The Hector Berlioz Website

Burst of Berlioz


Jacques Barzun

© Jacques Barzun

Published in

Saturday Review of Literature, 30 December 1950note


IF there is one well-rooted mania of our time, it is that of keeping records. No committee can meet without a stenographer to embalm the meanderings of the membership, and for bigger things we have machines that immortalize by electricity: everything is taped up—except, it seems, the truly rare in musical events. This month, for instance, there took place in New York and Cincinnati, respectively, two very uncommon Berlioz performances; performances of major works entirely unknown to most of those present. Yet neither of them was preserved except on the unsatisfactory tablets of memory.

    In New York this month Beecham gave the "Te Deum" for three choruses, tenor solo, organ, and orchestra; it had not been heard in Carnegie Hall since the building’s inauguration in 1891, Tchaikovsky being present. In Cincinnati a few days later, Thor Johnson. and the Cincinnati Symphony, assisted by the choruses of the city schools, gave "The Infant Christ," which had not been heard in this country since Dr. Philip Greeley Clapp’s intimate performance at the University of Iowa in 1945.

    It is a commonplace that unfamiliar music of any depth or complexity requires several hearings before it can be judged or enjoyed. A single playing, however brilliant, acts like a flash of lightning: it dazzles or alarms without leaving any clear impression, and darkness settles down again. Surely there are not ten men in New York who were at the inaugural of Carnegie Hall and again the other day, and who can compare the two versions of the "Te Deum." But, without this comparison the second judgment is likely to be as faulty as a first; which points to a neglected fact about music and an unrecognized virtue in discs: unfamiliar music has to be played often before it can be played right.

    By competing with one another and with live performances, discs enable us to demand certain results until, by piecing together in our minds the partial successes of several renderings, we generate a listeners tradition which sooner or later finds its reward in a perfect set of records—an achievement at once dazzling and recoverable.

    There are other reasons why a pair of LP’s fixing for us the two Berlioz works would have been desirable. The most important is that both Beecham and Johnson love Berlioz and lavish their best skill and care in presenting him. Their interpretations would have been permanent cornerstones in the edifice of Berlioz’s religious music. Coming out simultaneously, and while the "Requiem" is still a fresh discovery, they would clinch the fact that the composer’s hallmark is dramatic variety: Three works of sacred music inspired by one and the same religion could not differ more in mood and style had they been conceived by three different men: the "Requiem" exultant in the drama of salvation; "The Infant Christ" humble, innocent, and rustic; the "Te Deum" austere and as if concentrated in prayer.

    At Carnegie Hall the devotees of the "Requiem" were somewhat disconcerted that the "Te Deum," despite its grandiose scale and tonal magnificence, should move within limits so "classical." Bewildered, one critic thought the inspiration weakened as the work progressed. Tchaikovsky had thought just the opposite. Others severally chose each of the six movements as the peak. Similarly at Cincinnati, where one also heard from those who call "The Infant Christ" Berlioz’s only masterpiece because it meets their demand for intimacy, delicate coloring, and domesticated emotion. What an opportunity lost to knock musically together the heads of these eclectics, all shaking their discs at one another! Unlike the compositions, the obstacles to recording were common enough. At Cincinnati the text was sung in English—an excellent translation, but it voided the possibility of London’s choosing it for their list, as they want to retain Berlioz’s exquisite lines and market the work in France. Let this be an encouragement to Mr. Johnson for a second try next season, when he may be induced to restore the few cuts that he made for program convenience.

    Beecham ran into a greater difficulty than language—nationality. He and the Royal Philharmonic are British (as his speech from the podium put beyond doubt) and the rules in force among unionized musicians are sensitive to birthplace. Since the Baronet and his cohort could not become naturalized just for one Wednesday night, it is good to know that they will record the work on home soil.

    As we console ourselves a bit sourgrapishly with the prospect of "L’Enfance du Christ" in French, so we can say that an English-Columbia recording of the "Te Deum" may turn out even preferable to the one just missed. The chorus of the Schola Cantorum showed its admirable training under Hugh Ross, but its size was inadequate. Huddled at the back of the stage and singing into the beautiful but baffling valence across the proscenium arch, the voices were frequently inaudible above the full-strength orchestra.

MOREOVER, the "Te Deum" is designed for what used to be known as antiphony and is now called stereoscopic sound. The organ should be at the opposite end of the church from the orchestra, and one double chorus away from the third. The tenor solo alone rises from the instrumental mass, so that the nuances within the movements, which are less marked than in the "Requiem," gain force from distance and distinctness of timbre. In the tutti the edifice is assailed by sound from all parts.

    Again, if conducted in synchronized separate groups, the drama embedded in the music is more easily elicited from the voices, which always tend to sing only notes if led from too far away. In the final "Vision of Judgment" the other night, the men and women sang beautifully in tune, but they tended to break up the relentless movement into squarish sections. One felt that although they might be apprehensive about the removal of rent controls, they were not in the least afraid of eternal damnation. Mr. Ross should have been there giving them Hell for retransmission to us.

    Lastly, it might be urged on Sir Thomas that when he records the work he should restore the two instrumental pieces he omitted here. The very brief prelude to the "Dignare" is not only a gem of a tone poem, it is also necessary to the form. It gives point to the string-and-organ close of the preceding number and re-establishes the "Te Deum" theme that binds together the whole work. At the very end, the military march serves as frame to the picture.

    Once before, some fifteen years ago at Queen’s Hall, Beecham had the hearers of the "Te Deum" up in their seats shouting their enthusiasm. Let him do it on discs and we’ll be tossing them across the Atlantic like straw hats at a national convention.

* This article has been transcribed from a contemporary copy of the Saturday Review of Literature, 30 December 1950 (Volume XXXIII. – Number 52, page 37) in our own collection. We have preserved the author’s original spelling, punctuation, and syntax.

We have not been able to contact the editor of this issue of the Saturday Review of Literature, which has ceased publication.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 1 September 2008.

© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.

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