Published in The Atlantic Monthly, December 1881
Of Hector Berlioz as a musician, others have spoken with an authority to which I cannot pretend. His glory is now complete ; even the Parisians, after having treated him as madman, overwhelmed him with silly calumny, and finally killed him with indifference and ingratitude, now bow very low before his tomb, and proclaim him the glory of the modern school of French music. In the following essay an attempt will be made to study Berlioz from a particular point of view, to trace the influence of Shakespeare upon his life and upon his genius.
Up to the very day of his death, Hector Berlioz was an ardent Shakespearean. The epigraph of his remarkable Mémoires is a translation of some lines from Macbeth, and the last words of the volumes are the same lines in the original English : —
“Life’s but a walking shadow ; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more ; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound a fury,
Indeed Shakespeare was the cause of Berlioz’s happiness and of his misfortunes, the inspirer of his musical efforts, and in a certain way the origin of his moral disasters and of what he calls the greatest drama of his life.
This drama comprised a sad and romantic story. In the year
1827 a company of English actors, amongst whom were Charles Kemble, Abbot,
Liston, Chippendale, and Henrietta Smithson, came to Paris, and gave a series of
performances at the Odéon Theatre. Berlioz, a young man of twenty-four years of
age, was then struggling against all kinds of privations. His parents were
opposed to his studying music, while he himself had the conviction that music
was his true vocation. In order to procure his daily bread, Berlioz entered the
Théâtre des Nouveautés as a simple chorus-singer, at a salary of fifty francs
a month ; and as his modest garret was not an inviting place to dine in, he
used in summer time to buy some bread and some dried fruit, raisins, dates, or
prunes, and eat them seated at the foot of the statue of Henri IV., on the Pont
Neuf. There, without thinking of the capon which that good monarch desired each
of his subjects to have in the pot at least on Sundays, he ate his frugal meal
as he watched the sun go down behind Mont Valérian ; “ following,” as he writes,
“ with charmed eyes, the
radiant reflections of the rippling Seine that flowed murmuringly before me, and
with my mind ravished by the splendid imagery of the poems of Thomas Moore, a
French translation of which I was reading lovingly for the first time.”
Berlioz was then simply a young man of talent and enthusiasm, seeking his path,
and finding himself, like all the fiery Romanticists of his time, out of harmony
with the old order of things, and not quite knowing what the new order was to
be. At this period of fierce passions and infinite joys he became acquainted
with Weber’s genius in the Freyschütz, with that of Glück in Iphigénie en
Tauride, and with that of Spontini in La Vestale. One night he happened to be
present at the Odéon at the first performance of Hamlet by the English company.
The rôle of Ophelia was played by Miss Smithson, a charming Hibernian
beauty, who turned many heads, and who revealed to the Romanticists — to
Victor Hugo, to Alfred de Vigny, to Alexandre Dumas, to Théophile Gautier, and
the rest of the illustrious pleiad — the peculiar Northern sweetness and grace
of the characters of Ophelia, Juliet, and Cordelia. Miss Smithson left a very
distinct mark in the annals of the French stage, and her memory is still fresh
in the minds of some of the veteran critics and playgoers. Berlioz did not
escape the charm. In his Mémoires he says, “ The effect of her
prodigious talent, or rather of her dramatic genius, on my imagination and on my
heart can be compared only to the bewilderment into which I was thrown by the
poet, whose worthy interpreter she was. I cannot say more. Shakespeare, falling
thus unexpectedly upon me, dismayed and astounded me. His lightning, in opening
to me the firmament of art with a sublime thunderclap, illuminated the most
distant depths. I recognized true grandeur, true beauty, dramatic truth. At the
same time I comprehended the immense absurdity of the ideas which Voltaire had
circulated in France about Shakespeare, — Voltaire,
‘Ce singe de génie,
Chez l’homme, en mission par le diable envoyé,’ —
and the pitiable paltriness of our old pedagogic Poetics. I saw, . . . I understood, . . . I felt, . . . that I was really conscious of life, and that I must now rise up and walk.”
The performance threw the young musician into such a fever of excitement that he resolved never again to expose himself to the flame of Shakespeare’s genius, and as a matter of course he returned to the theatre the next day, and saw Romeo and Juliet. After the melancholy, the heart-rending grief, the tearful love, the cruel irony, the dismal meditations, the sinister catastrophes, of Hamlet, after the clouds and icy winds of Denmark, it was in truth dangerous to expose his soul thus heedlessly to the ardent sun of Italy, and to the spectacle of Southern love, — swift as thought, burning as molten lava, imperious, irresistible, pure and beautiful as angels’ smiles. Those furious scenes of vengeance, those desperate embraces, those terrible struggles between death and a love that is stronger than death, affected Berlioz with a force that was still further augmented by his sensitive and passionate temperament. At the end of the third act he felt that he was lost. And yet, not knowing at that time a word of English, and reading Shakespeare only in the cloudy version of Letourneur, he necessarily lost that poetry that envelops Shakespeare’s creations like a splendid net-work of gold. But the play of the actors, and especially that of Miss Smithson, the succession of the scenes, the pantomime, and the accent of the voices impregnated him with Shakespearean ideas and passions a thousand times more profoundly than Letourneur’s pale and unfaithful translation.
After having seen these two performances Berlioz sank into a state of stupor and despair which lasted several months. His thoughts were absorbed in Shakespeare, and in the inspired artists, the fair Ophelia, about whom all Paris was raving. He compared her glory with his own obscurity, and then, by a supreme effort, he shook off his lethargy, and determined to make himself a name whose glory might reach even her eyes. This was the first act of the sad tragedy of his marriage.
In order to put his resolution into execution, Berlioz, by dint of great effort, organized a concert at the Conservatoire, hoping that Miss Smithson might be present to witness his triumph. It was love’s labor lost. The charming actress, entirely occupied by her brilliant task, was ignorant of the very existence, much more of the efforts, of her obscure slave. However, the concert was noticed favorably by the critics. It was the first time that Berlioz had appealed to their judgment ; he had now only to continue working.
Shortly after these incidents Beethoven came to Paris. The effect that this composer had upon Berlioz was almost as great as that of Shakespeare had been. Beethoven opened to him a new world of music as Shakespeare had revealed to him a new universe in poetry, and, with the audacity of youthful genius, he desired to accomplish the impossible. He desired to be as a musician, noble and majestic like Spontini, fantastic like Weber, gentle and sweet like Theocritus and Virgil, trivial and sublime like Shakespeare, and grand like Beethoven.
In his Mémoires, Berlioz narrates with curious minuteness the sufferings that were caused him by his unrequited passion for Miss Smithson. “ It upset my whole life,” he says, “ and if it had not been for an almost equally strong passion for Shakespeare which spurred me to work, I should simply have wasted several years in blank despair.” As it was, however, he went on composing and competing for the Prix de Rome at the Institute. He wrote, at this time, his fantasia on Shakespeare’s Tempest, which was produced at the opera, as mischance would have it, during such a violent storm of rain that the performance was heard by an audience of only about two hundred people. It was literally a coup d’épée dans l’eau. Meanwhile, Miss Smithson had gone on a tour in Holland, and in 1830 Berlioz, having at last won the Prix de Rome, went to Italy to spend three years, according to the regulations of the Institute.
In the description which he has given us of his studies at the French Academy in the Villa Medici at Rome, the name of Shakespeare constantly recurs. Now he is writing the overture to Le Roi Lear ; now he is wandering amongst the monuments of Florence, “ dreaming,” as he says, “ of Dante and Michael Angelo, or reading Shakespeare in the delicious woods that fringe the left bank of the Arno, and whose profound solitude permitted me to shout with admiration at my ease.” Often, as they are roaming together in the ruins of the Colosseum, he shocks Mendelssohn, that polished gentleman, with his violent expressions of admiration of Shakespeare. Mendelssohn, by the way, in one of his letters written at that time, described Berlioz as “ a veritable caricature, without a shadow of talent, feeling his way in the darkness, and believing himself the creator of the world ; and, besides that, he writes the most detestable things, and talks and dreams only of Beethoven, Schiller, and Goethe. He is also a man of incommensurable vanity, and treats with superb disdain Mozart and Haydn, so that all his enthusiasm seems to me very suspicious.” Here let us state, in parenthesis, that throughout his life the most ridiculous criticisms were attributed to Berlioz. His supposed disdain of Mozart, for instance, was continually thrown at his face by his enemies, and yet it was Berlioz who exclaimed, in one of his feuilletons à propos of Mozart’s Idoménée, “ What a miracle of beauty is such music ! What a perfume of antiquity !” [Débats, 27 March 1849] Once for all be it said that Berlioz never had the pretension that certain composers have since had. He did not boast that he was alone of his kind, nor did the world music was an unknown, dark, and uncultivated science ; far from denying the ancients, he prostrated himself with veneration before the gods of symphony. However, in spite of the wide difference of their national character and temperament, the relations of Mendelssohn and Berlioz at Rome appear to have continued intimate, though they did not appreciate each other so thoroughly then as they did later. But they always had many points of sympathy in common, and both professed an ardent admiration of Shakespeare, whose ideas they were both destined to translate into music ; the one in his Midsummer Night’s Dream, the other in his Roméo et Juliette. Moreover, when Mendelssohn wrote the letter above referred to he was only in his twenty-first year, and he did not know Berlioz’s work. Twelve years later, when Berlioz visited Leipzig, he treated him like a brother.
During his residence in Italy Berlioz composed his Retour à la vie, the Balade du Pêcheur, Rob Roy, the ghost scene in Hamlet, and the overture of his Roi Lear. By special authorization he was permitted to return to Paris in 1832, at the same time that Miss Smithson returned to become manager of an English theatrical company. The two came very near taking lodgings in the same house. Berlioz, however, resisted the temptation to go and see her. He had come to Paris to give a concert, and he would do that first of all, at any rate, and then run the risk of catching another attack of love-fever. The programme of the concert was composed of the Symphonie Fantastique, followed by the Retour à la vie, a monodrama which forms the complement of that work. The subject of this musical drama is no other than the history of Berlioz’s passion for Henrietta Smithson. Through the intermediary of a common friend this lady was induced to go to the concert. The poor woman had built her hopes on the constancy of Parisian enthusiasm and on the support of the Romantic school of literature. She had soon been undeceived. Shakespeare was no longer a novelty, the Romantic revolution was an accomplished fact, and the public which two years previously had flocked eagerly to see the English actors now remained indifferent to their efforts. In a few months Miss Smithson was ruined, the theatre was closed, and, to crown all, the unlucky actress fell one day as she was getting out of a cab and broke her leg. In these circumstances Hector Berlioz was formally introduced to her ; his love-fever returned more violent than ever, and in the summer of 1833, Henrietta Smithson became Madame Hector Berlioz. “ On our wedding-day,” he writes, “ she had nothing in the world but debts and the fear of never being able to appear again on the stage in consequence of her accident. For my part, I possessed three hundred francs that my friend Gounet had lent me and I had the advantage of having once more quarreled with my parents. . . . But she was mine, and I defied everything.”
This marriage turned out unhappily. Fortune did not smile upon the young couple, and the only regular source of income which Berlioz had, his musical feuilleton in the Journal des Débats, brought him in only about fourteen hundred francs a year. In 1838 came a godsend. Paganini, enchanted with the symphony of Harold, which had been composed at his instigation, made Berlioz a present of twenty thousand francs. This sum enabled the composer to pay his debts and to have a fair amount of money in hand. He resolved to employ this money musicalement by writing a grand masterpiece, and after seven months’ work he produced Roméo et Juliette. Shakespeare had once more inspired him. “ What an ardent life I lived at that time !” he exclaims. “ With what vigor I swam in that mighty sea of poetry, caressed by the wild breeze of fancy, under the warm rays of that sun of love which Shakespeare lighted ; thinking that I was strong enough to reach the marvelous island where stands the temple of pure art !”
After a few years of married life a friendly separation took place between Berlioz and his wife. The lady, it appears, was of very jealous disposition, a fact which led to disagreeable complications, as may well be imagined when we remember that, professionally, Hector Berlioz was necessarily thrown into contact with theatrical people. Madame Berlioz went to live in retirement at Montmartre where she died on March 3, 1854. During the last four years of her life she had been paralyzed, and deprived of speech and movement.
Berlioz who happened to be in Paris at the time of her death, was wild with grief. In the midst of his regret of a love whose flames had been extinguished prosaically enough, he felt, and always had felt, immense pity when he thought of the misfortunes of his wife ; her ruin before their marriage ; her accident ; her disastrous failure of her last dramatic enterprise in Paris ; her departed glory ; their domestic differences ; her vanished beauty ; her constantly increasing physical sufferings ; the long perspective of death and oblivion. . . . These reflections filled him with infinite compassion and sorrow, as he looked upon the portrait of his wife made in the days of her splendor, when she was the idol of the public, and when her glory eclipsed even that of Mademoiselle Mars, — a portrait that represented her dazzling with beauty and genius. He compared this lovely vision with the corpse that lay below it on the bed, disfigured by long sickness, and in an ecstasy of woe he cried, —
“ Shakespeare ! Shakespeare ! Where is he ? Where art thou ? It seems to me that he alone amongst intelligent beings can understand me, and must have understood us both ; he alone can have had pity on us, poor artists, who loved each other and were torn asunder. Shakespeare ! Shakespeare ! Thou must have been humane and kind ; if thou existest still, thou must receive the wretched ! thou art our father ; thou art in heaven, if heaven there be. God is stupid and atrocious in his indifference ; thou alone art the God good for the souls of artists. Receive us into thy bosom, father, embrace us ! De profundis ad te clamo. Death, annihilation, what is it ? The immortality of genius ! . . . What ? . . . O fool ! fool ! fool ! . . . Shakespeare ! Shakespeare ! I feel the flood returning, I am being overwhelmed by grief, and I seek thee still. . . . Father ! Father ! Where are you ?”
There is something terrible in this grief, the more so if one has studied the life of Hector Berlioz, and felt what a great mind his was. Never had art a more devoted and honest servant ; never was there a more ardent admirer of what is truly great in music and poetry.
Henrietta Smithson lies buried in the cemetery of Montmartre, with her head turned towards England. On the tombstone was graven this inscription : “ Henriette Constance Smithson-Berlioz : born at Ennis, in Ireland ; died at Montmartre, March 3, 1854.” The newspapers announced her death coldly. Jules Janin alone had the heart and the gratitude to write in the Journal des Débats a few words of farewell to the woman who “ unconsciously was an unknown poem, a new passion, and a whole revolution. She gave the signal to Madame Dorval, to Frédéric Lemaître, to Victor Hugo, to Berlioz ! She was Juliet, she was Ophelia. It was she who inspired Eugène Delacroix when he drew that sweet image of Ophelia.” The Abbé Liszt wrote to Berlioz from Weimar, soon after his bereavement, a cordial letter, in which he said, “ Elle t’inspira, tu l’as aimée, tu l’as chantée ; sa tâche était accomplie.”
Hector Berlioz lived on, struggling, writing, composing, and despairing, until 1869, when he died, a martyr to his musical faith. In the later years of his life he revived a youthful passion for a lady who never knew that she had been the object of his boyish love until she had lived long enough to see her own children married. The two old people — Berlioz was more than sixty years of age, though he was still young in heart and intellect — corresponded affectionately, and on the last page of his strange memoirs Berlioz congratulates himself on the happiness he derives from the mere fact of this lady knowing that he adores her. “ I must console myself for having known her too late as I console myself for not having known Virgil, whom I should have loved so much, or Glück, or Beethoven, . . . or Shakespeare, . . . who might perhaps have loved me.”
* This article has been transcribed from a contemporary copy of The Atlantic Monthly, December 1881 (Volume XLVIII. – Number 290, pp. 746-751) in our collection. We have preserved the author’s original spelling and syntax. The article is evidently based to an important extent on a reading of Berlioz’s own Memoirs; it is mainly biographical in approach and makes no attempt to assess the influence of Shakespeare on Berlioz’s work.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 8 June 2008.
© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved
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