The Hector Berlioz Website

Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions

Tom S. Wotton

Hector Berlioz

Chapter Nine — CONCLUSION


    What will be Berlioz’s future position in the musical firmament ? Are his admirers and detractors to continue for another hundred years their often unseemly bickerings, loudly asserting their opinions without supporting them by any convincing reasons ? Of course in some cases it is impossible to give reasons. The most learned musician is in the same boat with the fifth-rate amateur who ‘knows what he likes’. If one dislikes this or that melody of Beethoven, Wagner, Berlioz, or Brahms, nothing will convince one of its merits, except on the rare occasions when some gifted interpreter reveals beauties hitherto unsuspected. Perhaps this is oftener the case with Berlioz than with most other composers, because he is so dependent on his times and indications being strictly observed, which less gifted interpreters do not always remember.

    No doubt Berlioz profited by the experience of his predecessors, or such of them as were known in Paris in the 1820’s, either indirectly through his masters, or directly through his attendance at opera or concert. As I have pointed out, Berlioz was Berlioz (though an inexperienced one) in 1827. But during the six years that had elapsed since his arrival in the capital he must have learnt much from Gluck, Spontini, Kreutzer, Méhul, Catel, and other composers whose names are almost forgotten, if it were only to learn what to avoid. Nevertheless, if we take originality to be essentially a question of apartness, of differing from the rest of mankind in mode of thought, we must certainly admit that the French composer was highly original. And his originality is even more apparent, since his ideas have never become current coinage. He has no direct imitators, who do both good and harm to their model.  On the one hand, minor composers are liable to be influenced by the master some time before he is accepted by the general public, and hence the latter unconsciously grow accustomed to the master’s idiom and mode of thought. The way is prepared for him, especially in foreign countries. The French public, for example, had imbibed a good deal of Wagner and water before they were introduced to him undiluted. On the other hand, as suggested in our Chapter I, imitators cheapen a master’s originality by copying his methods. Berlioz has been spared the harm, but has been deprived of the advantage, of direct disciples who, as a rule, having served their purpose, are consigned to oblivion. He is almost as much apart from the rest of composers as he was a hundred years ago, and such a man is certain to be unappreciated by many. It is difficult for all of us to understand an order of mind differing from our own ; and, if the divergence be great, it is impossible.

    Berlioz’s originality, his pronounced individuality, will always make much of his music antipathetic to many musicians. I would, however, trace some of the lack of appreciation of his music to the fact that too often he is not treated in the same manner as other composers. I have already complained that, as a man, he is sometimes judged by standards that would be absurd if applied to an ordinary individual. His ideals were as lofty as those of any musician, dead or alive ; and to him his art was a very sacred thing. Yet in some quarters he is considered as a kind of musical jester, who was not to be taken seriously. This attitude naturally casts doubts on his sincerity, and to have that called into question is fatal for an artist. Whistler was not appreciated by those who agreed with Ruskin that he flung ‘a pot of paint in the face of the public’. Many of the peculiarities in modern sculpture would obtain no admirers, if it were believed universally that the artist was seeking notoriety rather than the expression of his own soul.

    Theoretically, we should not confuse the artist with the man. In practice most of us do. In the ordinary course we first admire a musician’s music, and then are curious to know something of the man himself. And, if the music has appealed to our deepest emotions, we — quite illogically — resent discovering that the composer, as a man, was not on the same level as his music. Illogically, because there is no reason whatever why a musician’s life should be any more exemplary than that of a chess player or of a vendor of mechanical toys. Biographers have complied with the wishes of their readers, and, as regards artists in general and perhaps more particularly in respect to musicians, have almost deified their hero. Some modern biographers endeavour to give us the man as he really was, but it is doubtful whether their efforts are always appreciated. Few devout lovers of the Bonn master would agree with Mr. Ernest Newman, when, in a recent article, he says :1 ‘To the eye of commonsense, Beethoven remained to the end of his days what he had been all along, quarrelsome, unjust, arrogant, boorish, decidedly unethical, unspiritual, and undignified.’ It is not the place here to discuss the question whether Beethoven as a man possessed god-like qualities or unpleasantly human ones. The point is, if music-lovers had had Mr. Newman’s impression of the composer implanted firmly in their minds, would they so readily have perceived divine qualities in his music ? It is extremely doubtful ! Berlioz’s music may be now better known ; still, to many, the man is better known than the musician, and many of those who know something of the music have not yet disentangled their picture of the man from their appreciation of his art. The picture is not of necessity displeasing, but it is of one who was incapable of very deep emotion. Perhaps this is the case more particularly in England, where there still lingers an impression that the French are essentially frivolous. With our Germanic tendencies, we are disposed to believe some ponderous fallacy of a German philosopher in preference to a witty aphorism of a Voltaire. And it is so in music. Clarity and brilliancy are too often considered as indicative of superficiality, while laboured obscurity is deemed to connote profundity or thought and intensity of feeling.

    Saint-Saëns declared that Berlioz did not give a true presentation of himself in the Memoirs. There is no doubt about the strength of his feelings when he is lashing what he considers abuses, the crimes of arrangers, and so forth, but, except occasionally as regards Harriet, he very seldom attempts to reveal the depth of them. Like Figaro, he hastens to laugh lest he should be tempted to weep. Take, for example, the Épisode bouffon (the Drame of the Memoirs). If Camille and her mother had been living within easy distance of Florence, Berlioz most assuredly would have been guilty of a terrible crime passionel, and slain them both. With his vitality lowered by his quinsy, he was beside himself with rage. Yet of his personal emotions he tells us little. In his story of the episode he dwells mostly on the humorous side of his adventure — his purchases of the feminine garments, how he scared his coachman, his sudden realization that he was famished. Had the episode been written by another hand, these incidents would have been relegated to the background or unmentioned, while Berlioz’s remembered happiness and his dreams of its continuance in the future, the horrible suspense he had endured terminated by Mme Moke’s abominable letter, the turmoil of his emotions as he set forth on murder bent, would have been very much to the foreground. If I mistake not, to many readers of Berlioz’s account of the episode there is an air of unreality which militates against their acceptance of the hero of it as one capable of the deepest emotions or the expression of them. To them the account somewhat resembles the tale of some student’s ‘rag’. It is difficult for them to realize that the lives of two or three people hung in the balance. Other instances could be given where the charm of Berlioz’s prose and his sense of humour combine to conceal his real feelings. If only we possessed the letters he wrote to Ferrand during this crisis in his life, without any doubt we should form a very different estimate of his behaviour at the time. But no matter the reason ! The fact remains that to many the picture of the composer that they have formed in their mind is an untrue one, and it is this that prevents them from treating him with the respect that they accord to others, and explains the flippancy with which his music is too often discussed. This erroneous picture of him has been still further distorted by possibly well-meaning biographers who have expended great labour in casting doubts on the veracity of much in the Memoirs, the inaccuracies arising in some cases from a clearly defective memory, in others, as he himself points out, from the tendency of a literary man to slight exaggeration and a desire to round off a story. When, in chapter xxi of the Memoirs, Berlioz says that it was Ferrand who persuaded him to become a critic, he was telling the truth. Berlioz’s first article appeared in Le Corsaire of 12 August 1823, when the writer was still under age, and there is no reason for doubting that it was his friend, a man somewhat older than himself and already possessing some journalistic influence, who encouraged his maiden effort. Berlioz, however, confuses what happened in 1823 with what occurred five years later, when, in an undated letter,2 he asked Ferrand for a letter of introduction to a M. d’Eckstein, who was on the staff of a journal shortly to be launched, a thing which a writer of even many years’ standing might do. The journal was Le Correspondant, Berlioz calling it the Revue européenne, which was the title adopted five years afterwards. His tale, which can be paralleled by many others, owes its inaccuracy to the defective memory of a somewhat absent-minded man. A conscientious biographer must of necessity draw attention to Berlioz’s inaccuracies, which are to be found even in his private letters, but there are two ways of doing it, either by treating the whole story as a figment of the composer’s brain, or by sympathetically endeavouring to discover the substratum of truth which underlines all of them.

    Unsympathetic treatment of Berlioz’s Memoirs and writings generally prevents us from obtaining a true picture of the man. Hippeau points out many inexactitudes in the Memoirs, and, as has been said, is inclined to rely too much on Legouvé’s memory. Nevertheless, on the whole, he is sympathetic, and accepts as true several things which M. Boschot, Berlioz’s latest biographer, denounces as false. As regards the latter’s three volumes, I would quote from a notice in The Academy of 5 September 1908 after the publication of the second volume (Un Romantique sous Louis-Philippe) which would apply to the biography generally :

There are moments when one is disposed to accuse M. Boschot of positive unfairness, so anxious is he to accentuate all that was weak and ineffectual in the character of Berlioz the man.... Added to this, his lack of sympathy, due apparently to his Mozartian preferences, gives to his painstaking analysis of Berlioz’s conduct at all periods of a combative and in many respects adventurous life a flavour of acridity, a nagging censoriousness which is intensely irritating, and not a little contemptible.... He lays stress upon his extravagant gestures and his noisy sentimentality. Much of this might be said of most men of genius, who have usually managed to make themselves more or less ridiculous in the ordinary shifts of life.

It is contemptible ! And if M. Boschot’s attitude arises from an admiration of Mozart, lovers of music should be warned against cultivating such an admiration, for apparently it will not only destroy their sense of justice and fairness, but also ruin any sense of logic that they may possess.

    If Haydn or any other composer wrote an Andante in a summer’s afternoon, intending it for his fifth quartet, but included it later in his seventh quartet, could he not declare with truth that that Andante was composed in an afternoon ? M. Boschot says not. It is an ‘infantile assertion’ ! All the composer did in an afternoon was to extract some leaves of manuscript music from one of his portfolios. Any one else than a biographer of Berlioz would hesitate before adducing such an absurd non sequitur. But the French composer in some mysterious way appears to paralyse the reasoning powers of some of those who discuss him. We have some evidence that the March to Execution was at first intended for Les Francs Juges. We have, however, no absolute proof of this. How long Berlioz took to compose the hundred and sixty odd bars of the march in its pristine form (for whatever work it may have been intended) we have no evidence whatsoever. He says that he composed it in a single night, retouching it for several years, and contrasts the single night with the three weeks he required to compose the Adagio of the Fantastic Symphony, acknowledging that after the first performance he rewrote the latter movement. As we have seen, he did not satisfy himself as regards the refrain of The Fifth of May until some years had elapsed. He is candid with respect to his inspirations. And, after all, it is not a very superhuman feat to sketch out on three or four staves during a night of (say) ten hours a march of a hundred and sixty bars, in which several passages are repeated. Sixteen bars an hour ! M. Boschot, however, will have none of this ! He is convinced that the march was originally intended for another work, and therefore a true estimation of the time devoted to its composition, when it was a part of Opus 3, becomes a false one, if it be included in Opus 14. It is difficult to frame a sentence to describe such peculiar arguments !

    Again, Berlioz declared that he composed the Elegy in a single night, a composition of seventy-one bars, and therefore being probably written at the rate of seven bars an hour.3 This was after the last of his aimless wanderings through Paris, as we have already noted. He was wrought up to the highest pitch, and surely, for a man with music in his soul, the ‘inexplicable mechanism within him’ ought then to function. In a footnote M. Boschot seeks to discredit Berlioz’s assertion. Might not the Elegy have also emanated from Les Francs Juges — for which, by the way, it would have been totally unsuited ? He endeavours to support his case by citing a letter to Hiller, in which Berlioz remarks that he had used the manuscript of the Elegy to relight his fire [CG no. 156]. Now, the letter was written on 3 March 1830, and, as the Elegy was published during the previous month, there was no reason why the autograph need have been preserved.4 In what way the burning of the manuscript proves that Berlioz was a liar, or that the Elegy figured at first in the opera, I leave my readers to decide. When sneering at Berlioz’s assertion that his arrangement of the Rakoczy March — originally thirty-two bars shorter — was written in a single night, M. Boschot cries, ‘all the orchestral parts being miraculously copied instantaneously !’ Why invoke the aid of miracles, when Berlioz plainly tells us that the parts were copied in quite a normal manner at Prague ?

    There is no particular merit in being able to compose with great rapidity, either in music or literature. Indeed, the ability to do so may to some extent be considered a positive disadvantage. The musician or writer who scribbles with facility is often tempted to exercise the faculty on occasions when he possesses no ideas worth recording. Too often, like the tiger to which Byron compared himself, if he misses with his first spring, he is unable to take another ; in other words, he is unable to examine critically what he has written. With him it is a case of hit or miss. A man engaged in journalism, and the giving and preparation of concerts, who in ten years composes the works detailed in Chapter I, cannot be deemed an abnormally slow worker. And to deny him powers granted willingly to composers of other nations, when we have no absolute proof of the falsity of his occasional claims, savours of lack of patriotism, even though M. Boschot might fiercely resent such an imputation. I have dwelt, however, on the question, not so much that I am anxious to suggest the possibility of Berlioz being able to compose seven bars in sixty minutes, as because M. Boschot’s attitude towards him in this particular illustrates his attitude in general. And much of this I ascribe to the assistance rendered to the eminent critic by Charles Malherbe. The insistence that the title a composer gives a piece affects the time occupied in its composition is of the same order of distorted thought as the idea that the tempo of a movement will appear to be quickened, if the conductor beat two instead of four. It is not without significance that as regards one detail of Berlioz’s life M. Boschot seems to have altered his opinion, when freed from Malherbe’s influence. In the three-volume biography Berlioz’s account in his letter to Horace Vernet [CG no. 217] of how, in a moment of weakness, he cast himself into the sea, is scouted as being entirely false. In the valuable chronological and analytical indexes to the volumes the incident is referred to as the ‘false suicide’. In Une Vie romantique (1919) — an abridged biography — when describing Camille’s matrimonial troubles, M. Boschot adds, ‘For whom he (Berlioz) had narrowly escaped committing suicide (failli se suicider) four years previously’.

    Everything conspires to give us a wrong impression of Berlioz, both as a man and a musician. And, like M. Boschot, many musicians take pure assumptions for facts. To account for his ideas on harmony being founded on a different system from their own, they assume that he was lazy during the four years he spent at the Conservatoire. To assert the contrary would be to fall into the same error. Nevertheless, it is quite within the bounds of probability that he worked harder than the majority of the students — he must certainly have blackened more music-paper than most of them. As before suggested, he had not only to correct his own faults, but also those of his masters, if the term can be applied to obsolete rules which the most virulent modern objectors to Berlioz’s harmony would never dream of following in their own compositions.

    In yet another way we gain a wrong impression of the composer as a musician, and that is as regards the performance of his works. Probably Berlioz was the first composer who placed almost as much stress on how his music was performed as on the absolute notes. His predecessors, of course, realized that the meaning of a phrase might vary according to the way in which it was played or sung, and instances might be cited where they endeavoured to convey their wishes as regards performances. But if they had introduced into their scores the indications and nuances with which many modern works are plenteously besprinkled, their orchestras would have been utterly incapable of executing them. For that reason a conductor, provided he follow the broad general outlines, can claim legitimately a good deal of liberty in his interpretation of Haydn or Mozart. With Beethoven his liberty is more restricted, if he would give what the master said, and not what he imagines he might have said. Even in the latter case, unless the conductor’s reading approaches the grotesque, as was the sad custom of Hans von Bülow in his later years, we can gather a shrewd idea of Beethoven’s meaning. When, however, we come to Berlioz there are many passages in which his meaning escapes us, unless his directions be followed precisely. The speed of the fanfare of the ‘Tuba mirum’, that Saint-Saëns instanced, is a typical example.

    Perhaps where conductors are most liable to err is in the phrasing of his melodies. The editors of the German edition seem inclined to attribute his phrasing at times to carelessness, and, in support of their belief, quote the different slurrings of the theme of the waltz of the Fantastic Symphony on its repetitions. If they are the same in the autograph as in the French edition, they may be accounted for in several ways. That in melody, as in harmony, he had not yet found his feet ; or that he was attempting a subtlety which he afterwards discarded, that of varying his phrasing on the repetition of a melody, and especially when it was played by other instruments. The latter explanation is not so far-fetched as it may appear. He was undoubtedly fond of making experiments — such as that with the whole-tone scale in Les Francs Juges overture — and, as regards the waltz, he does make a marked difference, when he alters the rallentando of the eleventh bar on a repetition of the melody. But whatever may be the explanation of the slurring of the waltz theme, there can be no question that the exact phrasing of his melodies is of paramount importance. Unless we hear them precisely as intended, we have no right to object to them, or, it may be added, to praise them. I would not go quite so far as our Berliozian authority, Mr. Ernest Newman, who, speaking of the vital distinction between the French master’s phrasing of his melodies and that ordinarily given, declared that ‘no conductor who is not acutely sensitive to it (the phrasing) can have the slightest understanding of the peculiar build of Berlioz’s musical mind, or the slightest right to conduct his works’.5 Were such a rule enforced we should be deprived of a number of ‘half loaves’, possibly better than ‘no bread’.6 We ask too much of our conductors. We are content to allow a pianist supreme excellence in the interpretation of a limited number of composers, but we expect our conductors to sympathize with every composer of every school. Parenthetically, every gramophone record should scrupulously conform to the composer’s indications, in respect of both the disposition of the orchestra (the proper number of strings and so on), and his directions for nuance, tempo, and phrasing. A record should conform as rigidly to the composer’s wishes and intentions as a faithful edition of the score itself.

    For several reasons it is difficult to form a true picture of Berlioz. And, although other composers have been the victims of ill luck, few, if any, have experienced such unfair treatment as he. As a man, he certainly receives it in M. Boschot’s exhaustive biography, in which, I would add, there are many examples of that flippancy of which I have complained. Too often, in the first volume, the French master, in a patronizing way, is called by his Christian name ; there are weak imitations of his prose style in his more rhapsodical vein, with many interpolations of his occasional expletive — Feux et tonnerres ; and there is a semi-contemptuous air in so constantly referring to the composer as notre Jeune-France, almost equivalent to terming one of our young English composers a Bright Young Thing. If, in a biography of (say) Bach, we had the composer dealt with in similar fashion, and called ‘Jack’ or ‘Johnny’, long after he had ceased to be a child, it would be considered bad taste. As a musician, Berlioz has undoubtedly not received fair treatment. Setting aside performances of his works in which his express directions are deliberately ignored or distorted, at the present time (and they will be still more frequent in the future) we have performances in which his wishes are disregarded simply because the conductor has no means of knowing them, unless he consults in some public library the now rare French editions. And, even should he do so, he might reasonably be expected to place more reliance on the German edition, guaranteed by publishers and editors to be absolutely faithful. How is the most conscientious of conductors to know that Berlioz for the Hamlet March intended his snare-drums to be muffled ? How is he to know that in an important passage in The Corsair overture four bassoons in unison maintain their fortissimo irrespective of the nuances of the rest of the wood-wind above them ? It is true that in the latter case the conductor might consult the miniature score of the work, but its editor is anonymous and does not pledge his honour to the fidelity of the edition. The omission of the number of strings Berlioz required in the German edition is childish, but, except from one point of view, not of vital importance. When a conductor has at his disposal sixty strings or more, for a performance of a Beethoven symphony, he is inclined to double the wind parts. Berlioz, by his indications, tells us that even with a large body of strings he is content with the ordinary wood-wind (with four bassoons).

    No one can pretend that Berlioz is adequately represented by what is now practically the only edition of his works. And he has not received justice in the criticisms of that unfaithful edition. Musicians, who evinced the utmost indignation at the editing of Mussorgsky by Rimsky-Korsakov, and insisted on a new edition of Boris Godunov, have not raised the feeblest of protests in respect of the infidelity of the Berlioz edition. Admitting that the alterations of Rimsky-Korsakov are much more sweeping, the principle involved is precisely the same, and I do not know that he ever insisted that he was producing a faithful edition. It is such things as this that prove the different treatment Berlioz receives. And until it becomes the custom to criticize him, both as a man and as a musician, in the same style as that in which other composers are criticized, we shall never be quit of this wrangling over his merits. His opponents are not entirely to blame. His professed admirers have much to answer for. As is the way with all enthusiasts, they at times allow their enthusiasm to outweigh their discretion, and the more so on account of the adverse criticism the object of their admiration receives. We do not nowadays find the almost hysterical adulation of Wagner’s music that existed when it was abused by half the musical world. Where Berlioz’s followers are to blame is by too often acquiescing to some extent in many of the charges brought against him — that he commenced his studies too late in life, that in addition he was inclined to be idle at the Conservatoire, that he was dependent on a ‘programme’ for inspiration, that he placed undue stress on his orchestration. In brief, with many admirers their attitude verges on the apologetic. It is understandable that opponents should compare his ideas on (say) form and melody with what they fondly believe to be the standard one. His admirers should avoid such futile comparisons. Schumann, when contrasting the form of the first movement of the Fantastic Symphony with the classic one, declared that he saw no reason why the one should not be as good as the other. M. Kœchlin, when dealing with Berlioz’s harmony, takes up much the same position, which after all is that which we adopt as regards other masters as soon as ‘the tumult and the shouting dies’. Berlioz, on the other hand, is judged by the procedure of composers and the rules in the text-books of a hundred years ago. He is said to be without form. Because he is formless ? Not at all ! Because he strove after a species of form other than that adopted by Mozart and Haydn. And so with his harmony which, unlike the vast majority of composers, is not derived from keyboard practice. As regards this point, it is not without significance that the Mannheim School, which was of greater importance in the development of the musical art than perhaps is generally recognized, consisted of men who were violinists rather than clavecinists.

    Few of us have a true impression of Berlioz. In the picture we form of him the purples and the shadows are too accentuated. We remember the ‘noisy sentimentality’ of his somewhat absurd infatuation for Harriet, but forget his healthy normal love for Camille, and his lifelong fealty to his liege-lady Estelle. We think of him as a turbulent young man rather than as one who in middle life was prematurely aged by that agonizing complaint against which he fought so courageously. In music we regard him as the composer of Witches’ Sabbaths and Rides to Hell — less than 5 per cent of his output — instead of the man who wrote Summer Nights, The Childhood of Christ, and Beatrice and Benedick ; as a musician who required sixteen kettle-drums and half-a-hundred instruments of brass for the expression of his ideas, rather than one who could produce exquisite miniatures merely with the aid of strings and a few wood-wind. Berlioz was not the unluckiest of mortals, but during his life a larger share of ill luck fell to him than to most of us. Some of this was no doubt due to himself, to his temperament, and to his refusal to depart from his ideals for commercial reasons — a trait that Wagner recognized and admired. For the ill luck that has pursued him since his death he is not responsible.


1. The Sunday Times, 17 Dec. 1933.

2. In the Lettres intimes the approximate date — end of 1828 — is added by the editor [CG no. 106].

3. I have taken ten hours as the length of Berlioz’s ‘night’, since, in a letter to Liszt of 1853 [CG no. 1568], he mentions a march that he had composed on four staves which occupied him till seven o’clock in the morning. He may well have commenced work at nine in the evening. In a letter to Ferrand of 19 March 1834 [CG no. 384], he says that ‘the day before yesterday I wrote for thirteen hours without quitting my pen’.

4. In the Correspondance inédite the letter is dated simply ‘Paris 1829’, but whether this is due to Berlioz himself, who at times was doubtful even as to the year or the century, or to a somewhat indifferent editor, I do not know. A sentence in the letter tells us the real date, ‘It is a year to-day since I saw HER for the last time.’ Harriet left Paris on 3 March 1829.

5. The Sunday Times, 11 Jan. 1934.

6. For an example of an alteration of Berlioz’s phrasing, the curious reader may be referred to the Min. Sc. of the overture to Benvenuto Cellini, p. 6, bars 4 ff., where the phrasing is the same as in the French edition. If he will collate the passage with the corresponding one in the German edition, he will be surprised at the difference in the slurring, not only in the melody for the strings, but for the arpeggios for the wood-wind.

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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