The Hector Berlioz Website

Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions

Tom S. Wotton

Hector Berlioz

Chapter Seven — THE WORKS (continued)


    Considering that the orchestra is usually taken to be Berlioz’s special domain, it is strange that his output of purely instrumental music was comparatively so small. Amongst his works there are only four concert overtures, one of which (that to Rob Roy) he ‘burnt’ ; four symphonies, one largely vocal and another for military band with a chorus in the finale ; and a couple of marches, one of them afterwards incorporated in a larger work. He also instrumentated the Marche marocaine of Léopold Meyer, with which the pianist had delighted the Parisians in the 1840’s. In spite of a commonplace trio there is a certain fascination in Berlioz’s arrangement, for which he wrote a coda of his own. In truth, his real domain was the opera, and, but for the failure of Benvenuto Cellini, the refusal of the Opéra to accept the libretto of Les Francs Juges, and the disgraceful way in which he was treated over La Nonne sanglante, we might have known him principally as an operatic composer. The non-success of Cellini was without doubt mainly due to the indifferent libretto, compiled by men with no experience of the stage. And they were unwise enough to introduce expressions such as Hugo was employing in his plays, which were considered inappropriate to the dignified atmosphere of the Opéra. It is difficult nowadays to understand any one objecting to Balducci asking for his ‘hat and stick’, but so it was. He should have demanded his ‘mantle and poniard’. The opera was also encumbered by unnecessary episodes, and some of the scenes were too protracted. M. Tiersot, in ‘Berlioziana’, which, by the way, should certainly be reproduced in book form, gives a detailed account of the original version of the work, as it exists in the score preserved in the archives of the Opéra. The late Charles Malherbe at the time of his death in 1911 was engaged in preparing an edition of the opera for the German edition. But as neither his co-editor, nor any one else, has completed his labours, the edition is still unfinished.1 In 1876 Berlioz’s executors brought action against the French publishers of Cellini and The Trojans to compel them to publish the full scores in accordance with their agreement with the composer. The latter pleaded that they were unable to do this, as under Berlioz’s will the autographs were bequeathed to the Conservatoire, and although Ambroise Thomas (the then head of the Conservatoire) offered to lend the manuscripts, the Court pronounced in favour of the publishers. Had Berlioz been fortunate enough to be an Italian, with Ricordi as his publisher, we should have had his operas in the beautiful miniature editions issued by the firm. But ill luck pursued the French master, even from his birth !

    After the original performances in Paris of Cellini in 1838 Berlioz made no attempt to revise it till Liszt in 1851 offered to produce it at Weimar. He then at once set to work to make such alterations as he deemed necessary, and told his friend in a letter of 29 August 1851 [CG no. 1430] : ‘I have just examined it seriously, after having forgotten it for thirteen years, and I swear that I shall never more recapture that animation and Cellinian impetuosity, nor such a variety of ideas.’ His criticism was not unsound. There is an extraordinary wealth of ideas in the opera, and it is strange that we should witness tinkerings with The Damnation of Faust to fit it for a stage performance, for which it was never intended, when Cellini has yet to come into its own. Berlioz’s initial alterations to the opera were by no means sufficient, and for the Weimar performances (in March and November 1852) many more were considered necessary. The original two acts were at first expanded into four and then reduced to three, and many scenes were omitted or cut drastically. Unfortunately, here again amateurs were concerned with the libretto. From a letter to his mother of 23 May 1852, we know that Hans von Bülow (then a young man of twenty-two) had much to do with the alterations, which no doubt Berlioz believed emanated entirely from Liszt. Liszt himself must have made some suggestions, and Cornelius, who translated the words, would also have had a finger in the pie. The result achieved by this succession of amateur dramatists does not seem to have militated against the success of the opera in nearly a score of German towns ; but, for all that, we still want a version arranged by a practised playwright, aided by a musician who is a conscientious admirer of Berlioz. Although the composer’s approval of the Weimar version should have its due weight, it must be remembered that in his anxiety to have the opera produced at all costs he was perhaps too ready to agree to alterations. There is much good music in the original version which ought to be preserved. It is almost unnecessary to add that in any new version no attempt should be made to bring the opera up to date. As M. James Agate has wisely observed, speaking more particularly of plays and pictures : ‘All good works date.... A work of art dates nobly when it represents the best in its line of its age, ignobly when it doesn’t.’2 For instance, to the audiences of the 1850’s there was nothing wrong in the action being delayed, such as it is in the last act by Cellini’s  air Sur les monts. It was deservedly a favourite of Berlioz’s, and should be retained. On the other hand, the tenor’s air at the commencement of Act II is somewhat indifferent music, and, as it was clearly a sop to the singer, can be cut with advantage. Another sop to the singer is the Allegro con fuoco that concludes Teresa’s aria in Act I. Weingartner relates in his Akkorde that at one of the performances of the opera which he directed he had determined to cut the Allegro, as being vulgar, when the singer (Frau Herzog) suggested that the tempo was too fast. Ignoring Berlioz’s metronome time, the conductor followed the singer’s advice, and discovered the true grace of the piece. As it is difficult to believe that Berlioz did not realize the proper tempo, one can only suppose that he marked the rapid tempo to oblige the singer, who would insist on an aria di bravura. The amusing fugued chorus of women pursuing the luckless Fieramosca In Act I was abbreviated before the first performance. Now, as M. Boschot has pointed out, it seems too short. And the finale of the opera seems to have been cut too drastically. This and the Carnival Scene are the culminating points of the work, but the whole of it is of interest, even in its present version. Subjected to a reverent revision as outlined above, it should have a new lease of life.

    Had Fate allowed Berlioz to become an operatic composer, I doubt whether he would have been a reformer of that branch of music in the sense that Gluck and Wagner were. The conservative vein in Berlioz’s musical make-up, backed by his admiration for the operas of Gluck and Spontini’s La Vestale, would have tended to check any great departure from the then accepted forms. We are, however, safe in saying that Wagner would have found him considerably more difficult to dethrone than Meyerbeer, Rossini, and their imitators. Opera was gradually becoming modified, quite apart from the Bayreuth master, and Berlioz would have had a share in those modifications. The Damnation of Faust was never intended for stage representation. The composer, however, at first entitled it Opéra de concert, and briefly referred to it in his letters as his opera — a habit that has caused misunderstanding. But much of the part of Faust gives us a clue to what Berlioz might have done in opera. Faust has one more or less set air, and takes his part in a duet and a trio. On the other hand, the opening scene, that in his study, and the Invocation to Nature are far removed from opera as understood in 1846. In The Trojans we find many of the consecrated opera forms, but they are no longer separate numbers more or less indifferently linked together by recitative. The music flows more continuously. The opera is a series of scenes, in which, by the frequent use of chant récitatif — recitative based on song rather than on the inflexions of verbal speech — the old barriers, if not broken down, are often less in evidence.3 Beatrice and Benedick, being an opéra comique with spoken dialogue, is on the same lines as those of that date. Berlioz’s ideas of opera differed materially from those of Wagner, if only from his objection to making the music ‘the humble slave of the words’. This does not mean that he had not an image of the scene constantly before his eyes as he wrote. Any one who has had the privilege of seeing The Trojans on the stage will realize how much the music gains in a stage performance. As a matter of fact, Wagner, for all his theories, bears concert performance much better.

    That the plan of The Trojans is entirely successful cannot be pretended. The opera so obviously consists of two distinct halves, and the one character (Aeneas), who is the sole connecting link between Act I and II (‘The Taking of Troy’) and Acts III, IV, and V (‘The Trojans at Carthage’), has a negligible part in the first half, and is not given the most important role in the second half. Cassandra is the leading character in the former, and Dido in the latter. Berlioz, unconsciously no doubt, did not do justice to Aeneas. In his boyhood he took a dislike to him on account of his treatment of Dido, and that dislike swayed him when composing the opera. The hero has some fine music, but on the whole his part is rather a thankless one. In spite, however, of this flaw in the laying-out of the work, it is more satisfactory when given as it was originally written. Berlioz worked out the duration of the opera, and found that, ‘if the correct tempi are adopted and well sustained’ — again his insistence on the marked indications ! — there should be 206 minutes of music, which, with four entr’actes of a quarter of an hour, would mean that the performance would last four hours and twenty-six minutes. Berlioz, however, was not a stage carpenter, and therefore greatly underestimated the time necessary for changing the heavy ‘sets’. The performance actually takes over five hours and if the opera is to be given intact, must commence, like The Twilight of the Gods, at five in the afternoon.4

    On the whole The Trojans is Berlioz’s finest work, though the Te Deum (containing perhaps his grandest number) runs it close. As in every composition of large dimensions, there may be a few weak moments in the former, but how many admirable pages there are to counterbalance them ! We may not find the ‘Cellinian impetuosity’ of the earlier opera — it would be misplaced ! — but there is a greater variety of ideas. Contrast the delicious little song of Hylas with the humorous duet of the sentinels, the wonderful love duet of Dido and Aeneas with the utterances of Cassandra or the final scene, the quintet, which is finer than the succeeding celebrated septet, with the Royal Hunt. And the entire work contrasts with the charming Beatrice and Benedick written shortly afterwards. The fact that Berlioz was suffering agonies during much of the time in which he was occupied with the composition of the latter, and, as he himself admits, often had no recollection of what he had written the day before, naturally should not affect our judgement of the merits of the music. But it is worthy to be remembered, since it is evidence of the innate musicality of the man. The ‘inexplicable mechanism’ functioned within him ‘in spite of reason’, in spite of everything. It is difficult to associate this with the idea of an essentially literary man who dabbled in music in a somewhat amateurish way. An unbiased person might be inclined to agree with Mr. Bernard van Dieren5 that ‘Berlioz was, with the sole exception of Mozart, the composer with the most stupendous native gifts of the last few centuries’. If in nothing else, Berlioz resembled the older master in his variety, and it is this variety that has raised doubts in the minds of his admirers as to which work or number is really his finest achievement.

    The Fantastic Symphony has lately been performed so often in England that little need be said regarding it. It has won disciples for the French master, but, on the other hand, has been denounced as a bad symphony, principally because of the first movement, which, according to one writer ‘simply breaks the fundamental rules of art, and that not with the iconoclasm of a reformer, but with the awkwardness of a tyro’. If ‘breaking the fundamental rules of art’ means deviating from the sonata form as laid down by Haydn and Mozart, the accusation is possibly true. If, on the other hand, we take the same writer’s definition of form as being that ‘which so groups the figures on the canvas as to present them in the best possible relation to each other’, the accusation is open to question. It is possible that had we the first movement as originally penned, its ‘form’ might have been less disputed. The commentary to the symphony in the German edition has thirty-three bars that were cut out by the composer, and, as these represent merely the beginning and end of eliminated passages of unknown length, it is quite probable that he discarded three or more times that number. As far as can be gathered, they were concerned with development more or less in Teutonic fashion, and in the nature of ‘note-spinning’, to use the expression of Mr. Ernest Newman in an admirable article on the work.6 ‘Berlioz did not put together his work in the conventional German way because he had not the craftsmanship for it but because it simply did not appeal to him.’ As the critic points out, Berlioz was trying to do what Sibelius has done in our time, ‘sweating all the old superfluous tissue out of the symphony and making it compact and meaningful throughout.’ As already suggested in a previous chapter, Berlioz in his symphonic compositions strove after unity. We find that as regards the themes of this first movement. The first theme, an eight-bar phrase immediately imitated in the dominant, leads at once into the melody of the introduction, the same plan as he adopted in the King Lear [Overture]. The second theme is intimately attached to the first one by its first two bars (Min. Sc., p. 18, bars 5 and 6) — the sharpening of the D is a touch of genius ! And the music is seldom removed from the three themes. Even the disputed passage for the strings in the ascending and descending chromatic scales is closely associated with the first theme by the wail on the wood-wind and horns, which is derived from the F (sf) and E, the culminating point of the first phrase of the Allegro. Berlioz, as I have previously remarked, employed all the artifices of development, but he did not always employ them in the place where the academic mind has been taught to look for them. No doubt there are ‘fundamental rules of art’, though it would be extremely difficult to define them. But, whatever they may be, they are certainly not embodied in one particular cast-iron mould. As illustrating Berlioz’s feeling for ‘form’ (the genuine article), it may be noted that the original end of the first movement was abrupt. The string parts were modified on p. 53, bar 6 (Min. Sc.), and then followed by bars 3 to 6 of the next page, concluded by the first chord of bar 7, with the instrumentation somewhat altered. The composer was dissatisfied. He had not grouped his figures so as ‘to present them in the best possible relation to each other’. So he added what might be technically termed a coda, yet must be considered not as a tail added to a completed composition in perfect ‘form’, but rather as an integral part of the form itself. That this completion meant an additional couple of lines to the ‘programme’ is beside the question, which was a purely musical one. Lelio seeking religious consolation was as good an explanation as the composer could find, when forced to translate his ideas into verbal language.

    The ‘Romanticism’ of the symphony has perhaps been exaggerated. The music is, of course, romantic — all good music reflects the romanticism of its time, and that of the 1830’s was of rather an aggressive type — but nevertheless I am inclined to think that our ideas of the music are somewhat swayed by the programme, and the additions made to the music to make it fit the programme. Taking the March as coming from Les Francs Juges — a point still disputed by M. Tiersot, which need not be argued here — to illustrate my meaning, in the opera, the March, as far as can be gathered, was probably nothing more than a march of guards, such as is to be found in many operas, possibly conducting a prisoner to be tried by the Vehmgericht.7 A painful episode no doubt, but not of necessity horrible. In the symphony, thanks to the programme, the march changes its complexion. It is part of an opium dream, and thus, by a stroke of the pen, we are plunged into an atmosphere that would be congenial to Hoffmann, Poe, or Wiertz. Instead of the prisoner being a blameless young man innocent of any crime, he is the murderer of a charming young woman and led to the scaffold amidst the execrations of the crowd. Berlioz retouched his march during ‘several years’, and by the addition of trombone ‘pedals’ and other means may have sought to bring the music more into conformity with his programme, but for all that I fancy we should hear less of the ‘horrors’ of the music, if the piece was merely called Marche des gardes. The music of the Sabbat no doubt might justly be termed ‘horrible’ in parts, but nevertheless the horror is again due in a measure to the programme. Berlioz, when describing music, at times allowed his pen to run away with him, as is the habit of many other writers. Thus, in Lélio, when the artist refers to the march, he talks of executioners, soldiers, and judges. It is difficult to see how the last-named enter into the picture. A better example is the Orgy of the Harold in Italy Symphony. After its first performance he describes it to Ferrand as quelque chose d’un peu violent. In his open letter to Heine (included in the Memoirs) it has become ‘a furious orgy in which are combined the intoxications of wine, blood, joy, and rage ... in which one laughs, drinks, strikes, destroys, kills, and violates, in short, where one amuses oneself’. As suggested previously, Berlioz may have written with his tongue in his cheek, but at the same time it must be confessed that his description is no more extravagant than many of those written on the music of Wagner, or even Brahms.

    The Harold in Italy Symphony, although of great interest, cannot be considered as one of Berlioz’s best works, in spite of much charming music. The invention of florid passages for his soloist was not congenial to him, and the intensive study of Beethoven’s symphonies he had recently made was to some extent harmful to him. Hailed as a continuator of the German master, he was anxious to prove his affiliation, and so was tempted to essay Teutonic methods which were alien to him. The idea of representing Harold by a theme that remained unchanged by its surroundings was an excellent one. But the task of employing a kind of cantus firmus throughout the symphony was not easy. Berlioz dealt with the problem cleverly, but he must have felt relieved to be able legitimately to shelve it for the last movement, even though it meant prefixing it with reminiscences of the preceding movements, imitated from the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, as some sort of sop for the soloist. The introduction of the Pilgrims’ March into the finale, rather foreshadowing Tannhaüser, is a happy touch. It should be noted, since it is not found in any of the editions, that, according to a letter to Liszt of 7 June 1852 [CG no. 1491], Berlioz wished, when the orchestra was a large one, that the two violins and ’cello ‘behind the scenes’ should be doubled by a couple of oboes and a bassoon, the former not to play the repeated notes of the psalmody. He also corrected the second violin part in the sixth bar of the march behind the scenes. For the third and fourth beats he substituted Eb and C for the Bb and A of the French edition (Min. Sc., p. 195, bar 9). Another point of interest is that towards the end of the first movement Berlioz in his manuscript struck out the repetition of the crescendo passage commencing at bar 4 of p. 65 of the miniature score. That is, he passed from bar 3 of that page to bar 3, p. 71. He must have restored the cut after the rehearsals of the work.

    Married in the previous October, 1834 was a busy year for Berlioz, striving to pay off the debts of his wife and himself. During much of the day he must have been running from pillar to post in connexion with his newspapers, and it is a matter for wonder that he managed to compose his symphony in less than two months — the manuscript is dated ‘Montmartre, 22 juin 1834’. It is true that he took the Harold theme and the second one of the first movement from the Rob Roy Overture ; and apparently he utilized material from a projected work, Les derniers instans de Marie Stuart (at that date attempts were made to drop the final ‘t’ of many French words). La Gazette musicale announced this in the previous January, as a fantasia for chorus, orchestra, and solo viola. Nevertheless, he must have worked double tides, often sitting up half the night, since he told Ferrand that on one occasion his pen had not left his hand for thirteen hours at a stretch. Like most ‘nervy’ people, he was at his best after dusk. Although the symphony, as a whole, may not be up to Berlioz’s highest standard, it contains too much that is excellent to be allowed to drop into oblivion.

    The Romeo and Juliet Symphony, composed five years later, was written under very different conditions. Thanks to Paganini’s gift of 20,000 francs — possibly prompted by reasons into which we need not here inquire — for almost the only time in his life Berlioz felt free to devote himself almost exclusively to composition. The form that he adopted for his ‘Dramatic’ Symphony is open to question, but there is none as to most of the numbers being at a very high level. According to the composer, the musicians of his time were inclined to consider the Love Scene as his finest achievement. It is doubtful whether the opinion would be echoed to-day, even if the indications of the autograph were observed strictly (see next chapter). The present generation, accustomed to the sultry love strains of modern composers, cannot appreciate what might be called a Paul and Virginia love, one that is almost devoid of fleshly passion. We have touched on the chasteness of Berlioz’s love music, and it is of interest to remember that in letters to Mme Fornier (Estelle) and the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein he confesses to the wonderful main theme, which would seem to have affected many composers from Wagner to Gounod, having been inspired by the object of his boyish adoration. The Death Scene, with its permutations of the theme, foreshadows Tristan, and, though some may not approve the realism of the end of the number, no one can be deaf to the beautiful Invocation. The delicate scherzo — with the harp harmonics played at the proper pitch — may be deemed a ‘standard’ work. On the other hand, the pathetic Funeral Procession of Juliet with the psalmody of the chorus on a single note is unknown to modern English audiences. A complete performance of the entire symphony is a consummation to be wished. The brilliant Ball Scene is another ‘standard’ work, obtaining little or no rehearsal, and as such we do not always hear the movement given as the composer intended. The reunion of the two themes, for instance, is at times played fortissimo instead of forte, with the rhythm on the percussion merely mf. It is of interest to compare the balance with the reunion of the two themes in the Cellini overture, where all the instruments (including the kettle-drums) are marked ff, the occasional strokes on the triangle, bass drum, and cymbals being alone only f. The difference between the two arises from the different character of the themes. In the symphony the wind instruments have to play their melody with the same melancholy expression as when it was first given by the solo oboe. A fortissimo would obscure this. In the overture, splendour rather than any intimate expressiveness is called for, and hence the theme is performed with the full force of all the brass, which indeed is necessary in order to contend with the powerful effect of the strings in unison and octave.

    The finale of the symphony for Friar Laurence, chorus, and orchestra is sometimes declared to be ‘theatrical’, the term being used in a derogatory sense. It is, however, difficult to see how it can be otherwise. A movement inspired by a scene from a play may be strictly symphonic ; but the actual setting of a scene must of necessity suggest the stage. Had Berlioz been writing an opera on the Veronese lovers his finale would have been the same. Friar Laurence’s part suffers from the fact that he is telling us what we already know — the same fault is in Shakespeare’s play — but nevertheless it contains much impressive music. The Oath of Reconciliation must certainly be numbered amongst Berlioz’s best efforts. M. Tiersot would trace some resemblance between the noble melody and that of the Pilgrims’ Chorus of Tannhaüser. That is as maybe ! But, when we hear it intoned by the trombones beneath the descending scales of the violins, we can appreciate Liszt’s remark to Berlioz on sending a copy of the overture of Wagner’s opera, that he would recognize something of his own. For the first performance of the work there was a second explanatory prologue placed immediately after the scherzo. The music of this has disappeared, though, according to Stephen Heller, it was of greater interest than that of the opening prologue.

    It is unfortunate that Berlioz wrote his Funeral and Triumphal Symphony for military band, since nowadays it is not the custom to introduce one into concert-rooms. It is true that the work can be given with greatly reduced means and yet be effective, as the composer himself proved. But for ordinary concert use many adjustments have to be made. When Richter gave the symphony in London on 8 June 1885, he had only eight clarinets instead of the thirty-three marked in the score, and partly atoned for the deficiency by adding violas to the clarinets. Instead of such temporary adjustments, dependent on the idiosyncracies of particular conductors and the funds of their managers it is a pity that some composer, skilled in orchestration and an admirer of Berlioz, cannot give us a definite arrangement for symphonic orchestra, such as we have for Wagner’s Huldigungsmarsch, originally written for military band, and then, after the first eight bars, arranged by Raff for orchestra. Berlioz’s symphony aroused the enthusiasm of Wagner, and is undoubtedly one of the composer’s best works. The Funeral March that forms the first movement, with its faintly Beethovenish second subject, is a noble composition, containing inter alia a wonderful passage on a dominant pedal suggesting an immense procession of a multitude of wailing mourners. The form of the movement was discussed ninety years ago by Maurice Bourges,8 who asked ‘Why should one refuse to M. Berlioz clarity of form (netteté du plan) ? If there be any confusion, it is evident that it can only exist in the heads of listeners, too prone to judge by appearances.’ The second movement, the Funeral Oration, is impressive, given a skilful player of the trombone solo, the longest one written outside some of the forgotten concertos for the instrument. It is strange that Strauss should not have known it, and thus avoided a misunderstanding in his edition of Berlioz’s Treatise of the French master’s remark that a single trombone in the orchestra was inadvisable. To prove the falsity of such a statement Strauss cites the trombone solo at the commencement of Sach’s monologue. Berlioz, of course, referred to the custom of Cherubini, Méhul, and other composers of their time, of including only one trombone in their orchestra. The last movement, the Apotheosis, preceded by a fanfare, which, though good, is naturally not so grand as that of the Requiem intended to convey a different idea, has an irresistible swing about it, which, as Wagner said, the first gamin in a blue blouse and red bonnet ought to understand completely. He makes no reservations, and describes the symphony as ‘grand and noble from the first to the last note’.9 The work deserves to be widely known, and, under present-day conditions, is unlikely to become so unless we have a conscientious arrangement of it as proposed above.

    As every reader knows, Berlioz declared that, if his entire output were threatened with destruction, he would beg that his Requiem might be spared. The words occur in a letter to Ferrand of 11 January 1867 [CG no. 3209], and must be taken with a grain of salt. At that time Ricordi was bringing out a second edition of the Italian edition of the Requiem, and of course Berlioz had been occupied with the proofs. His mind was full of the work ; it was more vivid to him than even The Trojans, of which mutilated performances had been given just over three years before. Nevertheless Berlioz had good cause to single out his Op. 5 from his other compositions, since it was the realization of a dream he had long cherished. After the second performance of his Mass on 22 November 1827 he wrote to Ferrand [CG no. 77] :

I conducted the orchestra ; but, when I saw the picture of the Last Judgement ... that terrible clangor tubarum, those cries of terror of the multitude .. I was seized with a convulsive trembling which I was able to master until the end of the movement, but which forced me to sit down and let the orchestra rest for a few minutes ; I could not stand upright, and was afraid the bâton would fall from my hand.

Like Handel, during the composition of the Hallelujah Chorus, Berlioz saw the Heavens open, but, owing probably to his early religious instruction, he was more impressed by the terrors of the damned than the joy of the blessed. His mother had very strong ideas about what happened to those who did not believe as she did. In Rome he schemed an immense composition, in which a mock Day of Judgement staged by an Anti-Christ is interrupted by the real one. When he obtained the commission to write a Requiem, to be given with extraordinary means, he foresaw the realization of his dreams, and, to quote his own words, ‘fell on the text in a sort of frenzy’. Finding it impossible to jot down his ideas as they arose in his mind quick enough to pin them to paper, he invented a sort of musical shorthand. If any specimens of this are in existence, they would be worthy of publication, though probably they would be unintelligible to all save the composer. The first number is perhaps not appreciated at its full value in the concert-room, when the orchestral forces are displayed before the eyes of the audience. Impatient to hear the ‘startling’ effects which many of them innocently believe to be Berlioz’s essential characteristic, the listeners do not pay full attention to the beauties of the Requiem et Kyrie. There is much to be said in favour of a concealed orchestra. The exposure of the complete orchestra is somewhat equivalent to telling the audience of a play what the dénouement will be. The Valhalla theme is more impressive to those ignorant of the disposition of the orchestra of The Ring. As C. A. Barry pointed out, in an excellent analysis of the Requiem, we must remember that when it is given in a church the several numbers do not follow one another immediately. They are interspersed with prayers, the reading of the Gospel, and so on. These pauses in the music certainly add to its effect. More important is the locale : the cathedral draped in black and lighted only by the candles on the altar ; the black-robed priests and the congregation preserving an attitude of devotion, even if motives other than religious ones have induced their attendance. We may be sure that Berlioz for many passages counted on his mise-en-scène, and for that reason the only complete performance he gave, after the initial one, was in the large church of St. Eustache in 1852. As far as I am aware, he included only three of the numbers in his concert programmes — the ‘Lachrymosa’, by many considered as the finest one in the Mass, although in some respects the ‘Rex tremendae’ with less popular appeal is finer ; the Offertory, in which, above a fugued subject for the orchestra, the choir reiterates with pathetic effect an A and a Bb, only breaking into harmony for the beautiful ending ; and the ‘Dies irae’, with the astounding fanfare for the four orchestras of brass instruments, introduced by that terrific chord of Eb following a full close in D minor — Berlioz certainly appreciated the value of common chords ! The remaining numbers are at the same high level — the ‘Sanctus’ for tenor solo with the ethereal effect on the violins in their high register which, if it breathes a pagan spirit, is that of a peculiarly devout pagan, and the following jubilant ‘Hosanna’ ; the unaccompanied ‘Quaerens me’ in the old ecclesiastical style, and of a calm beauty ; and the final ‘Agnus Dei’, based principlally on material already heard in the opening Introit, with a repetition of the trombone ‘pedals’ of the ‘Hostias’.

    Perhaps after all Berlioz would have been justified in craving indulgence for his Requiem.

    The Te Deum is a worthy sister of the Requiem, and, as a more mature work, may perhaps be considered superior. The religious feeling is more intense. And, if there be any justification for the charge of ‘theatricality’ as regards the earlier work, there can be none with respect to the later one. Berlioz deemed the ‘Judex crederis’ his finest creation, and who shall gainsay him ? The persistent use of the rhythm of what may be called the ‘Judex’ motive, first announced on the organ, imparts to the number an extraordinary impression of undefined apprehension. Unfortunately, when the work is given in a concert, we hear it under wrong conditions. Again, Berlioz, when planning the Te Deum, had his mise-en-scène constantly in his mind. The organ should be at the bottom of the church and the choirs and orchestra at the other extremity of it by the high altar. With this arrangement, the opening chords of the first number, the ‘Te Deum laudamus’, when the orchestra and organ answer one another, have an arresting effect unobtainable in the concert-room. The form of the number is that of a free double fugue, which has surprised some critics, obsessed by the idea that Berlioz expressed in his writings ‘his dislike and contempt for choral fugues’. Strange that his objections to rapid choral fugues on the word Amen should be twisted from the particular to the general. The number would seem to justify M. Kœchlin’s dictum that ‘Berlioz had an innate feeling for counterpoint, though he lacked the thorough knowledge of Bach’. The ‘Tibi omnes’ is a splendid movement which, in a different vein, is at the same level of inspiration as the ‘Judex crederis’. In the autograph score it is followed by an orchestral piece entitled ‘Prelude’, with a note explaining that it was not to be played except when the Te Deum was performed for a thanksgiving after a victory or other service of a military character. It is included in the German edition, but does not appear in the French one for reasons that are obscure. All we know is that in a letter to Liszt (undated, but probably written at the end of April 1855) Berlioz says that he suppressed the Prelude ‘in which the doubtful modulations appear’ [CG no. 1935]. In the light of modern practice there is nothing doubtful in the modulations, save to those who profess to find all Berlioz’s harmony ‘doubtful’, and thus we are unable to argue the point ; and it would be mere guessing to suggest the name of the objector. We must rest content with possessing a magnificent little tone-poem — it last only three minutes — which is worthy of being given apart from the rest of the work. It commences with the rhythm of the theme of the opening number on six muffled snare-drums (described in the first impressions in the German edition as being senza tuono preciso !), and the theme itself is utilized later.

    The following ‘Dignare’ may not make such an immediate appeal, but none the less in its quiet beauty it takes high rank amongst Berlioz’s works. He himself had a special fondness for it, for he wrote to Liszt on 1 January 1853 [CG no. 1552] — ‘there is a prayer for two voices (of the choir) in canonical imitation above this curious series of pedals held by the other voices of the choir and the bass instruments :

Example 10

Example 10

Well sung by the tenors and soprani, I believe that this number should be pathetic and original. It may equally be very wearisome....’ In The Childhood of Christ he was inclined to believe that Herod’s air was the gem of the work, with the exception of the Duet in Bethlehem, on account of the technical difficulties he had to overcome by his use of the Phrygian mode (the Greek Mixolydian).10 The ‘Dignare’ is not wearisome, and there is a gloomy majesty about Herod’s fine air. But Berlioz, like all musicians, was inclined to have a fondness for pieces in which he had triumphed over some purely technical problem. To continue with the Te Deum, the joyful ‘Christe, rex gloriae’ affords a vivid contrast between the preceding ‘Dignare’ and the touching ‘Te ergo quaesumus’ for tenor solo interrupted by the effective and highly original ‘Fiat super nos’ for the soprani of the two choirs accompanied by soft chords for the cornets and trombones. The number concludes with a sotto voce for all the voices of the two choirs, in which, by the way, the editors of the German edition ‘correct’ an harmonic fault of the composer’s — a ‘hidden octave’ between an upper part, moving a semitone, and an inner one, surely not a grievous offence in five-part harmony. The final ‘Judex crederis’ must be placed amongst the greatest movements in music, and it alone should be sufficient to place Berlioz amongst the supreme masters of the art. It is emphatically one of those movements which illustrates the inadequacy of language to describe them.

    The Childhood of Christ as it now stands requires but small means for its performance. Originally the material was further restricted, for, in a letter to Liszt of 31 December 1855 [CG no. 2074], Berlioz said that in the score there were ‘only two horns, no trumpets, no cornets, no third and fourth bassoons, no ophicleides, no percussion instruments [that is, other than the kettle-drums]’. (It is to be noted that he obviously regarded four bassoons as being as much an integral part of his orchestra as four horns.) After the first performances he added trumpets and cornets to the trombones for fifteen bars after the savage chorus of the soothsayers echoing Herod’s command for the Massacre of the Innocents, which concludes the first part of the trilogy. After a short recitative for the Narrator, it opens with a Nocturnal March of Roman patrols through the streets of Jerusalem, interrupted by a duologue for two centurions discussing the terrors of Herod. Although interesting and beautifully scored, the march labours under the disadvantage of being on the now hackneyed plan of The Turkish Patrol, and it is perhaps too long. Herod’s air has been mentioned, and I would draw attention to the curious incantation of the soothsayers as a proof that Berlioz’s excursions into the weird or grotesque did not owe their effect entirely to the employment of extravagant means. It owes much to the harmony, and the weirdness inherent in the musical thought. After the violence of the soothsayers’ chorus there could not be any greater contrast than the beautiful duet for Joseph and Mary, which displays a facet of Berlioz’s genius too often forgotten, the ability to depict tenderness without drifting into sentimentality. A chorus of angels bidding the pair depart for Egypt concludes the Part. Part II is beyond criticism, with its quaint miniature overture in the Hypodorian mode, the melodious chorus of shepherds, and the charming Repose of the Holy Family, sung by the Narrator. Why are gems such as these so often ignored by the composer’s detractors ? In Part III, The Arrival at Saïs, the Sacred Trilogy becomes more dramatic. Indeed, both it and the first part seem to justify the staging of the whole work at Brussels in 1911. There was on that occasion no difficulty as regards the Narrator, who sang his important part before the curtain until the final unaccompanied number, when he took the stage, backed by the chorus. Part III opens with the Narrator describing the journey of the Holy Family, his chant récitatif being based on the theme of the little overture, now in common time instead of 3/4. Then we have the scene of Joseph and Mary, utterly exhausted, seeking shelter for themselves and Child, and being repulsed by Romans and Egyptians as ‘vile Hebrews’, a reiterated phrase for the violas in their high register being employed with pathetic effect. At last they are succoured by an Ishmaelite, who directs the household to attend to the wants of the poor travellers. The household sets about its duties, its activities being admirably depicted by a free double fugue, of which one subject is in time, the other in 6/4. Soon there follows a trio for two flutes and harp, usually performed with the phrasing opposed to Berlioz’s indications.11 At Brussels three children performed an oriental dance consisting mostly of posturing during the trio. After it there is what might be called a ‘Good-night’ for the three soloists and chorus, then a short recitative for the Narrator, followed by the a capella final chorus, an unanswerable proof — if proof be needed — that Berlioz required neither an orchestra nor a programme for the expression of his loftiest ideas.

    This necessarily inadequate description of The Childhood of Christ naturally can convey nothing of the beauty of the work. I have suggested that an approach to Berlioz should be by way of his songs : after the best of them no work can give a better idea of his genius than the Sacred Trilogy. For sheer melodiousness alone it takes a high place, and it is worthy of study from the purely technical point of view.

    The Damnation of Faust is, or should be, too well known to need any detailed description. It has been criticized as being a patchwork, and in some respects the charge may be true. But it is a brilliant patchwork, very cunningly pieced together. It is not necessary here to discuss at length the question whether Berlioz ever intended the work for the stage. The principal argument in support of this assumption is a letter from the composer to d’Ortigue of 13 March 1846 [CG no. 1028], in which he says ‘tell Dietsch that I am preparing a job for him with my grand opera of Faust. It contains some choruses (chœurs) which he must study and carefully polish.’ Raoul Gunsbourg, when he produced his distorted version of the work at Monte-Carlo in the winter of 1902-3, cited this letter to justify himself. Dietsch, he declared, was conductor at the Opéra, and, to strengthen his argument, he altered the chœurs of the letter to choses (things). Now, in 1846 Dietsch was merely the chorus-master at the Opéra, as he was of several churches. He only became conductor in 1860. Berlioz at first called his work an opéra de concert, and in his letters at times referred to it as his ‘opera’. His description points to the fact that he wrote for the concert-room and not the stage. Gunsbourg also hinted darkly at some page of autograph music (dating apparently c. 1829, the time of the Eight Scenes and the contemplated ballet on Faust), and added to the programmes for his version an extract from a letter purporting to be written by Berlioz, which M. Tiersot unhesitatingly pronounced to be a forgery. No one has seen the originals of the page of music or the letter.12 Strange, how often anything relating to Berlioz is enveloped in an atmosphere of misrepresentation ! The Eight Scenes from Faust, subjected to many alterations and improvements, formed the nucleus of his later work, and we probably shall not be far wrong if we connect the Ride and Pandæmonium with the music written for the Faust ballet. It is regrettable that Berlioz’s biographers in their search for documents should not have unearthed Bohain’s scenario of that ballet. It would throw light on many points, and I fancy that we should find that what might be termed Berlioz’s Satanic period was limited to a couple of years of his life.

    Whatever criticism may be brought against the Dramatic Legend as a whole, there is little that can be advanced against the separate scenes or the delineation of the three principal characters. The march may be dragged in, as Berlioz candidly admits in his explanatory preface to the work — an apology that he afterwards regretted — but its introduction is skilfully prepared, both by its rhythm appearing in the first scene and by the short recitative that prefixes the march, which illustrates Faust’s mood. Neither the merriment of the peasants nor martial ardour appeals to him. Surely the opening of the scene in Faust’s study, with the passionate cry, ‘Oh ! je souffre !’, on a discord of the root and 9th in the upper part, wonderfully depicts the seeker groping after unattainable knowledge. To regard Faust’s air in Margaret’s bedroom as an attempt at a love song would be wrong. He and the girl have met in a dream, and he has been greatly attracted. He hopes that he has fallen in love and that love will give him the peace he has hitherto sought in vain. In his air there is nothing sensual. Even when he sings ‘J’aime à contempler ton chevet virginal’ (I love to gaze at thy virginal couch), it is in a hushed whisper, as though contemplating some holy relique, the sotto voce of the commencement of the air being here emphatically repeated. At its conclusion he wanders around the room, to one of those long-drawn-out melodies such as could be penned only by Berlioz, examining everything with passionate interest, and we hear again his phrase given out softly on the flute. He is standing by Margaret’s bedside.13 Berlioz quotes the phrase in a letter to Adolphe Samuel of 22 December 1855 [CG no. 2070], commenting, ‘Yes ! he loves her ! But it is not yet the infinite love of a Romeo, a Shakesperean love. Faust condescends to love Margaret ; he protects her. Romeo rises to the love of Juliet, she is his equal.’ Margaret could not possibly hold Faust. As he says in his magnificent Invocation to Nature, ‘Thou alone canst give me respite from my unceasing sadness’. We must not look upon Berlioz’s Faust as an attempt to depict Goethe’s musically. The former, though owing much to the latter, has an independent existence. For the benefit of those who are wedded to the idea that Berlioz was unable to resist painting the horrible, I would point out that his Faust first sees Margaret in a flowery mead and not in a witches’ kitchen, with apes and other monstrosities. His hero, too, is young. There is no hocus-pocus over transmogrifying a lean and slipper’d pantaloon.14 Berlioz may have found in Faust some likeness to himself, but to take his music as being highly subjective would be wrong. At any rate, he would not have envied the peasants ; he would have accompanied their dance on his guitar.

    Margaret’s portrayal I have already dealt with ; and that of Mephistopheles has been accepted as being the most satisfactory delineation of a devil in music, with the possible exception of Liszt’s. There is, however, a marked difference between them. While the Hungarian composer’s demon confines himself to burlesquing and sneering at Faust’s ideas, Berlioz’s has an individuality of his own. The Song of the Flea, the Serenade, ‘Voici des roses’, and his raillery in that wonderfully dramatic scene of the hunt, all help to illustrate Mephistopheles’s personality.

    Little space is left to comment on the overtures. Amongst them, if we take its original description, should be included the Fantasia on The Tempest, the final number of Lélio. Berlioz made the alteration partly because it seemed strange to conclude a work with an overture — though there is no reason why Lelio should not have rehearsed one — but principally, I imagine, because he realized that the term ‘overture’ was a misnomer. It connoted a composition cast in a particular form. That form might be contracted, as with many an operatic overture, or it might be expanded, but in both cases it should possess the same recognizable framework. Berlioz spoke of the overture to Rob Roy ; on his manuscript he wrote ‘Intrata di Rob-Roy Mac Gregor’. He was dissatisfied with it, and gave it only one performance, in 1833. He was equally dissatisfied with the overture to The Tower of Nice (given in 1845), which afterwards became the overture to The Corsair. From the fragments of the former still extant, I am inclined to think that it was on somewhat the same lines as the Rob Roy. I have objected to Berlioz being considered as the inventor of the symphonic poem, however much he may have suggested its possibilities. That he did, however, seek for a new form, when he was inspired by some tale, there is little doubt. He realized that ‘it is impossible to tell a story in sonata form’. That he was entirely successful cannot be pretended. Nevertheless, the ‘fantasia’ on The Tempest, though not of his best, is worthy of an occasional performance : and the ‘overture’ to Rob Roy, though too diffuse, as he himself admitted, is of interest, if only for the employment of the subsequent Harold theme. Probably one reason why Berlioz ‘burnt’ his overture was because he wanted the theme for his symphony, where it received more adequate treatment. Taking them as a whole, and including the noble prelude to The Trojans at Carthage, the overtures will bear comparison with those of any composer, both in wealth of ideas and variety.

    Berlioz’s gifts as a poet must not be forgotten. Many of his verses in his last two operas and The Childhood of Christ are of a very high order.


1. M. Masson, in the bibliography to his Berlioz, states not only that the opera is included in the German edition, but that The Trojans at Carthage was published in 1864, which is equally erroneous.

2. The Sunday Times, 19 Nov. 1933.

3. In the vocal scores of Cellini and The Trojans the indexes have ‘Duo’, ‘Recit. et Air’, and so on, but this is due to the publishers. In the vocal score of the latter opera, issued in 1889 in conformity with the original manuscript, before the work was split into two, four pages are devoted to descriptions of the various scenes.

4. In Les Troyens de Berlioz by Étienne Destranges, an interesting analysis of the opera by an admirer of the master, a good many possible cuts are suggested. Absolute repetitions may at times be superfluous, but Destranges is too anxious to eliminate passages that appear to him out of date (see Mr. Agate’s remark above). The cuts that Berlioz suggested, such as the Royal Hunt, are not advisable.

5. At the Berlioz Conference in Dec. 1928.

6. The Sunday Times, 19 Nov. 1933.

7. It may be somewhat negative evidence, but surely if the march had been of paramount dramatic importance in the opera, there would have been a place assigned to it in the libretto. There is none. The only indication we have that there was a march is a direction in Act III — ‘rappel de la Marche’, which, by the way, is not irrefutable proof that either the march or its ‘rappel’ was ever actually written. Berlioz apparently did not work systematically on the work, but set such scenes as happened to appeal to his mood at the time.

8. La Gazette musicale, 27 Mar. 1842.

9. From a letter addressed to a Dresden magazine, and dated 5 May 1841.

10. With the exception of Beethoven’s Adagio in his fifteenth quartet, where he employs the Lydian mode, the use of the Greek or Gregorian scales was unknown amongst composers during the greater part of the nineteenth century. Lesueur pronounced them to be dead. Berlioz employed them on several occasions, and in this respect may be considered a pioneer.

11. In the beautifully engraved miniature score of the work, Berlioz’s phrasing is preserved, but the effect of it is at times destroyed by the introduction of breath-pauses, which are neither in the German edition nor in the original folio French one.

12. The Min. Sc. of the Damnation of Faust contains a few directions taken from Gunsbourg’s version. It does not include any of his musical mutilations and additions. The music is as Berlioz wrote it, save for a ‘Hosanna’ for Faust at the end of the Easter Hymn.

13. This delicious touch is lost with our English translations. One of them, dating from the 1880’s, omits any reference to a bed or couch. In those days it would have been improper. Another translation curiously transforms ‘thy virginal couch’ into ‘my altar of rest’.

14. The precise age that Goethe intended his hero to be is open to discussion.

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 August 2018.

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