The Hector Berlioz Website

Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions

Tom S. Wotton

Hector Berlioz

Chapter Three — TECHNIQUE


    The dreams of an artist in poem, music, or picture can never be fully realized. Whatever be the medium, it is never delicate enough to express his ideas as he conceived them. At the commencement of his career the inadequacy of his weapons may not be apparent even to himself. He employs those of his predecessors, and these, with a few characteristic alterations (which we often can perceive only after we have studied his later works), suffice him. It is when he has reached the summit of his creative powers that he chafes at his inability to convey to others the precise texture of his dreams ; and by this time he has become so accustomed to the weapons he has hitherto used that he can seldom avail himself of new ones. It is true that in his progress he has effected many changes in his armoury — discarding this, remodelling that, adding much forged by himself — but it still remains essentially the same, and he is forced to cling to it. Modern harmony, modern orchestration, and the skill of modern performers on modern instruments constitute a more perfect vehicle of expression than that which Beethoven possessed. Yet, had he been in command of such resources previous to the composition of (say) the Eroica Symphony, it is doubtful whether the work would be greater than it is. Indeed, the reverse is probable.

    Berlioz was in a different category from any other composer in that, at the beginning of his career, he found the weapons of such of his predecessors as he knew of little service to him. For the expression of his ideas he had to devise weapons of his own, and this while he was still a student and unskilled in the manipulation of those in current usage. That he so soon found himself is a testimony to his genius. His detractors are charitably inclined to impute his deviations from the text-books of his time to two causes. First, to the fact that he did not begin his serious studies until late in life ; and secondly, that during the four years that he spent at the Conservatoire he was idle. We may dismiss the first reason. Berlioz may have been eighteen before he received any instruction in harmony — from Gerono, a private pupil of Lesueur. But Schumann was older still ; and Wagner, although he was two years younger, was on his own showing not a satisfactory pupil. As for some of the Russian composers, they seem to have dispensed with serious training altogether. I doubt much whether those same detractors, if they were apprehensive about the condition of their livers, would refrain from consulting a Harley Street physician on the grounds that he had not commenced his study of anatomy and materia medica at the tender age of seven. Yet these are subjects of infinitely greater complexity than harmony and counterpoint.

    As to the second suggestion, there is no authority for believing Berlioz to have been a lazy student. It is true that we know practically nothing of his days at the Conservatoire. He was probably inclined to be argumentative, but there is no reason for supposing that he neglected his exercises, if only out of regard for his two masters. He had an affection for Lesueur, who taught him harmony, and at any rate entertained a respect for Reicha, who instructed him in fugue and counterpoint.

    Unfortunately, Lesueur’s system of harmony, founded on that of Rameau, did not appeal to Berlioz. In his Memoirs he tells us that as a boy he attempted the study of Rameau’s treatise, and failed to understand it. His first insight into harmony was obntained from Catel’s treatise, the standard one of the day, and from hearing the quartets of Haydn and the elder Pleyel. To chapter vi of the Memoirs he adds a footnote in which he refers contemptuously to Rameau’s theories, based on the vibration of a corde sonore, ‘which he [Rameau] calls the sonorous body, as though strings were the only vibrating bodies in the universe ; or rather, as if the theory of their vibrations were applicable to the resonance of all other sonorous bodies’. In all probability Berlioz in the matter of harmony derived greater benefit from the teachings of Reicha, who could have scarcely avoided touching on the subject, though strictly speaking it was outside his province. Lesueur was undoubtedly an excellent master — as witness his thirteen other pupils who gained the prix de Rome — but he was too much influenced by what he believed to have been the harmony of the Greeks, Hebrews, and Egyptians.1 Reicha, on the other hand, though not possessing a tithe of the genius of the composer of Les Bardes, was one of the first to realize that any theory of harmony should be derived from the practice of the masters.

    In spite, however, of Berlioz’s inability to swallow the Rameau-cum-Lesueur system of harmony, he could not have had a better mentor than the old composer, himself a revolutionist in his time, and better able to understand his ‘volcanic’ pupil than any other musician in Paris. None other than he could have been so far-seeing as to glimpse something of Berlioz’s future greatness from his first crude attempts. How far Lesueur influenced his successor, it were hard to say, since it was principally as regards ideas. That is, while it is possible to trace certain features of Berlioz’s work to the teachings of his master, we cannot say of any number that it suggests Lesueur in the same way as it may faintly recall Gluck or Beethoven.

    Too much stress has been laid on their faults — real or imaginary — in Berlioz’s harmony, and too little on its excellences. To harp on imperfections obviously due to inexperience seems an unnecessary waste of time that would be more profitably employed in comparing the Fantastic Symphony, composed in Berlioz’s student days, with similar works of the other masters — examples for the moment evade me ! — that are performed as frequently, and exhibit as much original genius, even purely from the technical point of view. Indeed, Jean Marnold, one of the most virulent of Berlioz’s antagonists, admits that ‘he wrote better at twenty-seven (1830 — the Fantastic symphony) than Wagner at twenty-eight (1841 — The Flying Dutchman)’.2 Schumann’s remarks on the harmony of the Fantastic Symphony are of value as coming from a contemporary less hide-bound than Fétis and some other Parisian critics. But we must not forget that Schumann’s criticism of the French master’s work was written to enable him to obtain his doctor’s degree, and that his examiners would probably possess academic, if not pedantic, ideas. He must have wondered whether his approval of so much of the harmony would be echoed by his judges. He was hampered in his criticism, and the more so because, as he is careful to point out, he had only the piano score before him. The remarks of the eminent theorist, M. Charles Kœchlin, have considerably more weight. He not only knows the whole of Berlioz’s output, and therefore realizes at what the young composer was aiming in his early symphony, but also has an exhaustive acquaintance with modern harmony and can thus appreciate any suggestions of it found in Berlioz’s scores. In his Traité de l’harmonie M. Kœchlin3 says :

Berlioz, while claiming complete liberty, was not an anarchist, nor even a revolutionist. He appeared to be such to contemporaries ignorant of the harmony of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach ; but Berlioz’s chords are of the same family as those of his illustrious German compeers. The sentiment indeed may be occasionally different, and one finds a foreshadowing of modern times. It is in this most frequently that his novelty consists.

That is, Berlioz was a pioneer in harmony as he was in other ways. In at least one respect many modern composers might learn from him, and that is as regards the expressive value of common chords.

    Some of Berlioz’s deviations from the academic rules of his day must be ascribed to his unconscious originality. It is folly to pretend that he did not know the rules ! He felt such-and-such a progression, and, as Schumann says, while a tyro could ‘correct’ it, the alteration would often entail a loss of effect. Some of his methods, such as a certain rigidity of bass-line, may be traced to his early admiration of Gluck and Spontini. But I am inclined to think that possibly his harmony owed something to his practice of the guitar, the only instrument he every really learnt, his powers of execution on the flute (his earliest instrument) being probably limited. One reads at times of infant prodigies, who are able to name at once any note or any combination of notes that may be played to them. The ordinary person, however, even though he may have music in his soul, has to be taught to distinguish between one chord and another, and to recognize the difference between the several inversions of the same chord. And this he learns from listening to a piano. Gradually he learns to rely on his mental ear for the sound of the various combinations. But, as Mr. R.O.Morris has so clearly expressed it :4

The most unpromising collocation of notes may turn into a chord, whose precise effect in a particular context probably cannot be forejudged ; it may have to be tried experimentally at the piano, whose role in the extension and development of harmonic resource has been of incalculable importance. Formerly a composer who used the piano in this way was supposed for some obscure reason not be quite playing the game. This form of snobbery is now a thing of the past ; a modern composer’s obligation to his piano is no matter for pride or shame, but is simply taken for granted.

The need to test chords at the piano varies greatly with different musicians, and bears no relation to their musical talent. The objection to this reliance on the keyboard, continually at the commencement of a musician’s career and occasionally in later life, is that he cannot avoid a tendency to think in terms of the piano. Parenthetically it might be added that in the second case the testing is not always confined to a single chord ; a pianist is tempted to ‘try over’ the whole or part of the movement. Saint-Saëns tells us that at one time he was accustomed to call on Gounod every morning in order to play over what the elder composer had written the night before, since the latter was not clever at playing from score. Even in the works of the greatest orchestrators we find reminiscences of keyboard practice in passages given to the harps, violins, and other instruments. And, while undoubtedly harmony would not be where it is without the assistance of the piano or organ, at times they may prove to be snares. Chords and progressions which on them are highly effective may lose much of their value when transferred to the orchestra ; and, conversely, chords and progressions that are excellent on the orchestra may sound thin and poor on the piano. Practically all musicians being tarred with the same brush, pianistic platitudes which would be glaringly apparent to a Berlioz who had not learnt a keyboard instrument, to them are negligible and often unnoticed. If, however, they are more at home on the piano than the organ, they will frequently detect suggestions of organ practice in orchestral scores. How much more then are they apt to be uneasily aware of habits founded on guitar practice, even though they may be ignorant of the reason of their uneasiness ?

    To avoid misapprehension, I hasten to explain that, beyond a fondness for pizzicato,5 there is no trace of the guitar in Berlioz’s orchestration. Every instrument is given a part admirably fitted to its particular requirements. We cannot point to passages that are essentially guitar passages as we can at times in the scores of many other composers pick out pages that undoubtedly have been conceived in terms of the keyboard. Even Berlioz’s harmony is purely orchestral. It is in his choice of chords and possibly their occasional resolution that I would find a subtle connexion with the fact of part of his ear-training being derived from the guitar.

    There are several kinds of guitar, the best known being the Spanish guitar, which possesses six strings, the lowest (the 6th) being tuned in E below the bass clef, and those above it to A, D, G, B and E.6 Its music is written in the treble clef, an octave above the real sounds. The three lowest strings are ‘covered’ (like the G of a violin) and are played by the thumb alone ; the three highest are of plain gut, and are plucked by the first, second, and third fingers. The compass is three and a half octaves. From this rough description it will be seen that chords must be arranged in a manner differing considerably from that on a keyboard instrument. When the youthful Berlioz endeavoured to teach himself the sound of the various chords, the resolution of the discords, and so on, as set forth in Catel’s treatise, he would be compelled to rearrange them, no doubt often clumsily, on his guitar, there not being a piano within many miles’ radius of La Côte-Saint-André. When he first handled the former instrument is not quite certain. He apparently did not have real lessons until a musician named Dorant came to the village in July 1819 to teach Hector and his sister Nanci. The boy must have practised assiduously during the two years that elapsed before he departed for Paris, since his master declared his inability to instruct him further. In later years his powers of execution must have been considerable, if we may trust Legouvé’s account of them.7 The particular occasion was in 1833, when Berlioz was discussing his approaching marriage with Eugène Sue and Legouvé at the latter’s rooms. His host having suggested some music, the composer,

picked up his instrument and commenced to sing. What ? Boleros, dance airs, melodies ? Nothing of the kind ! The finale to the second act of La Vestale ! The chief priest, the vestals, Julia, he sang everything, all the characters, all the parts. Unhappily, he had no voice.8 But that did not matter ! He made one. Thanks to a system of singing à bouche fermée, which he practised with extraordinary skill, thanks to the passion and musical genius that inspired him, he drew from his chest, his throat and his guitar unknown sounds, penetrating lamentations, which, mingled at times with cries of admiration and enthusiasm, even eloquent commentaries, united to produce an effect so extraordinary, so incredible a whirlwind of brilliancy and passion that no performance of the masterpiece, even at the Conservatoire, has move me, transported me so much as this singer without a voice and his guitar. After La Vestale some fragments of the Fantastic Symphony.

One wonders which those fragments were.

    Without being a player on the instrument, it would be presumptuous for me to dogmatize on the precise manner in which the practice of the guitar may have influenced Berlioz’s musical thought. I can only suggest tentatively that his partiality for chords in root position had its origin in the greater resonance of the three lower strings of the guitar — in the first inversion of common chords the third would be apt to be too prominent. That the thumb alone has to attend to these three lower strings may possibly account for a certain stiffness in his bass-line. It may be also a reason for his occasional method of writing several chords on the same bass note, not in the manner of a pedal, but simply because the note enters into all the chords. Since a bare line of melody, or one only supported by occasional chords, is a feature of guitar music, it might not be wrong to connect it with some of the composer’s methods. The fact that, apart from the three lowest strings, which can give but a single note, there are only three strings available for chords may have something to do with his partiality for triads.

    Too much stress, however, must not be laid on Berlioz’s practice of the guitar. At the Conservatoire he, like all the other students, would have had his ear trained by means of the piano ; and before that Gerono, and afterwards Lesueur, would have illustrated the chords on the instrument. He also learnt much from his constant visits to the opera, either score in hand, or after an intensive study of it. (When, on applying for a post as chorister in a minor theatre, he reeled off a list of operas he knew by heart, he was not exaggerating.) At home he would have continued to try out combinations on the guitar ; soon, however, he was able to compose away from any instrument, as witness his cantatas written to gain the prix de Rome. He may have commenced his serious studies late in life, but he brought to them the ability to read any music at sight, and, though the employment of them was crude, he had acquired the power of ‘auralizing’ the sound of many chords. The fine Invocation in Cleopatra (1829) owes nothing to the guitar ; indeed the enharmonic modulations smack somewhat of the keyboard.

    The influence of the guitar on Berlioz’s harmonic ideas is probably infinitesimal, but, if I am right in my suggestion, it may be sufficient to be vaguely detected by those nurtured on a totally different instrument. In any case it is undignified — not to use a stronger word ! — to impute so persistently to ignorance the ideas of a genius on harmony or anything else simply because they do not chance to tally with our own. Jomelli applied for a post in the Papal Chapel, and the authorities agreed to accept him on condition that he passed his examination. Jomelli consented to the text, provided that he in his turn were allowed to examine his examiners. His offer was declined. Probably, if the shade of Berlioz were permitted to examine those who carp at him, they would find that he had a very thorough knowledge of the rules of harmony — the rules of 1830 bien entendu — from which his detractors had themselves deviated. M. Kœchlin, as regards Berlioz’s ‘ignorance’, says :9

Sometimes they jeer at him in the class-rooms of the Conservatoire. Clever students, correct mediocrities, mock at what they call his “false basses”. It is easy to say this ! But try, in some bar of one of his melodies, what you believe to be the “true bass” — a chord of the 6th, for example, instead of the tonic which you find “clumsy”, and you will see what a platitude it is. Do you really believe that, had he wanted it, he was incapable of imagining the chord of the 6th, more in conformity with your petty scholastic ideas ? If he has not done so, he had good reason.

M. Kœchlin gives here a simple example, but it illustrates the peculiar attitude of most of Berlioz’s detractors. Do they really believe that he did not know rules that the veriest dullard of a harmony class would learn in a few weeks ? The French theorist, like Schumann ninety years ago, realizes that many of Berlioz’s harmonic progressions lose their force, if they are ‘corrected’. He says, speaking generally of the rules in the text-books,

there would have been many errors in musical history due to this scholasticism, if real musicians throughout the centuries had not treated the rules with a fair amount of freedom... if, in the schools, they are useful, their importance must not be exaggerated.... They [musicians] train the ear according to the rules, and not according to their own sensibility (propre sentiment). There is the mistake : for it is the true musicality that we must seek, that which really satisfies our intimate feeling for music.

    The insistence on the letter rather than the spirit is, of course, to be found in all religions and in most of the arts. It must be ascribed to the weakness or timidity of its practitioners, though they themselves define their attitude in very different terms. They cling to the rock of some text or rule, fearful to trust themselves to the open sea, where they would have to be reliant on themslves, all unsuspecting that the rock may break away or prove too slippery for their fingers.

    For a technical and eminently common-sense view of Berlioz’s harmony, I would refer the reader to Mr. Ernest Newman’s Musical Studies. In the first place, he points out, ‘one needs scarcely any “training” to avoid some of the progressions that Berlioz constantly uses’ ; secondly, that his earliest compositions show less divergence from academic usage than his later ones, which ‘seems to show that his harmonic style was rooted in his way of thinking, and became more pronounced as he grew older and more individual’ ; thirdly, that ‘if the peculiarities of his harmony had been due to lack of education, one would have expected him, when in more mature years he revised an early work, to correct some of the so-called faults to which a wider experience must have opened his eyes’. Mr. Newman instances one of the songs, Adieu, Bessy, composed in 1830, and revised in 1850, which ‘he has altered in many ways, and made improvements in the melody, in the phrasing, and in the accompaniment ; but the sometimes odd harmonic sequences of the original version remain unchanged in the later. It clearly never struck him that there was anything odd about them ... it was a question not so much of mere technique as of fundamental conception.’ Mr. Newman’s ‘fourthly’ insists on the fact that Berlioz thought in terms of the orchestra.

    Some have suggested that Berlioz’s harmony would have been ‘improved’, had he been taught the piano and been compelled to play the ‘48’ of Bach for six months on end. The suggestion is a curious one, since it is equivalent to saying, ‘We can’t (or won’t) learn your language. But, if you will practise our mode of expression, we may possibly understand you more than we do at present.’ Such of Bach’s music as Berlioz did hear, and it was very little, did not appeal to him from the harmonic point of view. In 1840 he heard an air from one of the ‘Passions’, and said in his notice10 that, while it possessed much of the ‘antique grief’ that we find in Gluck, he ‘was shocked by the harmonic asperities and the false relations... the ear is offended... and that is extremely painful, to say the least of it !’

    It is a commonplace that the radical of to-day is the conservative of to-morrow. But as a rule the change is only effected gradually and covers many years. With Berlioz, however, the transformation was extraordinarily rapid. Early in his career he made up his mind on what harmonic methods suited him, and he clung tenaciously to them all his life, though naturally employing them with greater mastery as he gained experience. Take, for example, his ideas on the appoggiatura. As Hippeau points out in Berlioz et son temps, while Wagner’s system of harmony is based largely on its use, Berlioz seldom employs it. With the latter ‘there is not a passing note that does not bear a harmony of its own, so that in fact, in this melodic structure, there is no passing note’. Like all generalities, this may not be the whole truth, but it is sufficiently near it for our purpose. In the Journal des Débats of 27 September 183511 he attacks the abuse of the appoggiatura in Hérold’s Zampa, which ‘denaturalizes every chord, weakens the harshness of certain dissonances or augments it to the verge of discordance, transforms sweetness into insipidity, makes grace lackadaisical, and appears to be the most insufferable of the affectations of the Parisian school’. Twenty-five years later he said of the prelude to Tristan :  ‘It is a slow piece, commencing pianissimo, gradually increasing to a fortissimo, and returning to the initial nuance, without any other theme than a sort of chromatic groan, but crowded with dissonant chords of which the long appoggiaturas replacing the real note of the harmony augment the cruelty.’ This is from Berlioz’s notice in the Débats of 9 February 1860 of the concerts that Wagner gave in Paris, and one wonders whether the German composer realized that his harmony was linked to that of the ‘Parisian school’ of the 1830’s. Berlioz’s criticism of the prelude was not based on mere audition ; he had been able to study the score, since Wagner previous to his first concert had presented Berlioz with a full score of the complete opera, with the dedication : ‘Au cher et grand auteur de Roméo et Juliette, l’auteur reconnaissant de Tristan et Iseult.’ Without imputing ulterior motives to Wagner, it must be admitted that it was an inauspicious moment to send such a gift to the leading musical critic of Paris. We may be sure that Marie Recio (then Madame Berlioz) lost no opportunity of pointing out the obvious bribery and corruption.

    The copy of Tristan that Wagner gave to Berlioz is now in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris, with the latter’s comments scrawled on some fifty of its pages. I have not had a chance of inspecting it, but, thanks to the kindness of a friend, I possess Alfred Ernst’s article dealing with the annotations.12 An additional interest is added to Ernst’s remarks, since they display a struggle between his two loves — his early one for Berlioz and his more recent one for Wagner, whose genius he was one of the first in France to recognize. He strives to hold the balance truly, but at times seems inclined to support the German composer too eagerly. Thus, against Tristan’s words in Act II, ‘Uns’re Liebe, Tristan’s Liebe’ (Min. Sc., p. 594) Berlioz wrote ‘Agréable mélodie !!’ On this Ernst remarks, ‘This ironical comment is indeed singularly misplaced’, and goes on to point out that the interval with which the phrase commences is only an inversion of the augmented 4th with which Berlioz beings The King of Thule. This, of course, is mere begging the question ! He objected to the whole passage on pp. 594-5. It distressed him — and others in 1860 — much as some of (say) Anton Webern’s ‘melodies’ irritate many musicians of the present day.

    When we remember that Berlioz evolved his own system of harmony in the 1830’s, we can understand many of his strictures on that of Wagner. With his rooted objection to the appoggiatura, we can even understand his inability to appreciate the poignant beauty of the first chord in Tristan. At p. 141, bar 2 (Min. Sc.), the same chord appears, and he draws attention to the D# of the cor anglais against the F, B, and G# of the bassoons and oboe.13 There may be some who share his annoyance at the sevenths between the voices on pp. 626-7, and the violins and ’cellos on pp. 26-7. But, considering the discords penned by Berlioz himself, one wonders why he was not more lenient as regards some of Wagner’s. As the former was a pioneer in the employment of the unprepared chord of the 9th, which in Beethoven’s C minor symphony had excited the ire of Fétis, and on occasion would use it in its harshest form — with the 9th grinding against the root in an upper part, one wonders why he did not appreciate the possibility of employing higher harmonics. Yet we find him ‘transported by fury’ (to quote Alfred Ernst) by the chord of the third bar of p. 321 (Min. Sc.) of Tristan, taking the trouble to scrawl the offending notes on the margins of the page — F natural, Eb, F#, Bb, A (counting upwards). With the F# correctly noted as Gb, this ‘strange chord’ (to quote Ernst again) is merely a chord of the 11th, with the 5th omitted. We must remember, however, that, although all composers (including Berlioz himself) had employed combinations which are explained by Prout and others as being derived from chords of the 11th and 13th, the theorists of the time expected them — if they explained them at all — in other ways. Even such a composer as Saint-Saëns apparently did not admit the chord of the 13th, if we may judge from an enigmatic sentence in his École buissonnière. Having remarked that Offenbach has had the audacity to write an unprepared chord of the 11th in Daphnis et Chloé (1860), he goes on to explain dominant discords, and how they are built up by adding thirds. Having arrived at a chord of the 11th, he proceeds :  ‘After that we can do nothing : a third more, and we come to the fundamental note, at a distance of two octaves.’ This, of course, is contrary to fact !

    At the commencement of Act I, Scene 3, Berlioz scribbled ‘Horreurs !’ against the ascending scale of the violins opposed to the descending one of the basses, and with this we may leave his ‘corrections’ of Wagner. He was more irritated with his contemporary than he had been with Beethoven, but one has only to read his analyses of the symphonies of the Bonn master to realize that at times he was inclined to shake his head over some of his idol’s harmonic methods. He was, for example, utterly unable to perceive any reason for the crash of all the notes of the minor scale (chord of the 13th) in the Ninth Symphony. Yet he must have been dimly conscious of such a chord. The juxtaposition of the major triad on Db and the minor one on G, in the March to Execution, can partly be explained by regarding both chords as consisting of upper partials of C. It is to be noted that, if we may trust the negative evidence of Ernst’s article, Berlioz passed no comment on Wagner’s orchestration, though certain passages, such as the excessive division of the strings in Act II, are open to criticism, and, as the composer admitted to Levi in later years,14 portions of the Love Duet are too heavily scored. Berlioz confined his strictures to the harmony, and, when dealing with Beethoven’s symphonies, he touches more often on the harmony than on the instrumentation. We can find other instances of the interest he took in the former throughout his life. Whatever opinion may be held as to the French master’s own harmonic methods, there can be no doubt that they did not result from either ignorance or chance. He had reasoned out his own particular system quite as thoroughly as his detractors have theirs. Possibly more so, for, while they are disposed to accept the teachings of their text-books, his musical instinct led him to question many things he was taught at the Conservatoire, and to justify his objections. There are iconoclasts who would destroy without having formulated any ideas as to what should replace that which they would tear down. To call a creative artist one of these is a contradiction in terms.

    Intelligent amateurs, admirers of Berlioz, who think for themselves, must often wonder at some of the denunciations of the master’s harmonic methods. Their ears tell them that he at times employs chords and progressions such as Mendelssohn would not have used, but do not Ravel, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, and many other modern men do likewise ? Wherein lies the difference ? And the wonder naturally becomes greater when the authorities disagree. We have an eminent musician declaring that the opening chords of the Invocation to Nature remind him of ‘an adventurous harmony-pupil let loose for the first time amongst the joys of diminished triads and augmented sixths’. On the other hand, we find M. Kœchlin in ‘Le Cas Berlioz’15 citing these same chords, ‘with the beautiful enharmonic modulations’ as one of the proofs that the French master was ‘an infinitely greater harmonist than his detractors imagine’. To M. Marnold16 those same modulations are ‘wearisome and sterile’, and he, as a well-known musical critic and the author of some books on musical theory, is entitled to consideration. He receives less because he spoils his own case by his too sweeping condemnation of Berlioz’s music. We have authority for believing that ‘you can fool some of the people all the time’, but when that time extends over a century and ‘some of the people’ include ‘many competent and sensitive judges (critics, practising musicians of all orders, and plain listeners) who have never felt any poverty or clumsiness in Berlioz’s music’,17 there is reason to doubt the truth of the dictum. It would seem that to obtain a true idea of Berlioz’s merits as a harmonist, we should for the time being drop him out of the discussion, and confine our attention to arguing about the relative merits of his admirers and opponents, not from the point of view of academic distinction, but rather from that of broad-mindedness and the power to find truth and beauty in a work of art, even though it be framed on principles different from one’s own. In fact, the attitude of Berlioz’s critics, whatever may be the conclusions at which they arrive, should be the precise contrary of his own bigoted one.

    In having very pronounced ideas on what was right in technique, Berlioz did not differ greatly from other composers. One who veered with every wind that blew would not achieve much. As his style remained unchanged, there was no particular reason why he should materially alter his medium of expression. The Damnation of Faust (1845) might have been composed seventeen or eighteen years before. In fact, eight of the numbers had already appeared in Eight Scenes from Faust (1829), and in all probability the Ride to the Abyss and the Pandæmonium date back to 1828, when he was setting music to the contemplated Faust ballet. That the first scene, Faust’s meditation, and his Invocation to Nature would have been as they are now could not be expected. In his younger days he naturally had not the same command of his armoury, and did not possess maturity of thought. But, as regards style, there is as little clash between the earlier and the later works as there is in Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the numbers he added in after years. I would add that the idea that the music of the Eight Scenes was incorporated in its pristine form in the later work is totally wrong. A collation of the two versions of the Easter Hymn alone is sufficient to dispel that belief. And as many of the alterations concerned the harmony, it would be of interest to know what his detractors consider guided Berlioz when he altered that of his early works. As they would appear to deny him any carefully thought-out system by which he judged his own and others’ harmony, it must have been a case of the blind leading the blind. It is to be regretted that he did not obtain that professorship at the Conservatoire he sought. He might have written a treatise on harmony. It would now be as obsolete as that of Fétis, but would at any rate show that he possessed very definite ideas on the subject.

    To admirers of Berlioz some of the objections to his harmony are incomprehensible, as difficult to appreciate as those which he advanced against the harmony of Wagner or Liszt. I would instance one of them, since it bears on the orchestral nature of a great deal of his own harmony. The third bar of his wonderful song Absence has been censured, and would seem to have offended some ears so much that their owners are incapable of realizing the beauty of the piece. Here are the opening bars, as they stand in the piano version, the parts for both hands being crowded on to one staff.

Example 1

Example 1

Berlioz’s ‘crime’ is that he failed to resolve the chord B-C#-E# (last inversion of the chord of the dominant 7th) according to the text-books. Following them, the base of the next chord should be A# instead of F#. Here, perhaps, we have an illustration of Berlioz being ‘more of an artist than a musician’. The mere musican might have written the A#, and been guilty of ‘a platitude of an insufferable banality and finicality (mièvrerie)’, to quote M. Kœchlin : the artist realized the weakness of repeating the opening phrase in mutilated form. Even from the piano version I fancy that an unbiased listener would agree with the French theorist. In the orchestral setting the composer’s intentions become clearer. Only a few instruments are required for the song — 2 flutes, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, and a small number of strings.18 To those with ears to hear, the tritone B-E# is unmistakably resolved according to the rules, the upper note (on the voice) going to F# and the lower on the oboe and second clarinet going to A#. That the other instruments break in with the initial phrase does not obscure the resolution. Berlioz did not consider his chords on the orchestra as merely chunks of harmony, as on a piano : each section of the orchestra had an independent existence. As Mr. Ernest Newman has put it, he treated the different instruments as though they were on different planes, a method practised in many modern scores, which permits concatenations of notes of atrocious effect on a piano, and such vagaries as the synchronous employment of two keys.

    The difficulty experienced by so many as regards the appreciation of Berlioz’s harmony arises from two causes. First, because his ideas, in the words of Dr. Percy Buck,19 have never become ‘current coinage’. The reason for this is without doubt because he has had no direct imitators. I shall return to this question in my last chapter. Secondly, because although Berlioz used enharmony, with rare exceptions it is not the enharmony that is cultivated by other musicians, which is based on keyboard practice. Saint-Saëns20 gives us some lucid remarks on this point. He asks :

Who, in our time, has not admitted to the powerful influence of the piano ? This influence which began before the piano itself with the “Das wohltemperierte Klavier” of Sebastian Bach. From the day when the temperament of the chord led to the synonymity of sharps and flats and allowed the practice of all tonalities, the spirit of the keyboard entered into the world : this spirit has become the devastating tyrant of music by the excessive propagation of the heretical21 enharmony. From this heresy has sprung almost all modern art : it has been too fertile to give us cause to deplore it, but it is none the less a heresy destined to disappear in the future, probably far distant, but inevitable, as the result of the same evolution that gave it birth. When then will remain of present-day art ? Perhaps only that of Berlioz, who, never having learnt the piano, had an instinctive objection to enharmony.


1. Lesueur’s La Mort d’Adam is perhaps the most curious score in existence, page after page being filled with long disquisitions in French or Italian on the meaning and use of the different chords.

2. ‘Hector Berlioz “Musicien”’, Mercure de France, 15 Jan. and 1 Feb. 1905.

3. M. Charles Kœchlin, although practically unknown in England, must be counted amongst the greatest of living theorists. As Mr. Calvocoressi said of him (Musical Times, Oct. 1930), he is ‘a composer and teacher of sound judgement and wide experience, endowed with an altogether unusual gift for harmonic invention’. He is the composer of over a hundred works (list in The Dominant, Feb. 1929), including a large number of chorales, a treatise on Counterpoint, and another on Harmony (3 vols.), the latter undoubtedly one of the best and most exhaustive ever written.

4. ‘An Introduction to Music’ in An Outline of Modern Knowledge.

5. Berlioz was anxious to establish a class for pizzicato at the Conservatoire, in order that violinists might be taught to use fingers other than the first one, as is usual in orchestras.

6. The tuning is subject to variation. Thus, for a piece in E major (a favourite key for the instrument) the 3rd string (G) may be sharpened, and the 4th and 5th (D and A) raised a tone, as is intended for the serenade of Mephistopheles in Eight Scenes from Faust.

7. Op. cit.

8. Barbier, on the other hand, says that Berlioz ‘had a tenor voice and sang agreeably’ (Souvenirs personnels et silhouettes contemporaines).

9. Op. cit.

10. I am indebted for my quotation to Boschot’s Un Romantique sous Louis-Philippe.

11. Berlioz’s article is reproduced in Les Musiciens et la musique, edited by André Hallays.

12. ‘Wagner corrigé par Berlioz’, Le Ménestrel, 28 Sept. 1884. In the British Museum copies of the journal have been preserved only since 1885.

13. Berlioz evidently took the real chord to be that of the diminished 7th on G#. But, as with many of those ‘altered chords’, another interpretation is possible. We may consider the chord as that of the augmented 6th, with the A altered, resolving on dominant harmony.

14. See Appendix to Kufferath’s Tristan et Iseult.

15. La Revue musicale, Feb. 1922.

16. Op. cit.

17. ‘Berlioz : A Postscript to a Discussion’, The Musical Times, April 1929, by M. D. Calvocoressi.

18. There is a facsimile of the opening bars of Absence in Julius Kapp’s Berlioz, with a memorandum by the composer as to how many parts would require copying. Besides those for the wind instruments he wanted 4 for the first violins, 4 for the second, 3 for the violas, and 5 for the basses.

19. At the Berlioz Conference, held in Dec. 1928.

20. Portraits et souvenirs, article on Franz Liszt.

21. ‘Heretical’, since it is illogical that a choir or a string quartet should be treated as a keyboard instrument.

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.

© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights reserved.

Chapter 2   Chapter 4

Back to Table of Contents

Back to page Tom S. Wotton
Back to Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions
Back to Home Page