The Hector Berlioz Website

Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions

Tom S. Wotton

Hector Berlioz


    This book is in no wise a biography of Hector Berlioz, some knowledge of the principal events of his life being presumed to be possessed by its readers. I have planned the several chapters almost as independent essays dealing with particular aspects of the French composer’s genius as a musician and behaviour as a man ; and in so doing I have endeavoured to present a true picture of the master, conscious that in some ways it may differ from that existent in many minds. I claim no more authority for my ideas than that which can be obtained from a close study of his works (both musical and literary) for very many years, together with a large acquaintance with the numerous books and articles relating to him.

    Misconceptions have arisen around every composer, but possibly they are greater than usual with Berlioz, because on certain points some of his admirers seem to have joined hands with his detractors. Instead of insisting that this statement is devoid of proof and that based on erroneous premises, they have been inclined to acquiesce in the probable truth of both of them, and lamely to offer apologies in place of contradictions. For instance, some of his friends are disposed to take it for granted that much of the Memoirs is a tissue of lies, and that the German edition of his musical works faithfully represents his intentions. In the following pages I shall unfortunately be compelled to draw attention to the infidelities of the latter, since it is obviously absurd to judge a musician from a faulty text. As to the former, it is sufficient to insist here that their inaccuracies have been much exaggerated. Unless a writer’s memory be so phenomenal as to be suspect, he must of necessity be hazy over a multitude of details.

    In many ways Berlioz has not been treated fairly. He at times has been judged by standards that would not be applied to others. Accusations have been brought against him on the evidence of a single witness, whose credentials have not been scrutinized. He has been abused for doing things that are the everyday custom of his detractors. Above all, he is too often criticized in a flippant vein which can only be paralleled in some of the early notices of Wagner’s works, and in any case is in dubious taste. That the French composer should not appeal to every one is understandable. His originality and his system of harmony not being derived from keyboard practice are sufficient to make him antagonistic to some. Possibly many of the other masters are not so universally admired as is supposed. We hear little, however, from the malcontents, because they have resigned themselves to the inevitable. They realize that their opinions, backed at times with poor post-prandial jests, are powerless to damage the reputation of a man, whose works have been performed with success for a century and have been approved by highly competent judges. As Sidney Smith advised in one of his essays, if one yearns to persecute some religious body, why not choose some small sect such as the Society of Friends rather than a powerful organization like the Roman Catholic Church. Cannot the foes of Berlioz grasp the simple fact that their abuse of him is in itself a testimony to his greatness ? A lesser man would not excite their angry passions in the same way.

    Berlioz’s position as a musician would probably have been more secure if he had never published his Memoirs. Thanks to his picturesque prose and his literary talents, the man is better known than the artist. In some cases the music-lover ignores a composer’s life, when judging his music ; in others, he endows the musician with angelic and often purely imaginary attributes, on the principle that ‘he who drives fat oxen should himself be fat’. Unconsciously or consciously, many of us do the contrary as regards Berlioz, and judge the oxen from what we believe the man to have been. In notices of Wagner’s works one seldom, if ever, finds references to his private life : those of Berlioz, be they favourable or the reverse, constantly contain such references. And this illogical confusion between the man and the artist is another instance of the unfair treatment accorded to the French composer. If we elect to picture a scatter-brained young man, infatuated by a theatrical star, incorrigibly lazy over his studies, and a deliberate, if polished, liar, we are naturally disposed to find in his music insincerity and errors of technique. I would emphasize the ‘young man’, because I believe that few picture him as a man in middle life, prematurely aged by disappointment and by bouts of agonizing pain, courageously fighting to the end.

    As regards the nomenclature of the works I may appear to have been inconsistent. At times I have used the French title, at others the English one. The latter I have usually employed, when there is a generally accepted name, or when the French one can be translated literally. In other cases I have preferred the original title, as less open to misunderstanding.

    I would here acknowledge the indebtedness to Mr. Ernest Newman, who has written on Berlioz at greater length and with fuller understanding than any other English writer. My warm thanks are due to my friends W. F. H. Blandford, Hubert W. Farren, and Jacques Barzun. To the first for undertaking the ungrateful task of correcting the proofs and compiling an index ; to the second for drawing my attention to many references to Berlioz which would otherwise have escaped my attention ; to the third for having consulted on my behalf many of Berlioz’s scores (annotated by the composer) which are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

    The bibliography makes no pretence of being complete, since it only includes works which are in my own library.


Hastings, 1934

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

© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights reserved.

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