The Hector Berlioz Website

Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions

Tom S. Wotton

Hector Berlioz

Chapter Two — THE LEGEND


    Around every great man legends cluster. Some arise in spite of him ; others he does not trouble to dissipate ; some he may even encourage. Berlioz was no exception to the rule, and hence was responsible, directly or indirectly, for some of the opinions of himself and his music, which were prevalent during his lifetime and have persisted until the present day. The idea, for instance, that the major portion of his music is ‘eccentric’. Nowadays, this may be mainly due to the fondness of the ordinary person for outworn clichés. But some of it originated with Berlioz. At the commencement of his career he believed that by drawing attention to himself he would arouse in the Parisians a desire to hear his music. In this he succeeded, but the result was not quite what he anticipated. As has been suggested in the last chapter, his ‘poses’ were genuine enough ; but if his fellow students in Italy, who knew the manners and the customs of the Bohemians depicted in Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, were inclined to deem him a poseur, we may be sure that the good bourgeois of Paris looked upon him as highly eccentric, and applied the same epithet to his music, since it is an undoubted truth that, when any one obtains a reputation for possessing any particular characteristic, many will detect it where it does not exist. Let a man once gain a reputation for wit, and his most fatuous remarks will be quoted as unquestionable proofs of it. That Berlioz soon after his arrival in Paris should have joined the ranks of the Romantics was but natural. He found amongst them kindred spirits. This alone would have made him suspect in the eyes of the Parisians. They would be apt to view his music with the same mistrust that they extended to the works of the Romantics in other directions.

    What kind of music would the ordinary concert-goer of 1832 — or, for a matter of that, of 1932 — expect from the pen of a man described in the following terms ?

On the days when the English were not playing [that is, Kemble’s company, of which Harriet Smithson was a member] Berlioz could not contemplate the idea of seeing Miss — on the morrow without a shudder. He dreaded the moment as one of crisis and paroxysm ! Then he might be found in a corner of the orchestra at the Odéon, pale, disordered and wild-eyed, his long hair and beard unkempt, listening, gloomy and taciturn, to some comedy of Picard’s, which at times would wrench from him a terrible burst of hilarity, like that involuntary and miserable laughter resulting from the spasmodic contractions of the muscles in titillation. Pitied by some, he was an object of raillery for others. Humorists called him Père la Joie.

This occurs in a notice in the Revue de Paris for December 1832 of the Fantastic Symphony, which was performed on the 9th of the month in its revised version, soon after the composer’s return from Italy. The notice included a sketch of Berlioz’s life, which, although ostensibly written by Joseph d’Ortigue (who included it in his Le Balcon de l’Opéra), was practically penned by Berlioz himself. The late Charles Malherbe, in an article in the Rivista musicale italiana for 1906, relates how some manuscript notes of Berlioz were discovered at the Conservatoire — his first attempt at an autobiography — which had been utilized by d’Ortigue. Much of the two versions is collated, and the above paragraph, like many another, is practically the same in both cases, the published one varying, where the more practised pen of the journalist dictated the amelioration of some word or phrase. It will be noticed how the ex-medical student betrays himself. ‘Crisis’ and ‘paroxysm’ are used in a pathological sense, and the description of the laughter suggests a doctor’s diagnosis.

    As Berlioz had been recently introduced to Harriet and was recovering his past infatuation, his account of his love-lorn behaviour may have been intended primarily to induce that pity in her that is akin to love. But he also wanted to reawaken the interest of the public in himself and in his symphony, which was to be played again on 30 December. Unblushing advertisement ? Possibly. But, as I suggested in the previous chapter, neither more nor less blatant than the self-advertisement of the present day, often without the excuse of trying to persuade a reluctant public to purchase one’s artistic wares. Because he naïvely presented an unflattering picture of himself to arouse the interest of prospective concert-goers, it does not follow that his emotions at the Odéon and elsewhere were any the less real. They were perfectly genuine, with the possible reservation that we all have a tendency to exaggerate the outward and visible indications of our troubles when under the gaze of the public. There is nothing peculiar in his being able to record the spectacle he presented to others, as though, so to speak, he had been seated in the stalls and viewed his own performance on the stage. It is part of an artist’s make-up, the power to observe almost dispassionately his own reactions to various emotions. What I am inclined to doubt is whether Berlioz’s behaviour is to be attributed so much to his love for Harriet as he would have us believe, and as he had probably persuaded himself. The easiest person to deceive is oneself, and both sexes (perhaps more particularly the male) are apt to impute all their ills to the conduct of one of the opposite sex, though it must be admitted that many a man has been so far consistent as to attribute his successes to some feather-brained doll without two ideas in her head.

    Harriet Smithson and Marie Recio were the two women who, from the material point of view, most affected Berlioz’s life. But, from the spiritual point of view, their influence was not to be compared with that of Estelle Dubœuf and Camille Moke. Of the reality of his boyish love for the former there can be no doubt. His early adoration affected his character in that it aggravated his mal de l’isolement ; and without question it also affected his music. She inspired some of his melodies, and the chasteness of his love-music owes much to the purity of his affection for the lady of the petits brodequins roses. As Berlioz, without being a sensualist, was not without experience of the grosser manifestations of the sexual passion, one wonders what would have been the result had he elected to paint them. He, however, deliberately avoids the opportunity of so doing. He prefers to illustrate the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet rather than the subsequent one in the heroine’s chamber. In The Damnation of Faust Faust’s wooing is interrupted by Mephistopheles just as it begins to be interesting, as some critic has cynically remarked. In the Royal Hunt of The Trojans, when Aeneas and Dido enter the cave in which she forgets her vows, there is no indication of what is happening. And the beautiful love-duet of the next act bears no trace of earthly passion.1

    Taking Berlioz’s love for Estelle as being a sacred one, we may regard his love for Camille as his first profane one. It is a matter for wonder that he mentioned her in the Memoirs. Her presence is explained principally by the fact that he had related the Épisode bouffon in his Voyage musical, published only three or four years before he commenced his Memoirs. He gave the episode in the earlier book because his strong sense of humour prompted him to tell a good story even though it were somewhat against himself, and possibly he wanted to give his own version of his departure from and return to Rome. In both the Voyage and the Memoirs he tells us that his comrades at the Villa Medici refrained from questioning him on what he had done, and he would have been loth to enlighten them. If he concealed the harmless fact of sleeping in the garden, lest his fellow students should consider it ‘swank’, he certainly would not have been anxious to endure their banter if he had described his projected disguise in feminine garments. But they must have discussed Berlioz’s absence, and when later they learnt of Camille’s marriage to Pleyel, there must have been much rumour about what the jilted lover had actually done. It was necessary that he should give his own account of this mad escapade.

    When the composer first met Camille is uncertain. They were both teachers at the Institut Orthopédique directed by a Madame Daubrée, but the date of their joining the staff seems unknown. That, however, is immaterial. They would not have exchanged more than salutations when they met by chance, until Ferdinand Hiller asked Berlioz to convey his billets-doux to the young pianist. The German musician, in his Künstlerleben, gives an account of this, and no doubt it is substantially correct as regards the bare facts. But as his book was not published until 1880, he may well have forgotten details mentioned by the former which are dismissed by Hippeau as unlikely. Berlioz had much more reason for remembering the ‘violent distraction’. This is Hiller’s account:

A young German musician [Hiller himself] had been received very graciously by a charming French colleague ; they made music together under the eye of her mother, and so often and with such animation that they were anxious to see one another without mamma and without the piano.... My young compatriot had also made the acquaintance of Berlioz, who gave lessons on the guitar in a school where the former’s bien-aimée was piano mistress. He had the naïvety to confide his love-affairs to Berlioz and beg him to act as love’s messenger (postillon d’amour).

Hippeau2 comments on this : ‘Here you see Berlioz guilty of an abuse of confidence as regards Hiller, guilty as regards Henrietta Smithson ; Hiller deceived by both Camille and his friend.’ Now, whatever may be thought of Berlioz’s behaviour towards Hiller, how can he possibly have been guilty as regards Harriet ? If Smith, Jones, or Robinson becomes infatuated with a film star, if he writes to her and receives no answer, if he seeks an introduction and is rebuffed, and if he eventually falls in love with some female acquaintance, surely no one would consider him in any way guilty as regards the star ? For some inexplicable reason, however, Berlioz, even by some of his professed admirers, is judged by a standard totally opposed to that by which the rest of humanity is judged. Later on Hippeau remarks : ‘His [Berlioz’s] misadventure with Mlle Moke was in reality a very just punishment for his double betrayal of Miss Smithson and the excellent Hiller.’ How in the name of wonder can a man betray in any sense of the word a woman to whom he has never spoken, and who refuses to have any dealings with him ? A very just punishment ! If a man is to be punished for every woman who is deaf to his entreaties, the lot of the average man would not be a happy one.

    Strict moralists may not approve Berlioz’s conduct as regards Hiller, but they should take into account the fact that the German was only a boy of seventeen, Camille being the same age. Doubtless a very nice boy, since Madame Moke (herself a German) seems to have given him the run of the house : yet still only a boy, whose attentions to her daughter she would not have taken seriously. I question whether Camille did. She was undubitably a shameless flirt, but, apart from that, there is nothing extraordinary in a young girl discarding a boy of her own age in favour of a man ten years older, who was to boot already something of a celebrity. It is true that Berlioz should have been the last to undervalue the love of a boy. None of us, however, are disposed to admit that the troubles of others, from heart- to toothache, are quite so bad as our own. In any case I do not fancy that he had much choice in the matter. He was still in many ways the ‘shy and ignorant youngster’, with no experience of women, and, if Camille in any degree resembled his subsequent descriptions of her — and it was little exaggerated — he must have been as wax in her hands. Hippeau doubts whether Hiller (as reported by Berlioz) would have been so unwise as to say to Camille : ‘Oh ! I shall not be jealous of him ! I am quite sure he will never love you !’, and thus arouse in her the not unnatural curiosity to see whether this lover of the Irishwoman was really invulnerable. It becomes monotonous, this perpetual assumption that Berlioz was a liar ! An experienced man of the world might not have made such a remark, cynically doubting whether Berlioz’s infatuation was as great as he pretended or believed. With a boy of seventeen it would have been another matter. Unless human nature has altered considerably during the last hundred years, it was just the sort of chaff in which young people would indulge. It is, of course, only negative evidence, but in a letter from Hiller to Edmond Hippeau, dated Cologne 10/6/82,3 he makes no attempt to contradict the account of the ‘violent distraction’ in the Memoirs. In the course of the letter he says:

Filled by a certain idealism, which was scarcely apparent in my letters to Berlioz, I thought it honourable to remain the friend of the fiancé of her whom I imagined I adored. As to revenge, it was useless to attempt it. I am certain (without knowing it) that the marriage with Pleyel was already arranged when B. departed for Rome — I only gathered that from what every one said. Madame Moke certainly gasped “Ouf !” when she knew that her son-in-law (?) was out of France, and I do not fancy her daughter shed any tears..... Our poor Berlioz was not happy in his relations with the beau sexe, but it must be confessed that it was his own fault.

The first half of the last sentence is undoubtedly true : the second, however, is open to question. It may have been the fault of Berlioz that Camille preferred flirting with him rather than with Hiller. But he cannot be held responsible for her abominable conduct and that of her mother. If it had not been for Harriet’s terrible jealousy, which, as we shall see, was probably largely without cause, and prevented his travelling abroad, he might have dwelt with her at least as contentedly as he did with Marie, whom he did not love as much.

    Although I fail to understand how Berlioz could have in any way ‘betrayed’ Harriet, I fancy he did not transfer his affections to Camille without a struggle, if only because, having broadcast his admiration for the actress, he knew that the sudden extinguishing of it would excite ridicule. The attraction of Camille would no doubt have proved irresistible in any case : nevertheless he was anxious to have some reason for banishing Harriet from his thoughts. In a letter to Ferrand of 16 April 1830 he says that he has learned affreuses vérités concerning her, without specifying them or mentioning his informant [CG no. 158]. It may possibly have been Thomas Gounet, for in an undated letter to his friend4 Berlioz writes : ‘You have been, we have been strangely deceived as regards H. S....’ Whether Gounet had really heard any scandal about Harriet, or had invented it — not a difficult thing to do with respect to an actress — with the kindly idea of dispelling Berlioz’s absurd infatuation, is immaterial. Berlioz believed the scandal, because he wanted to believe it in order to justify his love for Camille, and in his heart of hearts he must have grown very tired of his sighings and whinings over this unapproachable goddess, who was frightened of him. These, however, are merely surmises. The point is, that Berlioz was deeply in love with Camille. I should almost be inclined to term it the big love of his life, and this because it was a perfectly normal one and not mingled with other ideas or emotions. His love for Estelle, which, in a letter to Tajan-Rogé of 1 January 1848,5 he singled out from his other loves, declaring that he ‘still shuddered to think of it’, most assuredly affected him enormously. But this devotion of a boy of twelve for a young woman six years his senior can scarcely be described as normal. Until Berlioz was introduced to Harriet at his concert of 9 December 1832, when the Fantastic Symphony was first given in its revised form, his infatuation for her was not the normal love of a man for a woman. In his letters to Ferrand, one has only to contrast those written when he called Harriet his Ophelia with those when Camille had him in thrall, to realize the fact. Although Berlioz no doubt deceived himself in the matter, his moanings and groanings in the former were very different from the healthy normal love expressed in the latter. Poets have sung of the beauty of love at first sight, and every lover has believed in the truth of it, forgetting the number of women by whom he was smitten at a distance, only to be woefully disappointed when he heard the lady’s conversation. Even admitting that true love can be begotten through the medium of only one of our senses, I doubt whether it can exist for long without the co-operation of the others, except for reasons quite apart from that which we call the tender passion. If Berlioz had first seen Harriet in Southerne’s Isabella, or the Fatal Marriage — the play in which she failed four days before his concert of 9 December 1832 — I much question whether she would have made the same impression on him. Seeing that the actress had seemingly been unsullied by the breath of slander during the time she played in Kemble’s company, true love would not have believed the affreuses vérités so readily. Berlioz was not the only man who admired the beautiful actress. Her dressing-room must have been a bower of flowers ; had she retained all her presents she might have stocked a jeweller’s shop ; sumptuous apartments were placed at her disposal. Yet her life was exemplary. But Berlioz’s love was an essentially artificial one, in keeping with that found in the novels of the time, many of which glorified a hopeless attachment. His infatuation wilted when he met Camille and was plunged into genuine love. And whatever her mother may have schemed, whatever she may have become eventually, I cannot believe that Camille was only playing a part. For some short time at least she loved Berlioz as far as her shallow nature admitted.

    The concert of 9 December must have been one of the most dramatic in the annals of music. Every one must have been in a state of tension. The audience, knowing the story of Berlioz and Harriet and the programme of the work intended to vilify the latter, must have been wondering if they were to witness some scene, ludicrous or scandalous. Harriet, in her box, pleased to be the cynosure of every eye, and hoping that the unexpected publicity might in some way change her theatrical failure into a success, that if the Parisians would not come to her as Isabella, they would be curious to see her as the heroine of a symphony. As she was not musical, the passionate phrases of the first movement and the devilish variation of the idée fixe (her motive), in the last would alike fail to move her. Any attempt to describe the turmoil of Berlioz’s emotions would be futile. Everything conspired to arouse in him a determination to marry this woman who had indirectly contributed to his musical triumph. And the opposition he encountered only strengthened his determination. Romain Rolland is inclined to dwell on Berlioz’s weakness as regards women, and possibly he may have exhibited a certain amount with respect to Marie Recio, though he was by no means the first man to find it impossible to discard a mistress. With Harriet, however, he displayed some of the qualities associated with the proverbial cave-man. His previous attempt at marriage had failed through no fault of his own. He would not be baulked a second time. His family were horrifed at the idea of his marrying an actress, and his father absolutely refused his consent. To enable him to marry, French law demanded that he should resort to the unpleasant operation of serving on Dr. Berlioz three sommations respectueuses, a rare occurrence in respectable families. The first of these was in February 1833, two months after he had been introduced to Harriet, and before the lady had definitely given her consent. The impetuosity of our prophet knew no bounds ! And it contrasts astoundingly with the patient care he devoted to his musical compositions. His friends sympathized with him, but they could not have approved of this marriage with a woman, who had broken her leg — on 1 March — and was heavily in debt, owing to the failure of her theatrical venture ; and Harriet’s hump-backed sister bitterly opposed the match. The course of love, true or false, certainly did not run smooth As Berlioz told Ferrand in a letter of 30 August [CG no. 342] ‘scenes became more violent’, and once, when Harriet reproached him with not loving her, he endeavoured to commit suicide, a statement upon which M. Boschot casts doubt, obsessed by the idea that Berlioz was incapable of telling the truth even to his best friend. Neither Hippeau nor Jullien, however, appears to question it, and the action is in keeping with the composer’s behaviour at that time. It was not a great step from imagining the programme of his symphony to actually carrying it out. The letter to Ferrand goes on to say that Harriet still wavered, and that he had sent her an ultimatum. If she still refused he would depart for Berlin, his passport being already obtained.

To help me endure this horrible separation [he was evidently anticipating Harriet’s refusal] an incredible piece of luck has thrown into my arms a poor young girl of eighteen, who fled four years ago from a wretch who had bought her as a child, and, until four years back, had kept her in a state of bondage ; she is frightened to death at the idea of falling again into the hands of this monster, and declares that she would rather throw herself into the river than return to her proprietor.

    He then describes the girl’s attractions, and says that he intends to ask Spontini to take her into the chorus of the Berlin Opera House. ‘If she loves me, I will wring my heart to express some semblance of love.’ M. Boschot suggests that the so-called slave was a fraud, and that the fairy-tale was invented by Jules Janin and other of Berlioz’s friends in the hopes of extricating the musician from an undesirable marriage. It may well be so ! I have quoted Berlioz’s letter principally to emphasize his extraordinary guilelessness. Few men of thirty would have swallowed such a story. Saint-Saëns was correct in insisting on the naïvety of Berlioz. In his music he was a genius, a man of commanding stature : in the everyday affairs of life he, like many other geniuses, was too often little more than a headstrong child, yet lovable withal, and with a child’s inability to count the cost.

    Hippeau and others, swayed by Legouvé’s recollections, assert that Berlioz, by his constant infidelities, gave his wife ample justification for her terrible jealousy. Against Legouvé’s indictment we may set the doubts of M. Étienne Rey : ‘Are we to believe, as we are assured by one of his best friends, that during this troublous time Berlioz abandoned himself to a number of fugitive amours, to those short temporary connexions which are part of theatrtcal life ? No other witness save this one, no allusion, no letters, not a word of Berlioz, so expansive and so indiscreet, supports him or confirms him.’6 As M. Rey’s book belongs to a series devoted to the amorous lives of eminent people, the author can be trusted to have used his best efforts to unveil any scandal for which there was a shadow of warranty. As I have pointed out, Legouvé, the only witness, was not entirely trustworthy ; and, in this case, he probably heard only Harriet’s version. Men are considered by the opposite sex to ‘hang together’. But when a woman with a dramatic training pours into a man’s ear the tale of her husband’s turpitude, I fear, alas ! that he is only too ready to believe even his best friend a sad rascal. And Harriet was a beautiful woman, and belonged to the same theatrical world as Legouvé. Berlioz’s business as a critic brought him daily into contact with many singers and actresses, and she, knowing theatrical life as it was in Paris in those days, would be tempted to be jealous, even if she were not by nature prone to that meanest of all sins. Had she been able to enjoy some triumphs of her own, matters might have been different. She plagued her husband to obtain engagements for her, but all her appearances on ‘the boards’ were failures. Even her Mad Scene, which had created such a sensation in 1827, was received with cat-calls, when she played it at some benefit performance. Moralists may condemn Berlioz for leaving his wife, but his subsequent behaviour was commendable. He provided for her, saw that she had every attention during her illnesses, which were aggravated, if not caused, by her intemperate habits, and continued to pay her friendly calls from time to time. Three days after her death on 3 March 1854, he wrote to his sister Adèle (the dots being his own, and not indicative of omissions : [CG no. 1701]

How horrible is life ! ... Memories, bitter and sweet, pass through my mind at the same time ! Her grand qualities, her cruel unreasonableness, her injustices, but then her genius and her misfortunes ! ... Horrible ! Terrible ! I cannot weep. She taught me to understand Shakespeare and great dramatic art. She shared misery with me, she never hesitated when it was necessary to risk our necessaries for some musical enterprise... then, opposed to this courage, she was always against my leaving Paris, she would not allow me to travel ; if I had not taken drastic measures I should to-day be still unknown in Europe.... And her jealousy without reason which finally was the cause of all that changed my life.7

    As Adèle was naturally fully cognizant of her brother’s relations with Marie Recio, he was obviously excluding them from his real or imaginary infidelities. Harriet had made his life unbearable, and when at last he left her he considered himself free to choose another companion. Legouvé, though biased in her favour, does not give a particularly attractive picture of Harriet’s behaviour. Having explained that her initial coldness had become an ardent flame ; while Berlioz’s passion for her had died down to a ‘sincere friendship, calm and correct’, he proceeds :

Madame Berlioz searched his feuilletons for traces of his infidelities ; she searched for them also elsewhere, and fragments of intercepted letters, drawers indiscreetly left unlocked provided her with inconclusive proofs which were sufficient to make her beside herself, but only told her half the truth. The heart of Berlioz travelled so quickly that she was unable to follow it. When, owing to her researches, she discovered the object of his passion, that passion had changed, and then his actual innocence was easy to prove.

While feeling confident that the above describes the conduct of Harriet, I, in accord with M. Étienne Rey, distrust it profoundly as presenting a faithful picture of the composer. Berlioz’s life was not immaculate, but I cannot think that he was such a coureur de dames as Legouvé pretends. On the other hand, many of us have known that wife of a musical or dramatic critic who scents infidelity whenever her husband praises the performance of some actress or singer. The suggestion that Berlioz was able to prove his innocence as regards Mademoiselle X., because he had forsaken her for Mademoiselle Y., is highly ingenious, but not absolutely convincing. Hippeau apostrophizes Berlioz thus : ‘Poor innocent flower gathered in her grace and freshness, who remained henceforth without support, without a look, languishing and wilting on its stem, and drooped, withered and died, because the hand that should have tended her abandoned her to pluck others !’ This ‘sob-stuff’ has no other warranty than the word of one man, a dramatist who would be apt to think in terms of the stage and imagine situations that had no foundation in fact. The prosecutors of Berlioz do not always inquire into the credibility of their witnesses. And since the world has lost a symphony from the pen of Berlioz, because the sum required for its production had to be employed on nurses and medical attendance for Harriet, when she might have been sent to a hospital, to declare that she was left ‘without support’ is untrue. Personally, I cannot imagine an ‘innocent flower’ ransacking her husband’s belongings, burning to discover some justification for her insensate jealousy.

    As regards Marie Recio it was another matter. When Berlioz met her first we do not know. She appeared at the Opéra in the small role of Inès in La Favorite on 5 November 1841, probably owing to his influence. We know very little of his private life from December 1840 to December 1842 — the mysterious years, as M. Boschot calls them — and therefore are free to exercise our imagination, coloured by our measure of sympathy for the composer. In his Memoirs he says he went to Brussels in 1840, whereas he did not go there till September 1842 : he heads his first tour in Germany ‘1841—1842’, when in reality it was 1842—3. Hippeau imputes these inexactitudes to some deep design on the part of the writer to befog his readers concerning his rupture with Harriet — it is difficult to see how ! Jullien, more reasonably, attributes them to a faulty memory. In one of his letters to his son, Berlioz admits tht he has no head for figures ; and one only has to read his letters to realize his vagueness in respect to dates. He is often doubtful as to the date of the month, and even at times as to that of the century. M. Boschot admits that he relied on Legouvé for his account of Berlioz’s matrimonial troubles — there is no other witness — and describes him (in a footnote) as ‘that faithful friend, who received the confidences of Berlioz, and assisted him oftener than one would credit’. In this case, however, the playwright gives no hint that he had received any confidences from Berlioz ! M. Boschot then gives rein to his imagination, as he does in other places when he is without his ‘tons of paper,’ an imagination similar to that which he professes to deplore in Berlioz. He talks of ‘the various women of the stage, singers, dancers, supers, who had caused such suffering to poor Ophelia’. Very sad ! But how unfortunate that no Leporello can be produced to specify the achievements of this Don Juan of the Parisian world of the 1830’s ! M. Boschot then proceeds to sketch Berlioz’s life during those mysterious years, very plausibly, but entirely without documentary corroboration. Marie Martin — Recio was only a stage name — and her mother were excellent housewives, and we can quite imagine the harassed husband finding in their orderly household the peace denied him at home. Both M. Boschot and Hippeau take it for granted that Marie was Berlioz’s mistress long before she accompanied him to Brussels in September 1842. But she was an astute young person, who would be unlikely to join the general scramble for Berlioz’s handkerchief, such as is suggested by his faithful friend, Legouvé. If we indulge in flights of fancy, it is not difficult to picture Marie eluding her lover until she was assured that he was separated from his wife. It is true that Berlioz, in announcing his marriage to Marie in 1854 to his brother-in-law Suat, said that he had lived with her for fourteen years, i.e. since 1840. But, though this is in agreement with the erroneous dates of the Memoirs, which he was on the point of completing,8 we know that it was not literally true. (This clinging to inaccurate dates, even in a private letter, supports Jullien’s contention that they were simply owing to a faulty memory.) He returned to Harriet after his Brussels concerts, but did not remain for long. In the December he again left her, departing stealthily for Germany, and apparently intending to go alone. He had no desire for Marie’s companionship. She would hamper him in many ways ; and the musician dreaded her singing of his music. She was, however, too clever for him, and, to give her her due, as his cashier and bookkeeper, she probably saved him more than her board and lodging. There is no need to insist again on Berlioz’s care for Harriet after their separation, nor on his grief at her death. He, like many another artist, was probably a somewhat difficult man to live with (although Marie managed to do so with a fair amount of success) ; but the root of all their trouble was the jealousy of a rather stupid woman — judging by her letters, she never succeeded in learning French, though no doubt was fluent enough, especially as regards invective.

    To turn to Berlioz’s healthy normal love for Camille is to leave the stifling heat of a hot-house for the fragrance of a garden. He was not entirely a free agent as regards Harriet : his love for her was confused with too many other things. Der Mensch kann was er will ; er kann nicht aber wollen was er will. The composer could will to marry Harriet or not ; but he could not will his will, which was dependent on his temperament, his emotions, his ideas, in a way which only a psychiatrist could unravel. On the other hand, his love for Camille ran the course of the majority of love-affairs — the couple met, became enamoured one of the other, became engaged, and the wedding was fixed at a not very distant date. If, as Hiller suggests, Madame Moke had already arranged to marry her daughter to Pleyel before Berlioz left for Italy, she concealed her intentions very cleverly, even admitting that the musician was easy to deceive. When he was held a prisoner in the Institute, during the composition of the cantata that gained him the prix de Rome, she sent her maid Désirée to inquire after him, and I cannot think that this was the only evidence of her apparent liking for him. In any case Berlioz left for Rome at the end of 1830, firmly persuaded that in two years’ time Camille would become his wife, that she would be that sympathetic companion whom he sought in vain all his life. He remains in Rome till the April, gnawing out his heart, and expecting by every post the letter that never arrives. Unable to bear the suspense any longer, he sets out for France, fully aware that in doing so he will probably lose his pension. He reaches Florence, and there has an attack of quinsy, which one must have experienced to realize how one’s vitality is lowered, to say nothing of the wearying pain. In this condition he receives an abominable letter from Madame Moke, and determines on murder. How he would have acted, had he been in a state of robust health, we can only guess, though it is not without significance that, when he anticipated Harriet’s refusal to marry him, he was prepared to accept it in a philosophical manner. In dealing with his mad escapade, sufficient stress has not been laid on those three months of constant worry followed by the quinsy.

    The whole story of Berlioz’s adventure will never be known, since we lack his letters to Ferrand written at the time. Their recipient, horrified at the tale of contemplated bloodshed, probably destroyed them at once. I am inclined to think that what turned Berlioz from his purpose can be gathered from his letter to Horace Vernet, the Principal of the French Academy at Rome, when he begged that his pension might not be withdrawn, and swore on his honour not to leave Italy. Bernard9 quotes from a fragment of this letter, then in the possession of the Baront de Triment, which must obviously be a rough draft, since M. Boschot10 gives the letter complete from the collection of Charles Malherbe. The wording of the fragment differs from the actual letter in two respects only, odieux for hideux, and vu instead of cru, which may be a clerical error, but somewhat alters the sense — ‘they saw me fall’ instead of ‘they thought I fell’. Here is an extract of the letter, as given by M. Boschot. [CG no. 217]

I write to you in haste ... a hideous crime, an abuse of confidence of which I have been the victim has made me beside myself since I left Florence. I flew to France to carry out the most just and most terrible revenge ; at Genoa, a moment of giddiness, the most incredible weakness, destroyed my will-power, I gave way to the despair of a child ; but I escaped with a drink of salt water, being gaffed like a salmon, lying dead in the sun for a quarter of an hour, and with violent sickness for an hour ; I do not know who rescued me ; they thought I fell by accident from the ramparts of the town.

M. Boschot, inspired by Charles Malherbe (to whom he acknowledges his indebtedness for every page of his book), takes this attempted suicide of Berlioz’s during ‘a moment of giddiness’ (a very probable result of a quinsy combined with a lack of food) as a fiction. First, on the general principle that, except when it suits one’s purpose to believe them, one must mistrust all Berlioz’s statements ; secondly, that he was loth to return to Rome empty-handed, as it were. If he could not figure as a triple murderer, wanted by the police, he might ‘save his face’ by a frustrated suicide. I cannot see why he need have troubled to lie to Vernet, who must have acted as father-confessor to many. Berlioz had left Rome not knowing what he was about to do. I have already given a good reason why he was reticent as regards his adventure. Something induced Berlioz to relinquish his scheme of revenge ; and I am willing to believe this tale, because an hour’s vomiting seems an excellent method of diverting a musician’s thoughts. That he seriously intended to kill both Camille and her ‘hippopotamus’ of a mother, there can be no doubt ; I take it to be equally certain that their conduct embittered his life. A man may accept a woman’s refusal with tolerable equanimity, and, if he meets her in later life, may feel inclined to thank her for it. But many men become misanthropes owing to being jilted, and their feelings are intensified if the jilting takes place almost on the steps of the altar. We have the testimony of Mendelssohn as to how much Berlioz counted on his marriage. He had conceived a hopeless passion for Estelle, which, thirty years later, he still shuddered to think of ; his attempt to win Harriet had proved fruitless ; and now to be thrown over by a girl on whom he had bestowed a perfectly honest affection, one whom he had met in everyday life, away from the glare of the footlights and unconnected with anything outside herself ! With his weakness for petty vengeances, it was unlikely that Camille should escape his pen. He portrayed her twice ; once in Le Suicide par enthousiasme, in which he figures as Adolphe D—, a young musician devoted to Gluck and an enthusiastic admirer of La Vestale, while Camille is Hortense N—, a kind of immoral Mrs. Leo Hunter, always ready to fling herself at the head of the latest celebrity. In Euphonia, which ran through the pages of La Gazette musicale of 1844, he treats his sometime fiancée more brutally, so much so that it is difficult to find excuses for him unless we charitably suppose that his resentment was still so burning as to make him forget himself. In the novel Camille appears under her own name backwards (Ellimac), while he himself is Rotceh (Hector reversed), Madame Moke, with execrable taste, figuring as Madame Ellianac (Canaille backwards). When the tale afterwards appeared in Les Soirées de l’orchestre Berlioz had the grace to choose other names. The novel, which incidentally includes an interesting account of an imaginary town devoted entirely to music, concludes with the crushing to death in an ingeniously constructed steel pavilion of Ellimac, her mother, some of her lovers, and a number of women whose reputation matched her own.

    At a concert in London on 28 April 1852 Camille (Madame Pleyel) and Berlioz met for probably the first time since she was his Ariel — he as conductor, she as the soloist of Weber’s Concertstück. Apparently the orchestral playing was rough, and, on one occasion, the lady complained, the orchestra crashed in a bar or two too soon, which she attributed to spite on the part of her rejected lover. Francis Hueffner, in relating the tale,11 refuses to ‘attribute such meanness to the great composer’. In so far as his action was probably not deliberate, I agree. Berlioz had too much admiration for Weber to play tricks with his works. It seems to me more probable that the hypersensitive musician, thrown into unwilling contact with the woman who had caused him so much unhappiness, had to exercise all his will-power to control himself, and was physically incapable of properly controlling his orchestra.

    If Berlioz’s love-affair with Camille Moke had not been terminated by the tragicomic Épisode bouffon, commentators might be disposed to appreciate more fully the disastrous effect she had on his life. His habit of treasuring up a wrong — and, as in the case of Charles Blanc, a kindness — aggravated by his temperamental aloofness, his mal de l’isolement, is clear proof of his inability to forget. And persistently dwelling on a wrong must affect one’s outlook on life. As Berlioz, when penning his Memoirs, was not writing his Confessions, we cannot expect to find in them (or even in his letters) much evidence to support my contention. There can be no question, however, as to Estelle influencing his life, and it is reasonable to suppose that the influence of the woman who dealt him such a shattering blow would be equally strong.

    To leave the man and to deal with the legends connected with the musician, we are confronted by a number of obsessions that are difficult, if not impossible, to disturb, because, like all obsessions, they are irremovable by reason. That the Parisians of the 1830’s, who found Beethoven incomprehensible, should consider Berlioz’s music ‘eccentric’ and ‘extravagant’ is understandable. But much water has flowed under the Pont Neuf and other bridges during the past hundred years. And nowadays to insist on the ‘extravagances of Berlioz, beside which Hugo is reticent’, as has been done in a recent standard work, makes one ‘rather tired’, to quote Mr. Ernest Newman, who close on thirty years ago in his admirable article on Berlioz in Musical Studies reeled off an almost complete list of the composer’s output, concluding : ‘Out of all these thousands of pages, how ridiculously few of them deserve the epithet of “extravagance” ; of how many of them is it true that Berlioz’s “eloquence pours forth in a turbid, impetuous torrent which levels all obstacles and overpowers all restraint” ?’ The sentence quoted by Mr. Newman is prefaced by the statement that Berlioz’s ‘imagination seems always at white heat’ ; it appears both in an earlier edition and the present one of the standard work. Time evidently has not modified the writer’s opinion. It would be of interest to know precisely what he means. If an imagination at white heat means that Berlioz was always divinely inspired, even the French master’s warmest admirers would be prepared to contradict flatly such an assumption. It it means that Berlioz usually dashed off his compositions, and therefore they are in the nature of extempores, the patient care he devoted to them and the retouches he made prove the contrary. It is to be feared that the ‘imagination at white heat’ and the torrent of his eloquence ‘which levels all obstacles’ — an expression which, by the way, might be applied at times to Beethoven — have their origin in a confusion between the artist and the man. Given a musician who made a practice of suicide and spent his spare time in planning murders, perhaps it is not unnatural to read into his music the same ‘volcanic’ qualities. Yet ‘volcanic’ is as misleading an epithet to apply to him as ‘romantic’. The obsession that he was essentially a romantic composer — whatever that implies exactly — has led to distorted performances of his works. Their virility has been transmogrified into a sickly sentimentality. It was refreshing lately, after a stage performance of The Damnation of Faust, to find that excellent critic, Mr. Richard Capell, drawing attention to the greatness of the music ‘so inventive, so varied, and so cleanly classical !’ Cleanly classical ! The term can be applied to even his pictures of demons and brigands. The former are not those of pantomime, while the latter belie the horrible description of the finale of the Harold in Italy Symphony which Berlioz, with his tongue in his cheek, gave to Heine in the open letter to the poet in the Memoirs.

    This reference to the horrible brings us to another legend regarding Berlioz, one closely linked with his ‘extravagance’, that, apart from anything else, his fondnes for depicting the gruesome is sufficient to exclude him from the ranks of the greatest masters. I once troubled12 to combat this curious idea by means of statistics. In the unfinished German edition there are 2,904 pages of orchestral score, setting aside the arrangements. Had the edition been completed by the addition of The Trojans, Benvenuto Cellini, and other works, the probable total number of pages would be 4,000. On an extravagantly liberal estimate, framed to suit the most timid member of an audience, the ‘creepy’ pages cannot exceed 200 — five per cent of the whole. But as a matter of fact, I doubt whether a healthy-minded auditor could find in Berlioz even a hundred pages that can justifiably be described as horrible, in the sense that some of Poe’s tales (forming a small percentage of his collected works) are, or many of Wiertz’s pictures. I was too anxious to oblige the timid listener, since I included in my list of horrors such numbers as the whole of the ‘Judex crederis’ of the Te Deum (omitting only the ‘Salvum fac’), and the whole of the March to Execution and the Witches’ Sabbath. M. Paul Morillot13 speaks of la douloureuse Marche au Supplice, and though ‘dolorous’ is not the epithet I should apply myself to the movement, it fits it better than ‘horrible’ or ‘gruesome’. Commentators have sought to justify their description by imagining (quite gratuitously) a gory-minded crowd of sans-culottes and tricoteuses. There is no warranty, however, for supposing that the hero of the symphony in his opium-dream was transported back to the Reign of Terror. The action of the work took place at the then present day (1830). Whether criminals were actually marched through the streets of Paris to the Place de la Grève at that date, I do not know. Something must be allowed for poetic licence ! Berlioz, feeling music so deeply, at times undoubtedly employed extravagant terms to describe his own. But we must not take them too literally ! Considering the composer’s skill in depicting what may be called the horrible in its largest sense, it is a matter for surprise that he did not indulge it more freely.

    The legend of Berlioz’s ‘somewhat haphazard musical education’ will be dealt with in the next chapter. It need be only remarked here that, if a young man spent four years at the R.A.M. (or R.C.M.) and left in a state of abysmal ignorance, it would reflect on the teachers rather than the pupil, unless the latter chanced to be a hopeless idiot or incorrigibly lazy. Now, Berlioz was certainly not an idiot, and we have not a shred of evidence that he was lazy.

    This present chapter may well end with an account of a legend in the making. In La Revue de Paris for 1906 Paul Viardot (son of the celebrated singer) brought out his Souvenirs d’un artiste, which appeared later in book form. On p. 4 of the latter we read :

Berlioz came there [the Château de Courtavenel, the house of the Viardots] to work with my mother, who rendered him the inestimable service of correcting his basses. For, astonishing as it may appear, that great man totally lacked the instinct for the true ones. The Taking of Troy and The Trojans [sic] were accordingly completerly revised by my mother.

The story is repeated by Jean Huré,14 from whom M, Masson quotes, in a footnote to his Berlioz. Now, right or wrong, Berlioz’s basses were part of his musical thought, and, as he always resented any aspersion on his system of harmony, it is extremely improbable that at the end of his career he would have borne with patience criticism of his basses from any one. As Paul Viardot was a schoolboy of thirteen during the war of 1870-1 his testimony to what Berlioz may or may not have done in 1858 (the date of the completion of The Trojans and the writing of the piano arrangement) is valueless. Many writers on Berlioz are, however, quite prepared to put puling infants into the witness-box, if they fancy that thereby they can injure the French master’s reputation. Since it is difficult to picture Berlioz inviting an audience to assist at the pretended harmony lessons, Madame Viardot was the only person who could support her son’s tale ; and she, in 1906, was an old lady of eighty-five, an age at which one is rather apt to invent stories to one’s credit. It is true that she might have told the tale for twenty years. But there chances to be a respectable witness on the other side. These supposed lessons had at any rate an audience of one.

    An interview with Saint-Saëns appeared in the Journal de musique on 25 November 1876,15 over which Paul Viardot should have pondered before he made too positive a statement. Having pointed out that the arrangement of the Royal Hunt is better than that of the rest, and how Berlioz, mistrusting arrangers and anxious to avoid technical difficulties, created new ones from his ignorance of the piano, Saint-Saëns went on to relate how the composer struggled with his self-imposed task up to the scene in question. Here he had to acknowledge defeat. ‘A celebrated pianist [one wonders who it was], to whom he applied, was no more competent. He then confided his trouble to Mme Viardot, who begged to be allowed to undertake the work, and she succeeded where the composer and the celebrated pianist had failed.’ ‘With my very own eyes’, Saint-Saëns assured the interviewer, ‘I have seen Mme Viardot, pen in hand, eyes aflame, the manuscript of The Trojans on her piano, writing the arrangement of the Royal Hunt.’

    Somehow or other, Saint-Saëns’s account, related only eight [eighteen] years after the event, instead of thirty-eight, rings truer.

    There is a similar tale about a certain professor of the Conservatoire named Barthe, who, we are told, ‘assisted’ Berlioz in his harmony after about 1850. As the rumour must have originated with Barthe himself, it is satisfactory to know that even at that date there was a professor who admired Berlioz’s harmony so much that he wished to claim a hand in it.


1. On account of this absence of passion, in some performances of the opera the Hunt is given after the duet. There is not the slightest warranty for this in Berlioz’s score.

2. Berlioz intime.

3. Reproduced by Julien Tiersot in the Rivista musicale italiana, 1930, where the date is given as 10/6/32 — obviously a printer’s error.

4. Lettres inédites de Hector Berlioz à Thomas Gounet, with annotations by G. Allix, Grenoble, 1903. M. Allix suggests November 1832 as the date, but as Berlioz refers to the persecutions of his family (on account of his wishing to marry Harriet) it must be later. Prod’homme in the second edition of his Hector Berlioz (1927) gives it as April 1833, Tiersot as 7 Feb. (Les années romantiques) [CG no. 318].

5. Le Musicien errant, p. 211 [CG no. 1158].

6. La Vie amoureuse de Berlioz, Paris, 1929.

7. Au milieu du chemin (ed. Julien Tiersot), Paris, 1930.

8. The date of the end of the Memoirs, as originally intended, is 18 Oct. 1854. The Post-Scriptum, Postface, and Voyage en Dauphiné were added later.

9. Notice sur Berlioz heading the Correspondance inédite.

10. La Jeunesse d’un romantique.

11. Half a Century of Music in England, London, 1889.

12. Berlioz the Blood-curdler, The Musical Mirror, Nov. 1930.

13. Berlioz écrivain, Grenoble, 1903.

14. ‘Berlioz musicien’, La Renaissance contemporaine, 10 Dec. 1911.

15. I am indebted to M. Tiersot’s ‘Berlioziana’ (Le Ménestrel, 9 July 1905), for my knowledge of the interview.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997;
Page Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions created on 15 March 2012; this page created on 1 July 2018.

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