhat painful look in the face is moving, the posture reflective and friendly.
I now deposited my crown with the colours of Germany at the base of the statue, which caused M. de Beylié to express warmly his joy at the greetings from Germany, « de ce grand et beau pays », which had already recognised early Berlioz’ great genius. There was another round of lively applause. The plan had been to conclude the celebrations with the March from the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale with a large chorus. The bad weather had prevented the performance of this very appropriate event, and so, after the completion of a few official formalities, the Marseillaise sounded again, to the sounds of which the public disappeared as quickly as possible to their carriages or to the protection of the roofs.
I had been assured that the orchestra from Aix-les-Bains, which was recruited for the celebrations, was very good and thoroughly familiar with the Symphonie fantastique which I was due to conduct. In order not to tire too much the players who were already under stress, I decided to content myself with a single comprehensive rehearsal on the day of the performance, so I was able to concentrate at ease on the events of the festival and otherwise have a look around the city. I devoted the following morning to a rather long walk; the weather was fine, the surrounding mountains were covered with fresh snow, and so the temperature was cool and pleasant, which I saw as a favourable omen for the forthcoming musical performances. At midday a banquet brought together the participants in the festival, around 150 men in all. The only country whose government had sent an official representative was — the Principality of Monaco, whose ruler is an expert oceanographer, but also at the same time an enthusiastic admirer of Berlioz, to whom he has built a monument in Monte Carlo. I was the only artist from a foreign country; England, Italy and Russia were to my knowledge only represented by journalists. With the drinking of champagne the speeches started. What caught my interest at first was the different way of proposing toasts in France as compared with Germany. Here drinking to someone’s health and the clinking of glasses are not known [incorrect!]. You ask the president to be allowed to speak, permission is openly granted, and you then make your speech, which is greeted with more or less applause. I had anticipated the possibility of having to speak and made some preparations for this. But I had firmly decided to remain silent if at all possible, as it is something special to speak before a crowd of people in a foreign language which one knows only as far as being able to understand and be understood, but for which one lacks practice in thinking and speaking. But it did come to that. Those present had been welcomed by the Mayor, the President of the Republic and various other personalities were mentioned, but no one had thought of saying a word about Berlioz himself, in whose honour we had come together. So I asked to be allowed to speak and went straight in to fill this gap. I could not fail to mention Franz Liszt, who was the first to have recognised Berlioz’ eminent talent and who had been active for him, as with so many others, in deed, writing and word, in his own generous and enthusiastic way. The warmth of the response demonstrated to me that Liszt has not been forgotten in France, which gave me great joy.
After the banquet we got together in small groups for an excursion in the beautiful surroundings, from which I particularly remember the picturesque view of « Bougueron », a small castle high up which has now been turned into a clinic for nervous diseases.
In the evening there was the first concert of the festival, a performance of La Damnatation de Faust. What a wonderful work! Its origins go back to when Berlioz was a young man. He wrote music for a bad French prose translation of Goethe’s Faust under the title of Huit scènes de Faust (now published as op. 1 in the complete edition of Breitkopf and Härtel). He sent the manuscript with a glowing letter to Goethe, who, however, under the negative influence of Zelter, did not reply. Later he composed a connecting text which he set to music, and re-used the music from his early work with changes which were sometimes very extensive. So La Damnation de Faust came into being, perhaps the most mature work of his later peiod. How wonderfully diabolical is the characterisation of Mephistopheles, how inward and beautiful are the songs of Marguerite, how pure is the Easter Hymn and how enchanting the Chorus of Sylphs! Where do you begin if you want to describe the scintillating vitality, the variety of scenes, the constantly renewed and almost inexhaustible stream of ideas, which shine forth from this amazing music. In addition the whole work has a flavour of naiveté reminiscent of collections of old folktales and puppet-shows on the subject of « Faust ».
The performance was good, the orchestra excellent, the chorus small but excellently trained. It was a delight to hear the work in French. Everything came out lighter and clearer. The recitatives, performed in an expressive parlando, made a very dramatic impact. The conductor, M. Jéhin, who works in Monte Carlo during the winter and in Aix-les-Bains during the summer, took the tempi faster than is the practice in Germany, which contributed a great deal to the intensity of the feeling. I found the performance in many ways very instructive.
The second concert of the festival, in the afternoon of the following day, brought in the first half excerpts from Roméo et Juliette, the Harold symphony, and Béatrice et Bénédict, and also Le Carnaval romain under the direction of my colleague in Paris M. Marty, the director at the time of the Conservatoire concerts, who has since died [October 1908]. The second part consisted of the Symphonie fantastique under my direction. The enthusiasm of the public in both concerts was enormous, and at the end of the symphony I could not think of a better way of expressing the general feeling than of placing on the score a laurel crown that had been given to me, and so transfer the applause to he who alone deserved it.
But the best experience was still to come. I had already met the Mayor of La Côte Saint-André, Berlioz’ birthplace, during the inauguration of the statue. As I had been unable to attend the official celebrations there, he invited me to come after the last concert, and asked me at the same time to donate the crown of palm-leaves, which I had placed at the foot of the monument, to the small museum in La Côte Saint-André which was due to be opened, in the very house in which Berlioz was born. I had gladly accepted and had already been surprised the next morning by a serenade performed by a small band of valiant musicians, the « Société philharmonique » of La Côte Saint-André. But after the concert it was now much too late to use the railway. M. Henri Meyer (that is the name of the kind Mayor), had therefore procured a motor car, in which we stormed through the distance, which takes two hours by train, in one solid hour. It was my first journey by car. My initial feeling of anxiety soon gave way to one of total delight at this « course à l’abîme », the name we gave to this mad dash after the title in the last part of La Damnation de Faust. In truth it was a Ride to the Abyss! My head was still full of the daring sounds of the Witches’ Sabbath and the devil scenes in Faust. Flying over us were at times dark clouds, then scintillating stars, we ourselves perched on a breathing monster, at times panting uphill, then downhill into an abyss with the speed of an arrow, to the right and left illuminated houses flying by like dreams, then again wide fields plunged in darkness, a startled dog barking at us, far in the distance in front shrieking people jumping aside, who in the next moment were already far behind us, trees, bushes, rocks springing up and disappearing like ghosts, and everything in the pitch-dark night, so that the unpractised eye could scarcely follow the twists in the road, a flight through dark air, seemingly with no ground underneath or direction — truly a scene à la Berlioz, which he might himself have envied. We kept laughing and repeating: la course à l’abîme, la course à l’abîme !
Eventually an unusually bright light appeared shimmering in the distance. « La Côte St. André illuminée à votre honneur », said my companion with a gentle bow. I thought I was dreaming; in the middle of France a city illuminated in honour of a German guest? — And yet that was true. The car moderated its speed. We entered the little town which numbers around 4,000 inhabitants. Every window is illuminated. Despite the late time at night — it was after ten o’clock — everybody was up. Loud acclamations ring out. The Mayor holds up high the crown with its ribbon. « La couronne d’Allemagne ! » he shouts everywhere. The music starts playing, we descend from the car and are escorted in a solemn procession to the town-hall with music and lanterns. I had great difficulty in containing my emotion. Apart from the fact that I was entering in such memorable circumstances the birthplace of the master I so greatly revered, the joy and amazement of the people that someone should come from far away to honour their great compatriot was something indescribably moving. In addition everyone was so polite and friendly, no ugly shouts were to be heard, no drunkards to be seen, there was no discourtesy, only the expression of a genuine patriotism of a kind one dreams of in one’s youth, and which was now transferred to me as the friendly foreign artist and champion of their « grand compatriote ».
At the town-hall I was welcomed with due ceremony and, as expressly requested, wrote a short dedication in German in which I handed over the crown to the house in which Berlioz was born. Then to the accompaniment of music and Bengali lights we made our way to the monument. In an open square there stands a faithful copy of the beautiful statue in Paris, which was now brightly lit with torches. The burgomaster addressed me, and I replied with the request that they should honour not me, but the great master, on whose behalf it is the duty of every artist worthy of the name to exert himself. The procession moved on to the house where Berlioz was born, where the current owner welcomed me with his family. I deposited the crown in what had once been the study of the young Berlioz, which is now turned into a museum, and visited the living quarters of the family and also a few memorabilia which are still extant. From the balcony of a restaurant to which we made our way and where a reception with drinks had been prepared, I had to thank again the population and the musicians for their exceptional and unforgettable welcome. One of the citizens responded to this and talked about the « génie allemand », which had never ceased to produce great men. I replied that though not a politician I would like to give expression to the hope that Art and the great questions of Culture would continue to bring both peoples ever closer together.
It was late before I could go and take rest, and yet it took a long time before I fell into a light and agitated sleep. But the « feu sacré » of the great Berlioz was not yet extinguished and made another visit, but this time in a rather literal way. Around 3 o’clock I was awoken by noises and fanfares. A warehouse in the vicinity was burning brightly and completely destroyed by fire, though fortunately nothing worse happened. That was the end of any sleep and so I got up around 5 o’clock, with the idea of getting an impression at daybreak of the friendly neighbourhood of this idyllic little town. There is a large white house of modern construction a little outside the city, but otherwise the surroundings may well look very much as they appeared to the child and the growing young man: a green and smiling plateau with undulating and wooded hills, none of the grotesque sorcery which his overactive imagination knew how to conjure in music. Monsieur Meyer accompanied me to Grenoble, but now in a early morning train, where I took leave of the new friends I had made there.
Once more the long but beautiful journey to Geneva. Friendly Lausanne, with its bright blue lake and the picturesque bank on the opposite side in Savoy, fly past my eyes. It is night by the time I reach Zürich. A comfortable sleeper-carriage welcomes me on board. And now I enjoy real sleep, sound and deep, and wake up shortly before Munich. A few hours later the mountains of the Bavarian range greet me again.
The festival at Grenoble lies like a dream behind me, as does the fairy-tale night in the birthplace of the great Hector Berlioz.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir
Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997;
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