The Hector Berlioz Website

Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions

Tom S. Wotton

Hector Berlioz



    As with Berlioz’s harmony, so with his melody. In attempting to discuss it, we are confronted by a number of competent authorities who flatly contradict each other. We have Dr. Weingartner1 telling us that, after it had been impressed upon him that the French master had no melody, he read the overture to Benvenuto Cellini, and was filled with delighted astonishment as melody after melody was unfolded before his eyes until he had discovered ‘five grand themes, all plastic, original, of admirable workmanship, varied in form, and rising gradually to a culminating point to finish with intense effect’. Sir Thomas Beecham2 declares that The Damnation of Faust contains ‘a bunch of the loveliest tunes in existence’. One would have thought that these two musicians, both men of eclectic tastes and conductors of wide experience, could be trusted to know what they are talking about. But no ! We have musicians, equally competent, although, of course, obviously more narrow-minded in their musical tastes, who insist that Berlioz was incapable of writing a melody ; and we are told, as though it were a statement of fact, such things as that ‘no musician could approve the cor anglais melody of The Roman Carnival Overture’. Mr. Stewart Macpherson — scarcely to be dismissed as no musician — however,3 after having given a number of examples of melodies, in which ‘the second phrase responds to the first, not only in rhythmic shape, but also in melodic pattern’ goes on to say that ‘unity is often preserved merely by the general tenor of the passage, by which we are made to feel that its various “limbs” are in keeping one with another, although varied in outline’. As a ‘good example’ of this he quotes the cor anglais melody !

    It is to be regretted that Berlioz’s detractors — or, for the matter of that, his admirers — have not given us a definition of what they mean by melody. Those in the text-books range from Prout’s ‘sounds of different pitch heard one after another’ to ‘something that can be whistled’. Admtting that as regards whistling the powers of execution of the ordinary musician yield to those of many a street arab, still, if the former cannot reproduce with pursed lips in recognizable form any one of some half-hundred of Berlioz’s tunes after once hearing it, there must be something lacking in him. The fundamental reason, however, why Berlioz’s melodies are not approved by his detractors is because they do not possess a particular form, which appears to depend principally on repetition, either of phrase, rhythm, or pattern. The expressiveness of a melody seems to count for little, and, in vocal music, a faithful translation of the words to be of no great import. Mr. Bernard Shaw4 suggests that if Charles Lecocq had set La ci darem la mano, he would have ‘simply composed the first line and the fourth, and then repeated them without altering a note. In the sixties and seventies nobody minded this.... It not only saved the composer the trouble of composing ; it was positively popular ; for it made the tunes easier to learn. Besides I need hardly say that there are all sorts of precedents, from The Vicar of Bray to the finale of Beethoven’s choral symphony, to countenance it.’ Unfortunately, what nobody minded seventy years ago has become an article of faith to many, possibly because their belief goes with their convenience — it makes composition easier. It requires a greater gift for melodic invention to compose the ‘masterly theme of twenty-three bars’ which Weingartner found early in the Cellini overture, than to compose four bars, and then to hammer out four others to match them. Fine tunes have been created on this symmetrical principle, but to insist that is the only one possible seems a negation of art.

    Whatever may be the correct definition of melody, supposing it to be definable at all, few would question that it is an essential part of music. Chord progressions may be highly effective for a short time, but even with them the composer usually seeks to make the separate parts of some melodic interest. Admirers of Schubert’s music base their admiration on appreciation of his melodiousness : those who profess to find no melody in Berlioz have no liking for his music. Their position is reasonable. If they insist that the opening phrase of The Damnation of Faust is not a melody, how can they admire the first scene, which is a development of it ? As Berlioz felt music as few have ever done, it is only to be expected that his ideas of melody should differ largely from those of (say) Auber, who ought logically to hold a high place in the affections of many musicians, for his sprightly tunes certainly conform to what they apparently seek in melody. M. Masson,5 having insisted on the ‘originality, the abundance, and the variety, which have rarely been surpassed in the history of music,’ of Berlioz’s melody, proceeds :

It moulds itself to every expression, lends itself to all the exigences of the poetic idea, marries the most opposite characters with an astonishing sureness and mobility. In it Berlioz displays to the full his essentially dramatic genius, and so to speak his gifts as an actor in music, his instinctive ability to mimic by melody the most diverse sentiments.... It is literally a gesture in sound (geste sonore).

As an excellent example of how closely Berlioz can depict a character in music, take the four-bar melody for the first violins and ’cellos shortly after Marguerite’s entrance in The Damnation of Faust :

Example 2

Example 2

It follows immediately on her words mon futur amant — the damsel was evidently prepared to meet Faust half-way — when she is recalling her dream of the previous night. As a melody it verges on the commonplace and the gruppetto at the end is almost vulgar. But does it not admirably portray the Gretchen of Goethe’s Faust, in which, readers will remember, the girl herself lays stress on her lowly condition, on her hands red and coarsened by toil ? Marguerite sings the melody at the end of her Romance, when she recalls Faust’s bearing and gestures, and the music continues in the same strain until we come to her hysterical outburst, which is most assuredly not the grief of a grande dame. The poor forsaken girl here probably reverted to type and threw her apron over her head. Berlioz has given us a faithful portrait of a young woman of low degree loved by a fine gentleman. If Marguerite had confided in a female friend, she would certainly have described her lover in verbal language corresponding to our example, gruppetto included. In the language of the penny novelette, she was a poor girl with nothing but her love, and, to illustrate that love, the composer, after the hysterical outburst, puts into her mouth one of the most magnificent passages ever given to a singer. Incidentally, this wonderful musical picture occurs in the Eight Scenes from Faust, Berlioz’s original Opus 1 !

    Some apologists for the composer endeavour to explain him by insisting that it is impossible to appreciate him properly unless we take into consideration the ‘literary element’ in him. Possibly the above remarks on Marguerite’s music may be taken as an illustration of it. There were not so intended. Berlioz was an educated man and, as with every other artist, no matter what his medium of expression, he betrays this is in his music ; and, as he says in his definition of music in A travers chants, he considered the art to be one for hommes intelligents. It does not, however, require much intelligence or pronounced literary tastes to realize that most of the ladies with beautifully manicured hands, who appear in Gounod’s opera, do not resemble the Gretchen of Goethe. And if in dramatic music a musician demands nothing more than a pleasing melody to represent this or that character, quite irrespective of whether it portrays it truthfully, it is scarcely a commendable attitude.

    Saint-Saëns declared Berlioz to be ‘more of an artist than a musician’, and M. Masson and others have repeated the remark without perhaps realizing all its implications. Leaving for the moment the question of melody, is it not strange that we had to wait for an artist amongst composers to perceive the absurdity, the irreverence, of making fugues on the word Amen ? And this fugal absurdity was not confined to a single word. Mr. Bernard Shaw,6 speaking of Israel in Egypt, says : ‘Berlioz’s burlesque Amen is far less laughable than He led them through the deep as through a wilderness, the insane contrapuntal vagaries of the four last words surpassing in irreverent grotesqueness anything that the boldest buffoons dare offer as a professedly comic composition.’ The passage might be matched by many others in the works of those who without doubt were musicians, but whose artistic perceptions were obviously uncultivated. Indeed, the word ‘artist’ as applied to a musician is of recent usage. Adolphe Adam, writing in 1834 on ‘The Musicians of Paris’,7 records the fact that to the majority of people the word connotes a painter. As Berlioz admitted the repetition of words on other occasions, he could not logically object to that of Amen — in moderation. As he said to the Abbé Girod :8 ‘No doubt it would be possible to write a beautiful fugue to express the pious word Amen. But it would have to be slow, full of contrition, and very short : for however well the sense of a word may be expressed, that word cannot be repeated a great number of times without its becoming ridiculous.’ Is there any musician living at the present time who would seriously dispute Berlioz’s statement ? His objection was to the traditional fugue on the word Amen, which he stigmatizes as being ‘rapid, violent, turbulent, resembling nothing more than some chorus of drinkers mingled with peals of laughter, as each part vocalizes on the first syllable of the a...a-a-a-amen, producing a most grotesque and indecent effect’. He even had the courage to criticize Beethoven on this point. That Berlioz was particularly enamoured of the fugue as a form of composition cannot be pretended. Somewhere he describes it as the tiresome repetition of a meaningless phrase, or in words to that effect. But he had certainly no objection to the fugato, which he employs sixteen times or more, on occasion achieving a recognizable fugue, if a free one, and even a double one, as with the Sabbat and the first number of the Te Deum. Except as evidence of Berlioz’s artistic perceptions, his ideas on fugue have no more interest than those of Chopin on double counterpoint. Cherubini, having, as head of the Conservatoire, passed Berlioz four times as being competent to write fugue, delivered himself of the epigram that his erstwhile student ‘did not like fugue, because the fugue did not like him’. Against that may be set the opinion of Ebenezer Prout, who, in whatever esteem he may be held by the present generation, was certainly a first-rate authority on the principles of fugue composition, that ‘the fugued “Hosanna” proves that, whatever may have been the causes of Berlioz’s antipathy to fugues in general, inability to compose in that style was certainly not one of them’.9 The eminent critic and theorist, of course, knew nothing of the two fugues which have since appeared in the German edition, uninspired student fugues, if you will  — it is difficult to imagine Berlioz inspired by any set dry academic theme ! — but sufficient to prove that Cherubini was justified in passing him.

    The cliché of Berlioz not liking fugue is only part of the general accusation brought against him, that he had no sense of form, either in melody or in his symphonic movements. In the latter case he is sometimes grudgingly excused by the suggestion that he dislocated the more or less consecrated form on account of his programme or this mysterious ‘literary element’. As regards his melody, there is no logical reason why he should have adopted a form founded on repetition. Without driving Masson’s simile too hard, cannot a geste sonore be graceful, beautiful, expressive without being in any way dependent on the symmetry of repetition ? An arresting gesture with the right hand need not be immediately followed by a similar one with the left, in the pump-handle style of an Italian tenor. Indeed, the significance of a gesture may be accentuated if it be succeeded by one that, taken by itself, might almost belie it. Taking melody to be the expression of some emotion, there does not appear to be any powerful reason why an emotion should be cut up into four-bar lengths, like a string of sausages, though no doubt they may be very succulent. Melody may have evolved from the association of music with metrical compositions, but there would seem to be no reason why the rules that govern the latter should apply to the former. To compare some ‘irregularity’ in one of Berlioz’s melodies as being equivalent to a false quantity in an hexameter is a confusion of ideas. He was not writing hexameters, he was writing music.

    Berlioz’a tunes need no apology. That they are not approved by every one is understandable. All those of other composers are not approved by admirers of the French master, or even by the professed admirers of the other composers. In testing Berlioz’s melodies, and objecting to them because they do not comply with some particular species of form, his opponents leave out of account his wonderful rhythms, the pulsation of which makes an organic whole of even his longest phrases. Take, for example, that for the bassoons at the commencement of the Soldiers’ Chorus, based roughly on a descending scale through two octaves. It is a phrase of nine bars, and therefore presumably non-compliant with some imaginary rule that melodies should consist of phrases of two bars or some multiple of it. As Mr. Stewart Macpherson says :10 ‘Phrases of five, six, and seven bars are occasionally met with, but they are of comparatively infrequent occurrence.’ Exactly ! Without for a moment disparaging the fine melodies that have been constructed on that principle, it may be pointed out that they have had their origin in a peculiarity of the human ear. A clock ticks perfectly evenly, and yet to the ordinary man it sounds in duple rhythm — tick-tock. One needs to be somewhat of a musician to hear it tick in threes or fives. And here we have an astounding thing ! The objection to Berlioz’s phrases of an uneven number of bars is principally confined to musicians, who, it would be supposed, would welcome melodies that broke away from the methods practised in cabaret tunes. Berlioz endeavoured to express himself more by his melodies than many composers, but I do not fancy he often wrote them without any ulterior motive. That is, he did not mould his subjects in a symphonic movement with an eye to their development in the German style. When he attempts that style, he is not always successful. He had his own methods of development, and to those who can view music as music without reference to that of other composers, those methods are of great interest.

    Paradoxically, some minds seem to move more freely in fetters, either of their own contriving or previously utilized by others. Some poets, for instance, appear to produce their best work when employing some rigid form of verse such as that of the sonnet. The fact of being relieved of finding the correct form to fit their ideas assists the flow of them. And many of their readers, having carefully counted the lines and noted the rhymes, will accept the sonnet without troubling whether after all that form was the best suited for the expression of the content. In any work of art there should be a perfect correlation between the thought and its presentation ; and only by this can true form be achieved. As Berlioz said in 1853 [in 1856 ; CG no. 2163], when working on The Trojans : ‘The immense difficulty as regards it, is to find the musical form, that form without which music does not exist, or is no more than the humble slave of the word.’11 Later on in the letter : ‘To find the means of being expressive, true, without ceasing to be a musician, and on the other hand to give to the music new qualities, that is the problem.’ These are hardly the remarks of a man who indulged in a ‘fortuitous concourse of phrases, without form and void’.

    Without possessing the rigidity of the sonnet form, in music the sonata form might be compared with it. Similarly, many listeners will accept the latter form without troubling to decide whether the content of the movement is best expressed in it, or whether some modification might not be advisable, such as the second subject preceding instead of following the first one in the recapitualtion section.12 We talk of Beethoven enlarging the sonata form. But there is another way at looking at the matter. His elaboration of the coda, the introduction of important episodes, the employment of a theme of the introduction into the working-out section, and the like, may be regarded as attempts to escape from the fetters of the form, just as the additional two lines to the sonnets in Meredith’s Modern Love may be viewed in two lights. The question might be argued at length, but all that concerns us here is the absurdity of the idea that, because a poetical, musical, or architectural work deviates from some previous form, therefore it must needs be formless. As we have seen, Berlioz, having conceived an idea, cast around for the best form to fit it, ‘that form without which music does not exist’. That he was invariably successful in his choice no one would pretend, but his plan had one inestimable advantage — it saved him from the temptation of indulging in padding. Even in the greatest of symphonic works we at times find passages where the composer has sacrificed on the altar of the Moloch of Form. It is true that those passages often exhibit technical skill, but that does not entirely atone for them. Those who profess to be satisfied with mere cleverness soon tire of it, as witness their opinion of some works by minor composers which, as regards technique, would put many of Beethoven’s in the shade.

    When seeking a form wherein to express himself, Berlioz was always inclined to turn to classic models. His first introduction to music was by way of Haydn’s quartets and those of Pleyel, who sought to rival him. And by nature, in spite of his innovations, he was more conservative than revolutionary. He certainly never aimed at creating a ‘new art’, as Wagner unwisely asserted on one occasion. In 1830, in a letter to his sister Nanci, he exclaimed : ‘When I dream of that field of chords which scholastic prejudices have until now preserved intact, and, since my emancipation, I regard as my domain, I rush forward in a kind of frenzy to explore it.’ With harmony, he might have included form and melody, in which he saw possibilities neglected by scholastic prejudice — that of Paris in the 1820’s we must not forget. Ignorant of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, he did not realize that some of the fields he deemed unexplored had been already tilled. The fact that he rediscovered those fields may not increase the merit of his scores, but it should make us realize the wonder of him as a musician. To credit him with having invented the symphonic poem is erroneous. In the Fantastic Symphony he showed how a theme representing an idea, an idée fixe he calls it, could be modified in accordance with its surroundings ; in the Harold in Italy Symphony he illustrated the opposite — a theme unaffected by its environment. The method in the earlier symphony appealed to Liszt. He elaborated it, and hence arose the symphonic poem, of which the main characteristic is that the several sections are based on permutations of one or other of the representative themes. Berlioz’s nearest approach to this plan is in The Captive. In the Fantastic Symphony the sole example of the method is the burlesque of the idée fixe in the last movement. It is obviously tacked on to the March ; it might be cut out of the Waltz without injury to the form of the number ; the concluding bars of the Sabbat recall it ; it enters more intimately into the slow movement, but that was practically rewritten after the first performance, and therefore the idée fixe was more deeply embedded in the music — it was not added to a piece otherwise complete. In the death scene in Romeo and Juliet we find a metamorphosis of the Love Theme ; and in numerous other places, partly owing to his method of development and partly to preserve unity, there are permutations of some theme which may be taken as representative of some character or idea.

    Berlioz’s scores are rich in suggestions for any maker of symphonic poems, but he did not create the thing itself, principally perhaps because his ideas on ‘programme music’ differed considerably from those of Liszt or Richard Strauss. Before attempting to define those of the older master, I would quote an admirable passage by a modern critic13 on what ‘programme music’ ought to be. It occurs in an article on Strauss :

“Programme music”, in its original shape, never loses its essentially musical basis of thought, and it reacts only to needs which are at the bottom of those of all romantic imagery. Imagination — the concept of exterior things — becomes so vivid that it permeates the mind of the composer with the reality of the conception, and thus permeates his music. Thus the music becomes to some extent a function of the imaginative faculty, but it never loses its natural rhythm, as marked as the natural rhythm of speech or thought. Musical and dramatic imagery must retain an equipoise — as in Berlioz, and more than in Liszt.

I do not know in what estimation Signor Pannain holds Berlioz, but as regards the equipoise between the music and the imagery he is undubitably correct. It exists, I believe, because Berlioz was less of a follower of programmes and more of a musician pure and simple than is generally supposed. He may have found a programme a stimulus to composition, and set out to illustrate it. But if it conflicted with his musical ideas he was always ready to disregard it, or rather, he was always prepared to give a very free rendering of it. An equipoise between a translation and the original is not best obtained by reproducing the idioms peculiar to the latter. He was as averse from making music the ‘humble slave’ of an idea as that of the words of a poem. Obsessed by the notion that Berlioz was unable to compose without a definite programme constantly in his mind, commentators have sought to explain his music in terms of one, when a purely musical reason would suffice. As an example of this, take a criticism of the little violin piece of 1839, Rêverie et Caprice : ‘Turn to the title-page and you find that everything has an inner meaning, that the F-sharp minor implies despair, that a semiquaver figure is meant to symbolize doubt or agitation, and that “voluptés fougueuses” are embodied in a most innocent-looking melody.’ The cream of the jest is that Berlioz did not pen the nonsensical farrago that heads the score in the second French edition, as any one with any understanding of the composer might have guessed. It does not appear on the edition published in his lifetime, and was indeed added after a Berlioz concert on 26 March 1880, when Marie Tayau played the solo part. It was written by M. Tiersot (then aged twenty) at the instigation of Pasdeloup, who, although he gave good interpretations of the master, was sufficient of a fogey to believe that a programme was a necessity for Berlioz.14 (Fogeyism, the clinging to obsolete ideas, is usually associated with elderly gentlemen, but the failing can be discovered in the young, when it is more dangerous, since it is unsuspected.) The nonsense is reproduced in the untrustworthy German edition (vol. vi), but the commentary dealing with the work is discreetly silent on the point.

    Even Wagner, when discussing Berlioz’s music, fell into the error of connecting it with a non-existent programme. In criticizing the Romeo and Juliet Symphony with his friends,15 he said :

In instrumental music I am a réactionnaire, a conservative. I dislike everything that requires a verbal explanation beyond the actual sounds. For instance, the middle of Berlioz’s touching scène d’amour in his “Romeo and Juliet” is meant by him to reproduce the lines about the lark and the nightingale in Shakespeare’s balcony scene, but it does nothing of the sort — it is not intelligible as music.

Wagner found the opening of the Love Scene ‘heavenly’, and I do not suppose he troubled to visualize the garden, the balcony, or even the protagonists. He listened as he would to an Adagio of Beethoven’s. That is, he thought musically. Then comes the Allegro agitato, and here the German was unable to follow the Frenchman’s musical idea, so he needs must invent an imaginary programme, and then accuse Berlioz of having failed to illustrate it. The lines about the lark and the nightingale do not occur in the balcony scene ! Wagner in his stricture must be classed with the previous writer I have quoted, and was not far removed from the lady, who to Berlioz’s amusement, discovered in the Ball Scene Romeo arriving in his cabriolet.

    What Berlioz precisely intended by his Allegro agitato I do not venture to affirm — probably a picture of Juliet on her balcony confiding her love to the night. The figure

Example 3

Example 3

is a legitimate development of the violin flutter

Example 3a

of the preceding Adagio. It can be paralleled in many of his scores. In his first instrumental work, the overture to Les Francs Juges, he commences the introduction with a phrase vaguely suggestive of the first subject of the Allegro, and this is developed for a score of bars until we come to the majestic theme for brass — at the time an absolutely novel proceeding. At its termination there is a crash for full orchestra (coup de poignard, Berlioz calls it) succeeded by three crotchet thirds on the oboes and violas descending chromatically (crochet = 72). In the Allegro we find again the melody of the introduction, and the three chromatic notes, which might almost have escaped notice, thundered out in semibreves (semibreve = 80, wrongly given in the German edition as minim = 80) on the trombones with terrific effect. As at the time Berlioz wrote the overture he knew no more of Beethoven than some Andante, he did not derive the idea of introducing material from the introduction into the succeeding Allegro from the Bonn master. He evolved it himself, and made use of it in all his overtures, with the exception of Waverley, where the motto that heads the score

Dreams of Love and lady’s charms
Give place to honour and to arms

necessitates a sharp distinction between the love theme of the introduction and the warlike ones of the Allegro. In the overture to Beatrice and Benedick it is true we do not have the plan, but the second subject (a phrase taken from the Wedding March) is sufficiently like the air of the introductory Andante (Beatrice’s air in Act II), on account of both commencing with a descending chromatic scale of four notes, to lead a careful critic and admirer of Berlioz16 to imagine that the two were identical. Incidentally, he considered the work to be the weakest of Berlioz’s overtures. A rather odd opinion, since it chances to be one of the few pieces of the French master that his opponents seem to appreciate. Yet it is true Berlioz throughout !

    The utilization of the theme of the introduction in the subsequent Allegro may at times have had some dramatic significance, as in Les Francs Juges. At others, there would seem to be no reason except a musical one, a desire to impart unity to a composition. In The Roman Carnival Overture, as Teresa and Cellini were present at the Carnival, from a programme point of view it is fitting that their love music should figure in the midst of the general merriment, but it is difficult to find a ‘literary element’ in its humorous treatment. The relative importance of the three themes of the work is — the second subject of the Allegro, the Love Theme of the introduction, the first subject of the Allegro, which might be taken to represent, with its rhythm of the saltarello, the atmosphere of the Carnival rather than anything more definite. With this in mind, Gustav Brecher, in an excellent analysis of the work,17 is inclined to treat the overture as a sort of symphonic poem. In this he errs. On the other hand, the anonymous compiler of the Synopsis of Form in the Philharmonia edition of the score, striving to bring the work into line with the classical sonata form, has completely misunderstood the composer’s intentions. He says that the first subject (interrupted by an Andante — bars 19 to 78) extends from bar 1 to bar 127, when the subsidiary subject begins (bars 128 to 167) ‘chiefly based on motives taken from the Principal Subject’, the Recapitulation following immediately on bar 168, followed by a long Coda (bar 300). What Berlioz really did was this : he took from the Carnival Scene of Benvenuto Cellini the first and second subjects — indeed, as the opera now stands, the first 169 bars of the main Allegro of the overture are practically the same as those of the Scene, naturally with different orchestration (since the voice parts are eliminated) and with a few changes in the harmony.18 Anxious to foreshadow the coming Allegro by a few bars of it previous to the Andante — a plan he employed in other works — and realizing that his second subject was considerably stronger than his first one, he chose a few bars of the former, which he was forced to transpose into the key of the overture (A major). His proceeding was perfectly logical and perfectly understandable, although it did appear to be beyond the comprehension of the anonymous compiler. He, with distorted notions as to what constitutes ‘form’, was prepared to label anything that came first as ‘first suject’,19 even though it involved making the second subject identical with it. There is no need to query the remainder of the Philharmonia synopsis beyond pointing out that what its author takes to be the Recapitulation is simply the Exposition repeated (with different orchestraion and some minor variations), a procedure common enough in the sonata form, but less practised in the modified one usually employed in overtures. There is a short development, and the Recapitulation does not include the first subject (an omission found in the works of other composers) because we have had already the rhythm of it. Again Berlioz is perfectly logical ! His conservatism impelled him to cling to a classical model : his radicalism led him to modify it in accordance with the musical content of the score. Had his first subject been stronger than the second, his treatment of his material would have been different. To argue that he ought to have chosen a stronger first subject, that he ought not to have commenced his work with an arresting phrase from the second subject — in short, that he ought to have moulded his ideas to fit a form invented by Italians and Germans, is beside the point.

    As an example of a work more closely attached to some vague programme, let us take the overture to King Lear. Without presuming to possess the ability to penetrate into Berlioz’s mental processes, I can imagine him setting out to illustrate the initial idea of the play — Lear’s division of the kingdom. He may have done so merely to have an excuse for introducing a melody depicting Cordelia. In any case, he commenced with a theme on the basses undoubtedly representative of Lear, answered by the muted violins in the octave above, as though he had questioned Goneril and she had returned the precise answer he had expected. He then returns to Regan with the complementary half of his theme, and receives the anticipated ‘glib and oily’ reply. He does not question Cordelia, because for musical reasons it would be redundant ; her melody may be taken as her answer. It is repeated pianissimo on the brass, surely with no eye on a ‘programme’, but rather owing to the desire of a musician to repeat a melody he likes. In its elaborated form it has almost ceased to represent the youngest daughter. It is succeeded by the Lear theme (with its complement) on the unison strings interspersed by angry outbursts on the wind instruments and drums, the latter, by the way, with sponge-headed drum-sticks. (The part, in which the nuances are very exactly indicated, requires careful handling. The passage can be nearly ruined by a too energetic drummer.) The introduction to the overture might be instanced as an equipoise between ‘musical and dramatic imagery’. Whether Berlioz would have agreed with my interpretation of it or not, some connexion can be traced between it and the opening scene of Shakespeare’s drama. On the other hand, surely the music possesses sufficient interest in itself to be enjoyed apart from any programme.

    The whole of the subsequent Allegro is, I am inclined to believe, devoted to a portrayal of Lear. As far as I am aware the only clue that Berlioz himself gave us was in a letter to Liszt, in which he said that he intended it to express a ‘deranged mind’ by a passage towards the end of the overture. As this is a transformation of one of the subsidiary subjects, obviously they have nothing to do with Cordelia, as suggested by some commentators, or at any rate one of them has no connexion. Probably both the melodies illustrate the ‘poor old man, as full of grief as age’. The Lear theme of the introduction is made use of throughout the Allegro. Once we have it complete, and two fragments of it are often employed in transformed but quite recognizable shape. The theme commences :

Example 4

Example 4

and immediately after the conclusion of the first subject we find the five initial notes of it thus :

Example 5

Example 5

This serves as the germ of the transitional passage, great play being made with the triplets that are a feature of the Lear theme. The other transformation is more subtle, but none the less apparent. The last two bars of the complementary half of the theme are :

Example 6

Example 6

In the development section there are repetitions of the emphatic seven notes that begin the first subject separated by phrases formed on this pattern

Example 7

Example 7

clearly derived from our preceding example. Lest we should miss the connexion between the two, Berlioz at the end of the introduction repeats the last two bars of the theme in order to impress them on the listener’s memory. Indeed, as the Lear theme is of such importance, its repetitions in the introduction may be ascribed to the same reason, without dragging in Goneril and Regan. In any case, this careful, almost meticulous, use of his material is absurdly incompatible with the idea of a composer whose ‘eloquence pours forth in a turbid, impetuous torrent which levels all obstacles and overpowers all restraint’.

    I have dwelt on this overture for several reasons. In the first place, it was composed at a time which Berlioz described as the happiest of his life, during the weeks he spent at Nice recovering from his quinsy and his jilting by Camille. He had nothing to do except regain his health, mental and physical, and compose, free from worry. The work illustrates his methods in many ways — his plan of choosing some tale to serve as the catalyst for his musical ideas ; and then, as he proceeds to translate the tale into his own language, paying more heed to the smoothness of the translation than to its fidelity, his system of development, which often passes unperceived because it is not confined to a particular section of the movement ; and his retention of a free development of the sonata form.

    What we call inspiration must have something tangible to work on. The sculptor does not sit down before a block of marble trusting to inspiration to guide his chisel. He must have some notion of what his completed work will represent. He may modify his idea to some extent during his labours, and at the end elect to call his figure by some other name. But these are minor matters. To commence with, his imagination must be aiming at some definite mark. So with a musician. He may jot down in his note-book some theme that may have struck him like a bolt from the blue. Nevertheless, it can hardly be said to exist until he has anchored it to earth, until he has decided what to do with it. How or when a theme musically depicting Lear or any other character occurred to Berlioz, we do not know. But, having found it, he would cast around for some form to fit it, ‘that form without which music does not exist’. With his classical leaning he would be inclined to choose some classical form, but, claiming liberty, would feel free to modify it to suit his requirements. Although a contemporary of Haydn’s for six years of his life, his ideas and emotions differed from those of the older composer as widely as the poles. Why should he therefore slavishly copy the same form to express himself ? The form he chose did not, however, invariably satisfy even himself. He ‘burnt’ the overtures to Rob Roy and The Tower of Nice, utilizing two themes of the former in the Harold in Italy Symphony and transforming the latter into the overture to The Corsair, which, as I have pointed out elsewhere,20 has in reality no ‘programme’ attached to it.

    As an example of the ‘literary element’ in Berlioz’s music which it is necessary to understand before we can appreciate the full flavour of the music itself, a footnote to The King of Thule in the Eight Scenes from Faust is cited by some critics. It is to the effect that the singer should sing the ballad without expression, since Marguerite is supposed to be merely humming idly, as she makes her preparations for the night, without paying any heed to the meaning of the words. It was a silly direction, as Berlioz was the first to perceive, and is contradicted by the music. The sigh at the end is meaningless, if the girl were unconscious of what she was singing ; and the same reason applies to the pauses on some of the notes. A few months after the Eight Scenes were published semi-privately — they never entered into general circulation — Berlioz did his best to destroy every copy. When he introduced the song in The Damnation of Faust he made several alterations. He commenced his melody on the second half of the bar, instead of the first, swayed by a keener sense of rhythm : he cut out the part of a clarinet that played in unison with the tutti violas : and, with a few other changes, discarded the ill-advised footnote which, if it did no other harm, was calculated to engender an insufferable monotony. In the Eight Scenes the ballad stands by itself ; in the later work it is intimately connected with the preceding recitative. Marguerite finds in the fidelity of the old king that which she is determined to practise as regards Faust. The singer, if she would truly carry out Berlioz’s intentions, if she would complete the picture of the girl still troubled in her dreams, must put her soul into the song. It is an odd proceeding, taking a direction from one work and — against the wishes of the composer — transplanting it to another score, and then arguing that he did this or that on the strength of an indication he had consigned to the waste-paper basket. If one must delve into that useful article before its contents are conveyed to the dust-bin, why not retrieve the eliminated clarinet part ? Berlioz, I repeat, being an educated man, without being in any way an erudite one, could not avoid betraying the fact in his works. No artist can ! The message from the shrine may be the same, but an educated man will deliver it in different fashion from one who had received little mental training. The difference may at times be subtle, and only apparent to hommes intelligents, but nevertheless it exists. I have suggested that Berlioz did certain things because he was an artist besides being a musician. But it is often possible to account for his attitude by reason of his having received some scientific (and therefore logical) training as a medical student. Having settled on his plan, he would proceed to execute it as a musician.

    It is unfortunate that Berlioz was almost forced to affix a programme to his Fantastic Symphony. Forced, since, although the programme may have intended partly to induce an unmusical public to take interest in his work, it was required in order to explain the connexion between the last two movements and the first three. No audience could be expected to understand why a March to Execution21 should follow a Scene in the Country, though it may not be more difficult to grasp why a hero, having been decently buried, should then go a-hunting. The objection to the programme is that both critics and audience took it to have been written first, and the music afterwards, whereas the contrary was the truth. Owing to this erroneous belief, which Berlioz may have encouraged to some extent, he has been deemed an uncompromising champion of programmes, and certain superficial critics have even gone so far as to declare that he was unable to compose without one. The reason of a musician’s inspiration can seldom be explained, even by himself. A strong emotion will often serve as a catalyst for the musical reaction ; and, as Berlioz was affected by poetry, especially dramatic poetry, almost as powerfully as he was by music, he would naturally be apt to be inspired by the former. A physical shock may serve, as when the fact of falling into the Tiber enabled him to find a melody which had eluded him for a couple of years. At the time, scenery did not inspire him. As he wrote to Wagner,22 when the latter was in Switzerland engaged on the composition of The Ring :

It must be wonderful to be able to write in the presence of grand scenery !... Alas ! such a joy is denied to me ! Beautiful country, towering peaks, a turbulent sea absorb me completely, instead of exciting me to thought. I feel but cannot express myself. I am only able to paint the moon when seeing its image at the bottom of a well.

That is, since he was undoubtedly able to depict the varying aspects of Nature, he relied on remembered impressions. It is significant that the symphony of which he dreamt for two nights in succession and did not dare to put to paper lest he should be tempted to perform it, and so entail expenses he was unable to afford, was inspired by no programme. It would be absurd to imagine that this was not often the case. Themes occurred to him just as they do to every musician.

    Berlioz’s ‘form’ was dictated principally by the musical content, and in most cases it was, as Mr. Bernard Shaw said apropos of the work of another composer,23 ‘very successful in point of form (in the real as distinguished from the common, academic sense of the term)’. At times Berlioz may have been swayed by some story, and, as the same critic remarked,24 ‘it is impossible to tell a story in sonata form, because the end of a story is not a recaputilation of the beginning ; and the end of a movement in sonata form is’. As Haydn and other composers have admitted to having had at the back of their minds some tale, even when writing ‘pure’ music, this inability to tell a story in sonata form may possibly account for some of the so-called ‘developments’ of the strict form. Obviously, if a movement is in perfect (academic) form, with Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation, the addition of a coda (a tail) is as much out of place as would be one attached to a woman who satisfied all the canons of beauty. There is no escape from this argument. If a movement requires a coda to complete it, what has gone before is incomplete, as imperfect as the Venus of Milo. Berlioz, with his keen sense of logic and constant desire to free music from the trammels of tradition, must have realized something of this, and hence in some of his movements it is difficult to state positively where the coda (if there is one) commences. For convenience of analysis it may be advisable, when dealing with his instrumental works, to retain the terminology of the sonata form — especially as there is not much doubt that that particular form was present in his subconsciousness — but to appreciate the beauty of his form we must regard his movements as a whole, and not as a series of sections welded together.

   ‘Programme music’ is difficult to define. It ranges from a musical imitation of the sounds of nature or humanity to the impressions aroused by some incident, tale, or scene. Few composers have avoided the former, more particularly in vocal music, but perhaps it is legitimate only when it is used as a means to an end, merely as a method of augmenting the effect of some emotion or dramatic situation. The babble of the brook in the Pastoral Symphony is something more than the perpetual murmur of a stream. It typifies the composer’s tranquillity of mind. As Johannes Weber pointed out,25 if we take the rhythm of the Ride to the Abyss simply as an imitation of galloping horses, the idea may be considered almost puerile. If, however, we regard the whole piece as illustrative of Faust’s agony of mind and increasing horror, the constant beating of the horses’ hoofs intensifies the effect. It might be added that the subtle changes in the rhythm, together with the passing of the women at prayer, the hideous shape and the foul birds, all help to impart a strong sense of motion to the Ride, absent from a more celebrated one, based on a figure of two octave skips, more suggestive of a see-saw or rocking-horse than a flight through the air. The fall of the axe at the end of the March to Execution is certainly a touch of realism, but it is no more unmusical than the crashing chord in the Oberon Overture, and, cutting across the idée fixe, its meaning would be clear even if there were no programme to the symphony and we had nothing beyond the bare titles of the movements, which Berlioz suggested in one of its versions were all that was necessary when the work was played without the continuation Lélio. In Harold in Italy the sound of the chapel bell and the phrases of the Pilgrims’s March interrupted by the mutterings of an Ave or Paternoster are realistic effects, but are no more so than those discovered by some commentators in Bach and other composers. In symphonic music musical imitations of the sounds of nature or humanity are at any rate harmless ; they only become at times unnecessary in operatic music, because we see the real thing. There was no need for Meyerbeer to imitate in the orchestra the sharpening of the scythe in Dinorah ; we see and hear the actual operation being performed.

    The idea of Berlioz being an ardent supporter of programme music, in so far as telling a tale in music is concerned, rests almost entirely on the programme he wrote to the Fantastic Symphony. Generally his instrumental movements are but remembered impressions of some scene or story. Even where he gives the programme, as in the Fantastic Symphony and in the Romeo and Juliet (in a choral prologue), it is usually impossible to pin the music down to a particular interpretation. In the Ball Scene of the latter symphony what is the programme ? Berlioz takes two melodies from his prize-winning cantata The Death of Sardanapalus, one a love-song and the other suggesting a dance. He heads the scene with a slow movement which we are told represents ‘Romeo alone — Sadness’. It includes the love-song on the oboe. Then follows the Ball, and, after the main theme has been given twice, we hear it combined with the love-song. There is as little of a ‘programme’ here as there is in the combination of the Harold theme with the Pilgrims’ March. Then there is a short fugato (derived from the dance theme) with a descending phrase of four bars as a counter-subject. The latter becomes more and more persistent and serves eventually as a basso ostinato (a constantly recurring bass) beneath rushing ascending triplets on the violins. Shortly before the end of the movement the love-song is again heard on the oboe, accompanied by the rhythm of the dance on the drums and the counter-subject on the lower strings. The latter may have some dramatic significance, though nobody seems to have discovered it. More probably it has no significance beyond a musical one. Berlioz erected a structure on a basso ostinato precisely as other composers have done, from Bach to Brahms.


1. Le Guide musical, 29 Nov. 1903.

2. The Daily Telegraph, 27 May 1933.

3. Form in Music, London, 1915.

4. Music in London, 1890-94, vol. iii, p. 36.

5. Les Maîtres de la musique — Berlioz, Paris, 1923.

6. Op. cit.

7. Included in his Souvenirs d’un musicien, Paris, 1857.

8. Correspondance inédite, Letter LXXXIII [CG no. 2192].

9. The Athenaeum, 2 June 1887.

10. Op. cit.

11. Briefe von Hector Berlioz and die Fürstin Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, edited by La Mara, Leipzig, 1903, Letter xi [CG no. 2163]. The sentence quoted contains a misprint — sous laquelle for sans laquelle.

12. Stewart Macpherson cites examples from Mozart, Spohr, and Dvořák where this has been done.

13. Modern Composers, by Guido Pannain, translated by Michael R. Bonavin, London, 1932.

14. M. Tiersot nobly acknowledges his youthful error in ‘Berlioziana’, Le Ménestrel, 5 Nov. 1905.

15. Die Musik and ihre Classiker in Aussprûchen Richard Wagners, Leipzig, 1876. Extracts given in ‘Grove’s Dictionary’, art. ‘Wagner’.

16. Richard Pohl, Hector Berlioz : Studien und Erinnerungen, Leipzig, 1884.

17. Musikführer, No. 175, ‘Le Carnaval romain’, Leipzig.

18. What he absolutely did apparently was to make some alterations in the saltarello (then in 3/4 time) as it stood in the original version of the opera, and then transfer those alterations back to the Carnival Scene, when he recast Benvenuto Cellini.

19. His attitude was paralleled by that of a writer of the programme of a B.B.C. concert, in which we are told that the rushing scales that commence The Corsair Overture, afterwards used as transitional passages, were the first subject of the work !

20. Berlioz Four Works, London, 1929.

21. It is astonishing that the B.B.C., which is inclined to plume itself on the purity of its English, should persist in translating Marche au Supplice as ‘The March to the Gallows’. Supplice may mean any form of judicial punishment. But the hero of the symphony had his head cut off. He was not hanged. I doubt whether the boldest of the B.B.C.’s announcers would refer to Charles I as dying on the gallows.

22. Correspondance inédite, letter of 10 Sept. 1855 [CG no. 2014].

23. Music in London, 1890-1894, vol. ii.

24. Op. cit.

25. Les Illusions musicales, Paris, 1883.

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Page Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions created on 15 March 2012; this page created on 1 July 2018.

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