The Hector Berlioz Website

Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions

Tom S. Wotton

Hector Berlioz



    The wish to know something of the life and character of a great man is a natural one. Whether, in the case of an artist, this knowledge will help us to understand his works is problematical. So many instances might be adduced of extraordinary divergences between the man and the artist, that it would seem that there is some niche, some sanctuary, in the brain of a genius that is entirely independent of external influences, and is unexplained by any theory of heredity. As Berlioz said,1‘There is within me an inexplicable mechanism which functions in spite of reason, and I allow it to function, because I cannot prevent it.’ Taking this to be generally true, we must not forget that we are dependent on the man for the delivery of the message from the secret shrine. The voice of the god reaches us only through the mouth of his prophet, and hence some knowledge of the latter is of moment that we may have some means of estimating how much the divine message has suffered in transmission, as suffer it must, because the god is always greater than his prophet.

    In the case of Hector Berlioz there are many who are inclined to doubt the existence of the god, since to them the prophet hesitates and stammers too much in his musical speech to warrant there being any inspiration. Others deny this hesitancy ; or, admitting its occasional occurrence, declare that it does not detract from the truth or clarity of the message, nay, that it is often more effective than the precise diction so common with mediocrities.

    He who listens to the message is also of importance ; and one of his endeavours should be that of placing himself in the position of the original audience. It is not easy ! What to the first hearers of Beethoven’s symphonies were tricks of orchestration, calling forth the sarcasm of the youthful Weber, to-day are commonplaces. Even so magical an effect as that of the muted horns in the ‘Tarnhelm’ motive cannot move us as it did the pilgrims to Bayreuth in 1876. It has been the same in other ways, and thus of necessity we lose much of the force of the composer’s thought. It is obvious that, if he expresses it by means of original orchestration and original harmony, the effect — as far as the present-day listener is concerned — is weakened when both the orchestration and the harmony have entered into everyday usage. Berlioz, however, has suffered comparatively little from a vulgarization of his medium of expression, since he has had no direct imitators, though we can trace his influence in many ways. Most of his ideas seem as fresh to-day as when they were minted.

    Many listeners are perhaps inclined to look upon Berlioz as being a more modern composer than he was. It may be a compliment to him, but at the same time it is unfair, since, though he anticipated much that is to be found in modern music, we — maybe unconsciously — do not judge music composed in this present year of grace by quite the same standards as we apply to the works of the old masters. We must bear in mind the fact that Berlioz had finished his career before the later operas of Wagner were produced. And as his style, unlike that of the German master, remained unchanged throughout his life, only becoming more mature as he gained experience, we shall perhaps understand him better, if we regard him as being a composer of the 1830’s, a decade which included the Fantastic Symphony in its revised form, the Rob Roy and King Lear overtures, The Fifth of May, the Requiem, Benvenuto Cellini, and his Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies, to say nothing of Sara la baigneuse, Summer Nights, and other minor works. As he wrote to Adolphe Samuel after the productin of The Childhood of Christ2 in 1854, ‘The good folk of Paris say that I have changed my style, that I have “improved”. It is unnecessary to tell you that I have merely altered my subject.’

    To understand the character of Berlioz the man, we may learn much from the opinions of his contemporaries, but as these are often coloured by the bias of the writer or speaker, it is well not to place too much stress on them. His own writings tell us a great deal more, though even with them we must use discrimination. To saddle him with the ideas expressed in some of his articles would be unfair. He was forced to write them to keep the wolf from his door, and to ensure their acceptance had to conform to the policy of the particular journal in which they appeared. His notice of Le Prophète,3 for instance, by no means represents his real opinion of the opera, which, Saint-Saëns tells us, he loathed. But Meyerbeer was too powerful, and his music too firmly enshrined in the hearts of the Parisians for even the Débats to question its merits. On the whole, however, from his numerous articles we can gather a fairly faithful picture of the man, the musical creed to which he held unswervingly throughout his life, his likes and dislikes, his rather grim sense of humour, his poetic fancy, his proneness at times to exaggerations and to piling up his superlatives in the endeavour to express his feelings — in short, we are able to form a tolerably accurate idea of the character of the prophet who delivers the divine message. But we must be careful not to place undue emphasis on any single trait. Led astray by his occasional habit of exaggeration, many have found the same fault in nearly every score he penned, and, worse still, have thought to do him a service by introducing exaggeration into the rendering of his works. As we shall see, in this respect at least, Berlioz the musician must not be judged by our estimate of Berlioz the man.

    Of the four books published in his lifetime Voyage musical en Allemagne et en Italie (1844) is practically reproduced in his later literary works, with a few retouches that possess greater value for the psychologist than the musician. In Les Grotesques de la musique (1859) we find much of that grim humour to which I have alluded. Even in some of his music I would see something of the same quality. His own description of the Orgy of the Harold in Italy Symphony seems to bear out my idea. The two other books, Les Soirées de l’orchestre (1852) and A travers chants (1862), both consisting principally of articles and feuilletons already published, are of value, inasmuch as he was free to express his opinions untrammelled by the ‘policy’ of any journal.

    Berlioz in his Memoirs tells us how he detested journalism. ‘To write nothing about nothing ! To deal out lukewarm praise and insufferable insipidities ! To speak of a great master one day, and the next of a crétin with the same seriousness, in the same language ! To devote one’s time, one’s intelligence, one’s courage, one’s patience to this task, with the certitude of not being of the slightest service to art.... Oh ! It is the height of humiliation !’ Nevertheless, he must have enjoyed carrying out some of his duties. He would have revelled in criticizing Gluck or Beethoven, and I do not fancy he experienced much difficulty in writing a column and a half in praise of the Hebrides Overture in La Gazette musicale.4 Judging by the length and number of those of his letters that have been preserved, he certainly had no objection to the physical exertion of writing. We were promised a complete collection of them some thirty years ago, but, like so many other promises relating to Berlioz and his works, it has never been carried out.5 As it is, the letters are scattered through so many books and magazines that it is almost impossible for any one to be cognizant of all of them, and thus it is easy to overlook something of importance in estimating the character of our prophet. From a psychological point of view the letters to Berlioz’s lifelong friend, Humbert Ferrand, are of immense value. To his own family — except perhaps to his father in his earlier years and his sister Adèle in his later ones — the composer wrote perfunctorily, partly because of their want of sympathy with his chosen career and his selection of a wife, but perhaps principally because he knew that his letters would probably be read by a number of persons outside the family circle — in those days a letter from Paris was an event in a small village. To Ferrand alone he laid bare his soul. Unfortunately, since Ferrand was no musician, his friend only touched on the poetic side of his compositions. Had it been otherwise, we might have had more information as regards the origin of the Fantastic Symphony and other of his works. Whether these Lettres intimes are textually accurate and without omissions, I do not know, nor how far the collection is complete. The letters that Berlioz wrote from Italy, when he was contemplating the murder of his faithless fiancée, are not included, having been probably destroyed by Ferrand on their receipt ; and others may have shared the same fate. In spite of the strong friendship between the two men, they were sharply divided on one important point. While Ferrand was a devout Catholic, Berlioz was a free-thinker, and as such must often have shocked his friend as he shocked, rather with malice aforethought, Mendelssohn at Rome. It is strange that so many letters of a great man should be preserved. One would have thought that those who loved him would burke letters penned under great mental stress, when the writer was obviously not himself. In any case, it is spiteful to collate too closely those, written hurriedly under some strong emotion, with the man’s public utterances. After all, by reading them we are doing something which, were the writer living, would be discreditable.

    From a musical standpoint, the sixty-three letters of Berlioz in the three volumes of Briefe an Franz Liszt are the most valuable, since the latter was almost the only musician with whom the French composer was on terms of real intimacy. He of course discussed music in his letters to Hans von Bülow, Adolphe Samuel (twenthy-six letters in Le Ménestrel of 1879), Morel, and others, but he was not on the same terms with them. Unfortunately, towards the end of his life Berlioz’s friendship with Liszt was dimmed owing to the jealousy of Marie Recio, his second wife. Although Liszt had helped him with performances of his works at Weimar, he realized, what was undoubtedly the truth, that his friend’s admiration for his music had been largely replaced by one for Wagner’s compositions. And such disappointment as he not unnaturally experienced was aggravated by Marie’s clacking tongue. It also affected his relations with Wagner, as the German master perfectly appreciated. Berlioz’s correspondence with Liszt is partially completed by his letters to Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, which he hoped would also be read by Liszt. But this vicarious mode of communication was not the same as the direct one. Berlioz was flattered by the Princess’s interest in his work, and her insistence — the idea possibly originating with Liszt — that he should write an opera based on Virgil’s Aeneid, but I doubt whether he entertained any particular liking for the lady. The expansiveness of his letters is little more than that which he exhibits in his feuilletons and articles. And he touches rarely on the musical side of The Trojans.

    Space forbids our dwelling on the character of our prophet so far as may be gathered from a study of his letters. They may be a truer guide than the Memoirs, but the latter demand more attention, since they are the best known of Berlioz’s writings, and have invited the greatest amount of criticism, much of it swayed by a misconception (honest or the reverse) of the author’s intentions, or by a desire of the critic to display the extent of his erudition and laborious research. To a lover of the master the continual harping on trivial inaccuracies, the dubbing the composer a deliberate liar on insufficient grounds, are distressing. The position of the critics would be stronger if they could support their case by the opinion of Berlioz’s contemporaries of the truth of the Memoirs. But this they seldom, if ever, do. Yet out of the 500 pages of the first edition (published in 1870 in large 8vo) only 138 had not previously appeared in some form or another, certain episodes having been published as much as twenty-five years before. For example, the story of Habeneck taking (or being about to take) a pinch of snuff at one of the most important moments of the Requiem appeared in Le Monde illustré of 1859. At that date some hundreds of persons were living who had figured in either the chorus, or the orchestra, or the audience of the first performance, and were competent to deny or affirm the truth of the tale, which, as Berlioz told Ferrand in a letter of 28 April [CG no. 2368], ‘created a sensation’. Probably Berlioz’s pebble did not make so many ripples as he supposed, but nevertheless the story must have been discussed in musical circles. Yet Ernest Reyer, reviewing the Memoirs in the Journal des Débats of 15 May 1871, accepted the tale as true, though he added that Habeneck’s behaviour was ‘probably not dictated by that evil intention attributed to it by Berlioz’. That the celebrated conductor was in the habit of taking snuff during performance seems to have been a fact, since M. Julien Tiersot made enquiries on this point amongst orchestral musicians who had played under Habeneck. As Berlioz was aware of this unfortunate habit, he must have been on the alert. The slightest movement of the conductor’s hand in the direction of the pocket wherein reposed the tabatière would have aroused the composer’s suspicions, and he would have acted as described in the Memoirs. He had good reason to be mistrustful of conductors after Grasset had ruined the final conflagration of The Death of Sardanapalus, and Girard had spoilt the effect of the first movement of the Harold in Italy Symphony from his inability to observe the tempo indications.

    Hippeau6 and Jullien7 doubt Berlioz’s story, basing their disbelief on the fact that he did not mention it at the time to his confidant, Humbert Ferrand. Musicians and writers on music may not be overburdened with a keen sense of logic, but nevertheless the two eminent critics I have cited might have had the wit to see the weakness of their argument — that, because Berlioz did not tell Ferrand, therefore the latter was not told. As a matter of fact, the composer did not write to his friend until twelve days later after the performance of the Requiem — he was seldom so dilatory ! — and commenced his letter, ‘Flayol wrote to you some eight or ten days ago ; for that reason I have waited....’ What warranty have those who discredit the story of the snuff-box incident for asserting so positively that Flayol’s letter did not contain full particulars of the incident, which, as Berlioz told Ferrand in 1859, appears in a ‘much diluted’ form in the Memoirs ? M. Adolphe Boschot,8 ever ready to brand Berlioz a liar with or without evidence, declares Berlioz’s tale to be a figment of his brain, since, had it been true, there would have been some mention of it in the press, in which the composer woud have ‘screamed louder than all the trumpets of his Last Judgement’. Setting aside the fact that few editors would have been anxious to publish a scandal that involved a favourite conductor, a cabinet minister (Cavé), the venerable head of the Conservatoire, and goodness alone knows who else, the composer’s friends would have advised him strongly against making a grievance out of what might have been merely inadvertence on the part of Habeneck. That this is probably what happened is borne out by an article by L. E.9 in Temple Bar of October 1883. He relates how Berlioz asked the advice of himself and other friends whether he should include the tale of the snuff-box in the Memoirs. They unanimously vetoed any idea of telling it to the world. I take it that Berlioz’s friends were equally unanimous a dozen years before. My position may not be impregnable, but I am better entrenched than those whose emphatic beliefs might be blown sky-high, if Flayol’s letter ever came to light.

    The Memoirs are of value, not only as an aid to forming our estimate of Berlioz’s character, but because they contain a vast amount of information relative to musical conditions in France, Germany, Russia, and England during a large portion of the last century. All books of the autobiographical type contain inaccuracies, for the simple reason that no author has at hand the material that is subsequently collected by his commentators, even if he keeps an impossibly complete diary from his earliest years. Impressions recorded at the time in all honesty may not be in strict accord with the absolute facts. Memoirs, to be of value, must be viewed from the proper angle. In the case of those of Berlioz it is imperative, because, should we omit to do so, we are liable to form a wrong idea of the musician. No prophet is honoured in his own country, because his neighbours, knowing his frailties and possibly not impressed by his personal appearance, cannot believe him to be the true transmitter of a divine message. Many people, if it be dinned often enough into their ears that Berlioz is a liar, will take it as gospel, doubt the sincerity of the man, and discover insincerity in his music.

    M. Adolphe Boschot, Berlioz’s most exhaustive, and unfortunately most unsympathetic, biographer, is obsessed with the conviction of the untruthfulness of the composer. He may boast of having unearthed ‘at least one document’ for each week of Berlioz’s mature life. But as Dr. Jacques Barzun10 observes : —

The use he has made of these tons of paper is unfortunately of little worth, for he fails constantly to keep in mind the numerical and spiritual ratio between the acts of life and the documents that record them. A man, especially a man of the most inexhaustible genius like Berlioz, lives in at least two planes, one of prosaic activity and a second of fertile creativeness and the importance of each to the genius himself is not be estimated by balancing laundry bills against symphonies. But M. Boschot is so impressed by the “testimony” of scraps of paper that he forgets why he has collected them, namely to understand Berlioz.

To attempt to write on Berlioz without consulting documents and previous authorities would be an impertinence. But more harm is done by the misuse of authorities, by taking negative evidence to be absolute proof — a common fault of illogical minds — or by accepting as witnesses for the prosecution those whose reliability is suspect. For examples of the first I may refer the reader to many examples to be found in M. Boschot’s three volumes : as an instance of the second method, I would cite the much more understanding and sympathetic Edmond Hippeau. The latter relies largely, especially with respect to Berlioz’s matrimonial difficulties, on Ernest Legouvé, the celebrated playwright, whose Soixante ans de souvenirs contains a chapter devoted to the composer. I must confess that I have not read the whole book, but I have no reason to think that Legouvé’s memory is more treacherous than that of other writers of souvenirs. In this particular chapter, however, he relates how Berlioz dragged himself from a sick-bed to vote for Charles Blanc (at whose hands he had received a kindness twenty years before) who was seeking election to the Academy. ‘A fortnight later he [Berlioz] was dead’ concludes Legouvé — Hippeau, by the way, reducing the interval to a week. Now the election took place on 25 November 1868, and Berlioz did not die till the following March ! I would not place too much stress on Legouvé’s lapsus calami — as a dramatist, he was tempted to conclude his story dramatically — but if Berlioz had been guilty of such a slip, how the gadflies would have fastened on it ! I would merely observe that, if I found a witness so unreliable as regards events that had occurred only a few years before he recorded them, I should be extremely cautious in accepting the testimony in respect of those of thirty or forty years before.

    As Berlioz said in the preface to The Damnation of Faust, ‘possibly these remarks may seem puerile to those nimble wits (excellents esprits) who are wont to see at once into the heart of things’, but, unhappily, in writing of the French master, before one can obtain a clear view of the picture, it must be cleansed from accumulated grime. I repeat, there are no more inaccuracies in Berlioz’s Memoirs than there are in the majority of such books. As the level-headed Romain Rolland says, ‘The errors of the Memoirs have been much exaggerated. And besides, Berlioz was the first to point out, in his preface, that “he would only tell what it pleased him to tell”, and that “he was not writing his Confessions [in the style of J. J. Rousseau]”. Who would dream of reproaching him for this ?’11 Even in passages where his memory was most at fault, it is often easy to understand how it betrayed him. In Harmonie et mélodie Saint-Saëns says,

It is because he [Berlioz] took himself to be a Faust, a Manfred, that he has depicted himself in his Memoirs in very false colours, pretending to hate mankind, he who the smallest mark of sympathy moved to tears. He only hated the profanum volgus, like Horace, like all artists and all poets. In reality, he was not only sincere, he was naïve in the best sense, naïve like Haydn, at whose naïvety he was so ready to laugh.

The opening words of the above I venture to question. Berlioz did not try deliberately to mould himself on Faust, Manfred, or René. He was the character itself in some respects, and hence his admiration for the plays of Goethe and Shakespeare and the tales of Chateaubriand, finding therein some image of himself.

    Berlioz was almost the only composer of any note who can be considered as a child of the Revolution, the official date of his birth being 19 Frimaire of the year XII of the Republic (11 December 1803). He belonged to a generation whose ideas and feelings are difficult for us to understand, although they were somewhat analogous to those engendered by the Great War. For many years, with the opening year of the last century as centre, all Europe was (as now) in a state of unrest. New ideas in science, in art, in religion, in the destinies of humanity, had permeated all the western nations and every section of society. In France, where those ideas had been transformed into deeds, the effect of them was considerably greater. As regards the mass of the population, the glitter and military pomp of the first Empire did much to change the current of their thoughts. But there still remained a large number of intellectual men, more especially amongst those cursed with the artistic temperament, with minds still torn by doubts and longings for they knew not what. This mal du siècle in Berlioz’s case may have been aggravated by heredity. His father, Dr. Berlioz, appears to have led a tranquil, philosophical life, but the large doses of opium he was compelled to take to assuage his agonizing intestinal pains could scarcely have fitted him to be an ideal parent from the eugenic point of view. We find the ‘malady of the century’ described in Chateaubriand’s works, in Alfred de Musset’s Confessions d’un enfant du siècle, and can gather some idea of it from passages scattered throughout Berlioz’s own writings. For instance, he prefaces his account of his aimless wanderings in Paris and the environs after seeing Hamlet in September 1827 :

The shock was too great, and I was long in recovering. To an intense, profound mental disturbance, impossible to surmount, was joined a nervous, not to say pathological, condition of which a clever psychologist alone could give an appropriate idea.

Early in January 1830 he appears to have had a recurrence of the same symptoms, aggravated by toothache. On this occasion his emotions found relief in the composition of his Elegy, and I suspect that at other times music served him as a safety-valve.

    Quite apart, however, from this mysterious mal du siècle, the sudden change from the uneventful life of the village to the turmoil of Paris must have had an enormous effect on one so highly strung as himself. To a ‘shy and ignorant youngster’, such he declares himself to have been during his first years in the capital, with a countryman’s mistrust of the townfolk, the effort required to obtain recognition and to bring himself to the notice of all and sundry must have been a constant strain, as everyone afflicted with shyness will realize. At times it led him to commit audacities from which a more sophisticated person might recoil. The Memoirs touch lightly on his medical studies, but, until he finally discarded them on his entrance into the Conservatoire in 1826, he must have worked at them, if only half-heartedly. Two years after his arrival in Paris in November 1821, he was admitted as bachelier ès sciences physiques. At the same time he was endeavouring to atone for his lack of musical training, and striving to express himself in a language he as yet understood imperfectly. There is no need to dwell on the privations he underwent. Probably at the time he paid little heed to them, though no doubt he suffered from their effects later. During his early years in Paris his brain must have been working at abnormal pressure, and that he did not collapse, mentally and physically, is a matter of surprise. As we shall see in our next chapter, probably he was saved by Camille Moke from what we should call nowadays a ‘nervous breakdown’.

    Berlioz’s failure to obtain the Prix de Rome in 1828 with his cantata Herminia must have affected him deeply, though he himself in the Memoirs is inclined to jest on the matter. As M. Tiersot says,12

It is incomprehensible why this cantata was not considered worthy of the first prize. It is well written, and displays technical qualities which are lacking in some notable composers of the time. As to imagination, there is more in its hundred pages of orchestral score than in all the cantatas submitted for ten years and after ! It is moreover restrained, clear, and well balanced, which shows that Berlioz took great pains and, when penning it, constantly thought of the judges whose suffrages he sought.

The alleged reason for the examiners’ attitude was that Berlioz, perfectly justified by the words of the poem, had set four lines as a prayer (Largo) instead of including them in the final aria (Allegro). It is of interest to note that this crime apparently did not seem so heinous to the non-musical members amongst the examiners — the painters, writers, architects. At the first vote, when only musicians were present, Berlioz was not even accorded a place. At the second vote, with a mixed jury, he was awarded a second prize. The Philistines evidently could not appreciate the enormity of failing to set words commencing ‘God of the Christians’ as an ‘aria di bravura’. A pupil of Cherubini’s, Guillaume Ross-Despréaux, who may have died young, but certainly never did anything to vindicate the examiners’ decision, secured the first prize. Berlioz of course must have realized to the full the gross injustice of the treatment meted out to him ; and those who object to his divergences from academic usage should remember that from the beginning its supporters gave him small cause to admire it.

    It is tempting to wonder what would have happened if his cantata had been accepted, and he had been sent to Italy in 1828 instead of two years later. As far as his life was concerned, he probably would have been happier. It is reasonable to suppose that he would have forgotten his infatuation for Harriet Smithson. He would not have met Camille Moke, who, whatever temporary blessings she may have bestowed, embittered his life later by her heartless behaviour. The Fantastic Symphony would never have been written, though probably some of its music would have appeared in another guise. Instead, we should have had a ‘Faust’ Symphony, such as he had originally contemplated. Perhaps the principal difference his earlier departure for Italy might have made would have been as regards his reputation in Paris. Remembered as the composer of the innocuous Herminia he would have found many doors open to him that were closed to the composer of the revolutionary Fantastic Symphony. To be chained to the benches of the Conservatoire for two years as a student, when he felt himself (rightly or wrongly) to be a greater man than his masters, must have tried him sorely. How a sojourn in Germany, which in the normal course should have followed his time in Rome, would have affected him is problematical. Dependent on the town to which he was sent, from what we know of musical conditions in Germany in 1830, they might have disgusted him as much as those in Italy.

    Amongst the Romantics of France, few could have possessed the hypersensitiveness of Berlioz. Even among musicians, who are possibly more highly strung than other artists, it would be difficult in this respect to find his equal. As illustrative of this sensitiveness, take his description of the effect the hearing of music produced on him. As his account appears in the first article of A travers chants (1862), and as this is the partial reproduction of one of his earliest essays,13 evidently his abnormal response to music persisted throughout his life, though it was naturally more intense when he was a young man.

On hearing certain pieces of music my vital forces seem at first to be doubled. I feel a delicious pleasure, in which intelligence plays no part ; the habit of analysis then asserts itself and gives birth to admiration ; an emotion increasing proportionally to the energy or grandeur of the composer’s conception soon produces a strange effect on my circulation ; my arteries pulsate violently ; tears, which as a rule announce the end of the paroxysm, often indicate only a progressive stage soon to be passed. In this case, there follow spasmodic contractions of the muscles, tremblings of the limbs, a total absence of sensation in hands and feet, a partial paralysis of the visual and auditory nerves. I no longer see, I hardly hear ! Giddines... semi-unconsciousness.

By music he dislikes he is equally moved :

I crimson as with shame, and am filled with absolute indignation ; to see me one would believe that I had been the recipient of some unpardonable insult. To be quit of the impression, there is a general upheaval, an effort of excretion throughout the organism, analogous to attempts to vomit, when the stomach would rid itself of some nauseating liquid. It is disgust and hate carried to their extreme limits ; this music exacerbates me and I vomit it through all my pores.

We may discount something for the anxiety of the ex-medical student to give a correct diagnosis, and something perhaps for the tendency of a literary man towards exaggeration, but what remains is no doubt a true description of the extraordinary effect music produced on him. And one marvels how he managed to retain sufficient command of himself to permit him to conduct, especially his own works, which, as with every other composer, affected him most strongly. On several occasions he seems to have been on the verge of a break-down at performance, and to have been saved from mishap by the exercise of that indomitable will that he undoubtedly possessed. He could not have accomplished so much as he did had he lacked it.

    This temperamental hypersensitiveness was, however, not without its compensations. It was correlated with an abnormal sense of hearing and an appreciation of shades of tone-colour, which grosser ears would be unable to detect. As without question he felt music in a way that few, if any, had before him, he was able to strike new notes in it. Imitative music was almost coeval with music itself ; but that ‘atmosphere’, for which painters strove, was seldom present in the sister art. The mysterious nocturnal feeling of the opening chords of the distant chorus that prefaces the Love Scene of the Romeo and Juliet Symphony was a new experience in music. We can find similar passages elsewhere in the composer’s scores ; and it must be added that, though something may be due to the orchestration, often very discreet, much depends on the harmony. Here and there we find a curious suggestion of space, and it is not difficult to discover in his music sentiments hitherto unexpressed.

    Above I have said that Liszt was almost the only musician with whom Berlioz was on terms of real intimacy. But probably the one who knew him best was Saint-Saëns, and for that reason I have relied largely on him in my estimate of the subject of this book. Berlioz and Liszt met for the first time the day before the first performance of the Fantastic Symphony, and conceived a deep sympathy for one another. The ten years’ difference in their ages counted for little. The pianist, already a celebrity, was a man of the world, while Berlioz, unknown beyond a small circle, had still much of the provincial clinging to him. It would be a commonplace to add, that an intimacy begun in one’s early years must always hold something which a later friendship can never possess. Saint-Saëns’ first meeting with Berlioz was in December 1853, when the first symphony of the former was produced anonymously. Soon after he was entrusted with the piano arrangement of Lélio, and becoming a personal friend of its author, with the keen sight of gifted youth discovered the real man, whom the world deemed to be ‘haughty, spireful, and evil. On the contrary he was good, good to the verge of weakness, grateful for the slightest marks of interest evinced in him, and of an admirable simplicity that enhanced his sallies and mordant wit, since one never felt that he was striving after effect nor that desire to astonish his audience which spoils so many things.’14 The thirty-two years’ difference in the ages of the two composers may have prevented such an intimacy as existed between Berlioz and Liszt, but not materially. Berlioz’s was a very transparent nature, and when the two were in Paris Saint-Saëns must have come across him almost daily. The capital in those days was not a large place. Although the picture drawn by Saint-Saëns differs largely from the generally accepted one, I take it to be correct. Admiration and sincere affection may have softened his portrait, but even that is doubtful. Since he was cast in a different mould, I question whether he altogether approved Berlioz’s goodness, his naïvety, or his simplicity. When he exclaimed ‘Why should anyone want to deceive him, he who deceived no one ?’, apropos of Berlioz’s touching belief in the promises that were made to him by those who had no intention of fulfilling them, I fancy there was a trace of pity for this persistent faith. ‘He who deceived no one !’ It is difficult to realize that this is the Machiavellian creature of the legend, who cunningly scattered deliberate lies throughout the pages of his Memoirs, and was such a blind fool as to include many that told against him. The only chapter in which he deliberately veiled the truth is that dealing with his relations with Camille Moke. It is not a matter of surprise ! Few men would be disposed to discuss at length their entanglement with a girl, who was indubitably a shameless flirt.15 But mark the guilelessness of the man ! A few chapters farther on he relates the Drame (he calls it Épisode bouffon in Voyage musical) of his setting forth from Italy to slay a young woman, who is obviously the object of the ‘violent distraction’ of the previous one. We must not forget that when the Épisode bouffon appeared in 1844, there was no necessity for Berlioz to dot all his i’s. All Paris knew of the composer’s engagement to Mlle Moke, and of her jilting him for Pleyel. Berlioz deceived nobody. When he included the tale in his Memoirs, he added a footnote to the effect that the mother of his ‘aimable consolatrix’ announced the marriage of her daughter to M. P—. Knowing the whole truth, it is difficult to estimate how much a reader of the present day would gather from that footnote. It is far-fetched to imagine that Berlioz, who ‘was not writing his confessions’, believed his hint would be sufficient for future generations ? Even among musicians it is unusual for a man to contemplate the murder of a girl simply because she intends to wed some one else, unless he is strongly convinced that he has a prior claim to her affections.

    If we bear in mind Saint-Saëns’s portrait of Berlioz — and I see no reason for doubting its truthfulness — I believe we shall find corroboration in his letters and Memoirs, though in the latter, as Saint-Saëns suggests, he may in some respects have attempted to assume a character that was not natural to him. Or rather, he had assumed it so often, that it became a second nature to him. Like many shy people he donned a defensive armour in face of the world. The accusation of ‘pushfulness’ has been brought against him, but, if I read him right, the imperative necessity for it distressed him quite as much as it appears to distress some of his detractors. How else was he to obtain recognition ? Thanks to his family connexions, he had the ear of a few high-placed men in Paris, such as the Vicomte de la Rochefoucauld, but, if he had [not?] relied on them, his scores might have lain forgotten, like those of Bach and Schubert, awaiting some Mendelssohn, some George Grove, to bring them to light. As the tale goes, the youthful Nelson was taunted by his shipmates before some engagement, because his knees were trembling. The future admiral asserted (somewhat grandiloquently) that his body was aquake at the thoughts of the deeds of daring it would be called upon to perform. In Berlioz’s case, there was a similar conflict ’twixt mind and temperament. When he had that long conversation with Wagner in London in 1855 — the only time when the two composers approached a mutual understanding — the German master was particularly impressed by the intense loneliness of his French colleague.

    This terrible feeling of isolation, the mal de l’isolement, as Berlioz himself calls it, oppressed him all his life and accounts for many things. It explains his expansiveness, his eager desire to get into touch with some kindred spirit : it explains that tendency to be suspicious of others, noted by Reyer, and his rigid determination to plough his own furrow, mistrustful of developments, even when they were the logical evolution of his own theories ; and it explains the shyness which, in spite of accepted ideas, I fancy was part and parcel of him. Some of his fellow students at the Villa Medici were inclined to regard him as somewhat of a poseur, and probably some of his behaviour, such as using a skull as a drinking-cup à la Byron, may have encouraged their belief. He himself would certainly have resented the imputation. He dreaded the household knowing that he at times passed his nights in the garden, lest he should be accused of ‘swank’ (manière). He had his little vanities, as, for instance, cultivating that extraordinary mop of hair, but few of us are exempt from them, and artists as a race seem peculiarly prone to them. Many of his poses were natural to him. As I have suggested, there was much of a Manfred, a René, inherent in him, and his solitary boyhood accentuated his natural bent. His very real love for Estelle, aggravated by its hopelessness, must have led to unhealthy brooding and introspection. Somewhere he admits that he was not a particularly pleasant companion during his early days in Rome [Memoirs, chapter 36], and we can understand his attitude. He had no wish to go to Italy, and was disgusted at the musical conditions he found there, to say nothing of his continual worry at not receiving letters from his fiancée, to whom he was undoubtedly strongly attached. Mendelssohn declared that his French acquaintance thought of nothing else but getting married, and we can imagine how bored he must have been at descriptions of Camille’s charms. In any case, a shy lonely man, averse from society, is often credited with behaviour foreign to his real nature. That he felt a restraint in general society we know from some of his home letters, in which he touches on it as though his family were fully aware of his feelings.

    Berlioz’s pushfulness was forced upon him ; his anxiety to obtain some settled post — conductor at the Opéra, a professorship at the Conservatoire, and the like — was prompted by a desire to possess a fixed income in order that he might have opportunities for composing free from the eternal grind of writing press-notices. His ‘poses’ were ingrained in him. If he had completed his medical studies, and led the humdrum life of a country doctor, he probably would have had much the same reputation. Where he exhibited any deliberation in connexion with his poses — and after all, its deliberateness is surely one of the essentials of a pose — was in using them as a means of advertising himself and bringing himself to the notice of the public, impelled by the far from ignoble wish to obtain recognition as a musician. We shall find an example of this in the next chapter. I would only remark here that, in so doing, he often displayed great naïvety, as great as that of many a modern writer (male or female), who innocently believes that a portrait in the newspapers will induce the public to purchase his or her books. In Paris a hundred years ago, when all the world knew of the relations of George Sand with Alfred de Musset, Chopin, and others, and of Liszt with the Comtess d’Agoult, the infatuation of Berlioz for Harriet Smithson must have seemed rather a tame affair, decidedly lacking in spice.

    In estimating the character of our prophet we must not leave out of account one weakness, probably due to his race. The Dauphinois seem to be rather given to treasuring up both kindnesses and wrongs, and to possess a determination to ‘get even’ with the author of them. We have seen how Berlioz remembered a kindness after twenty years, and endeavoured to return it at great cost to himself. On the other hand, we have several examples of his ‘petty vengeances’, as he calls them, which, he explained to Hiller, ‘were superfluous, but necessary’. Sometimes, as with respect to Cherubini, his ‘getting his own back’ was tinged by the schoolboyishness that he never outgrew. At times, however, his vengeances were undignified and unworthy of him, as when he introduced Camille Moke into two of his tales. They are one of the indices to his character. And we must not forget, although he was inclined to repudiate the idea in a letter to Ferrand, that we owe the Fantastic Symphony to this trait.


1. Correspondance inédite, Letter lxxxiv. [CG no. 2203]

2. Here and elsewhere I have used the accepted English title of the work, but I would point out that it is a mistranslation. The trilogy has nothing to do with the childhood of Christ.

3. Included in Les Musiciens et la musique, Paris, 1903.

4. I have particularly singled out the criticism of the overture, since one of the minor superstitions as regards Berlioz is that he did not appreciate the music of Mendelssohn. On the contrary, he was enthusiastic over the Walpurgis Night and the symphonies, and even applauded the two oratorios, although German sacred music did not as a rule appeal to him.

5. Such a collection in order to possess any real value should naturally be without mutilation. It may seem superfluous to insist on this point, but it is necessary. The Correspondance inédite does not appear to be always accurate, and in another collection of Berlioz’s letters all technical details are omitted, thanks possibly to the publisher rather than the editor, but in any case an outrageous proceeding. The importance of these omissions may be judged by the fact that in one letter, extracted from a more conscientious collection, the technical details refer to alterations in the Finale of the Harold in Italy symphony not recorded in any edition of the score.

6. Berlioz intime, Paris, 1883.

7. Hector Berlioz, sa vie et ses œuvres, Paris, 1888.

8. Un Romantique sous Louis-Philippe, Paris, 1908.

9. Probably Louis Engel, at that time a well-known critic and musicologue resident in London.

10. ‘The “New” Biography, or de Mortuis Nil Nisi Bunkum’ (The Lion and Crown, 1933).

11. Berlioz, La Revue de Paris, 1 March 1904.

12. Le Ménestrel of 2 Sept. 1906, in one of the instalments of Berlioziana which ran through the journal for many months.

13. ‘Aperçu sur la musique dramatique et la musique romantique’, Le Correspondant, 22 Oct. 1830.

14. Portraits et souvenirs.

15. Four years after her marriage to Pleyel she left the house one evening in company with a young man, with whom she undoubtedly passed the night, returning the next morning in a battered condition which argued an encounter with some jealous rival. Pleyel forgave her, and to repay his generosity, she left home for good some few days later. The husband obtained from the Courts a separation de corps et de biens. (See La Gazette des Tribunaux, quoted by Boschot in Une Vie romantique.)

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