HECTOR BERLIOZ AND HIS MUSIC.

BY LOUIS C. ELSON.

Published in

Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, 1888

 

 

 

 

    DECEMBER 11th, 1803, in the little town of La Côte St. André, in France, was born a musician whose status in the ranks of composers has not even yet been definitely fixed. Hector Berlioz, whether judged as man or as musician, remains a puzzle;

"Great wit to madness nearly is allied,"

and it is difficult to say whether this composer had always the eccentricity of genius or that of mania. Strong passions and ardent impulses were in Berlioz even as a child, traits which but became more accentuated as he advanced in years. He was the son of a physician, whose intention it was to bring him up in the science of medicine. The earliest years of the boy did not betray any decided leaning toward art, and he himself assures us that his first musical experience was on the occasion of his first communion, at the Convent of the Ursulines, when the glory of the Eucharistic hymn worked upon his feelings in a manner that interwove music and religion closely together during his youthful years. Perhaps part of the ecstatical and vehement nature which was the characteristic of Berlioz arose from the fact that his father was addicted to the use of opium, and may have thus left a sorrowful legacy to his child. A reasonably good classical education was given to the lad at his home, his love of poetry being strongly awakened by the study of Virgil, as well as of the French authors.

    His impressibility was also attested by his falling in love at twelve years of age, an affair which he treats quite au sérieux in his autobiography, and which seems to have revived again during the later years of his life.

    There were but the slightest musical studies pursued during his childhood. Flute, guitar and flageolet were picked up in a very amateurish fashion, and that was all. Like Wagner, Berlioz may be said to have played no instrument whatever. But at about twelve years of age, the longing to compose seized upon him, and the slight treatise of Catel, and the much weaker work of Rameau, on the science of harmony, studied by himself, finally enabled the lad to stagger through the production of a few concerted pieces. These primitive works were almost all in a minor key, and showed the morbid vein of a nature which was in music very much like that of Edgar Allan Poe in literature. The father looked with intense distrust upon the musical efforts of his son, but condescended to use them far enough to offer the boy a present of a fine flute if he would diligently study anatomy. The offer was accepted, and soon after we find Berlioz in Paris with his cousin, both earnestly working at dissection. During this season attendance at the great operatic performances of the metropolis rapidly loosened the foundations of medical science which the father had planned for the lad; and, finally, as Wagner was changed into a musician by hearing a Beethoven symphony, a performance of a Gluck opera led Berlioz to abjure medicine and devote himself to music. We soon find him studying harmony with the good, but very conservative, Lesueur; and, like Wagner, at once trying to create music in the largest possible forms. The young composer was certainly severe enough with himself, for most of the early works of his muse were soon afterward ruthlessly committed to the flames by him. An oratorio, an opera and a mass (the latter having been twice performed in a large church at Paris) were among the compositions thus voluntarily destroyed. After a period of study with Lesueur, Berlioz was admitted as a pupil of the Paris Conservatory. Already, at the beginning of this part of his career, he managed to embroil himself with the authorities of that institution, and particularly with Cherubini, its respected head. That Cherubini was illiberal toward any who displayed radical tendencies in music may not be doubted; but that Berlioz was sarcastic, sneering and generally disrespectful, is, unfortunately, also true. Coming into the library of the Conservatory, one day (before he had become a regular pupil), by a door forbidden to male students, he so exasperated the irascible director by the insolence of his replies to his strictures, and by refusing to give his name, that a veritable chase about the room ensued, in which the agile lad managed finally to make his escape. A failure to pass an examination at the Conservatory led Berlioz’s father to command him to leave Paris, threatening to stop his allowance in case he did not immediately comply.

    There is a strong analogy between the life of Berlioz and that of Schumann in the episodes which followed. In the latter case, when the mother opposed her son’s musical career, Wieck, the teacher, became guarantee for the future of the composer; in this case, Lesueur assured the parents that there was no doubt of the young musician’s ultimate success. Schumann’s mother gave way to the inevitable; but the mother of Berlioz drove him from home (on his persisting in his determination to become a musician), with a curse upon him as an undutiful and ungrateful child. The father, however, with certain restrictions, gave his son his consent to a fair trial of his abilities in musical study in Paris. Unfortunately, the performances of the mass above mentioned, with which Berlioz made his début as a composer in Paris, had entailed some debts upon him, and the father, being unexpectedly dunned for these, peremptorily rescinded his consent to a musical education, and at once stopped the slender allowance which was the youth’s chief means of existence. Nothing daunted, Berlioz obtained a few pupils, and went on with his Conservatory studies, being now in the counterpoint classes of the eminent teacher Reicha.

    Poverty such as Wagner endured in Paris was now the lot of our young composer. Like Wagner, he was combative by nature, but without the dogged determination of the former; like Wagner, too, in stress of want, he applied for a position as chorus-singer at a small theatre, but, more fortunate than the German, he got it, and this at least served to keep the wolf from the door. The father, after a short time, became alarmed for his talented son, and, finding him absolutely firm in his determination to study music at all hazards, restored his allowance, and opposed his career no longer. The enthusiasm with which Berlioz now attended the operatic performances in Paris was something phenomenal. Not content with admiring Gluck himself, he set about proselytizing among his acquaintance, insisting that everybody should share in his reverence for the great master. And now occurred an event which was to have the greatest influence upon the emotional young composer. A troupe of English actors came to Paris, to give a series of Shakespearean performances, and at their head was a beautiful young Irish actress—Harriet Smithson. Berlioz first saw her in the part of Ophelia in "Hamlet," and was at once seized with a frenzy of passion. He says, in his memoirs: "Sleep was impossible; I lost my spirits; interest in my studies was entirely gone, and I could only wander aimlessly about Paris. Throughout that long period of suffering I can recall sleeping but four times, and then it was the heavy, death-like sleep of complete physical exhaustion."

    Once he thus fell asleep in the snow in one of the suburbs of Paris, and another time he slept five hours at a table in a Parisian café, the terrified waiters believing him dead.

    It was, however, the play of "Romeo and Juliet" that riveted his chains, and the remembrance of Miss Smithson in the balcony scene in that work was strong enough years afterward, when she had become his wife, to lead to the most beautiful and spontaneous of all the instrumental movements he had ever composed—the scene between Romeo and Juliet, in his symphony of that name. It has been stated by English writers that, on first seeing Miss Smithson in "Romeo and Juliet," Berlioz exclaimed: "I will marry that woman, and I will write my grandest symphony on this play." Although both statements became true, the composer denied ever having made the remark.

    But the young man awoke from his despair with a determination to do something which should dispel the distance between them. He would show her that he, too, was an artist, and would do something to compel her admiration. He gave a concert of his own compositions, of which she never heard, and then waited on in hopeless agony. Competitions for the prizes of the Conservatory were at first ineffectual, as far as our young artist was concerned, for his iconoclastic ways had prejudiced the authorities against him most thoroughly; but in 1828 he took the second prize, and in 1830 at last gained the first prize—the Grand Prix de Rome—which carried with it a Government pension (a thousand crowns), a journey to Italy, and free admission to the Opera. It placed the composer before the world more prominently than before; but as he had already written such works as the overture to "Les Francs Juges," and the "Symphonie Fantastique," he could scarcely feel that "Sardanapalus," which was the rewarded work, was a great advance.

    He had again made an effort to attract Miss Smithson’s attention, by getting one of his overtures performed at her theatre when she was playing Juliet; but his actions at rehearsal only succeeded in frightening the actress, who did not like the wild appearance of the composer, who had come to direct his work. It was some time after this that he really won his bride by music. The "Symphonie Fantastique," which pictures a wild frenzy of affection, culminating in murder and the execution and damnation of the criminal, was written under the influence of his passion for the young actress. When he returned from the Italian journey consequent upon his winning the Prix de Rome, Miss Smithson’s circumstances had greatly changed. She had become manager of the company; the fickle Parisian public had changed its idols. Shakespeare and his representatives were neglected, and Miss Smithson’s entire fortune was swallowed up in the venture. It was now that a grand performance of the symphony, together with its afterpiece, "Lelio; Or, The Return to Life," was given. A box-order was sent to the actress, through a friend, and she, without remembering the young man who had twice before made music on her account, accepted it. She had at first no suspicion that she was the heroine of the music; but while the symphony agitated her, the poem of the succeeding monodrama—"Lelio"—left no room for doubt. The lines beginning, "Could I but find her again, my Juliet, my Ophelia, whom my heart is ever seeking!" were a public declaration of love, which, however, none but she could understand, and she understood it all too well. An introduction to the actress was soon accomplished, and the admirer, who for years was compelled to speak in tones, was at last at liberty to speak in words. Soon after this the actress had the misfortune to fall and break her leg. Her public career was closed; and in the Summer of 1833, Berlioz consummated by marriage the attachment which had seemed so hopeless a few years before. Both families opposed the marriage, and both of the contracting parties had only debts with which to begin the world.

    We wish that we could add, as is done in so many a fairy story, "And they lived happy ever afterward;" but the truth compels us to say that they did not. Madame Berlioz suffered prolonged fits of ill health, which ruined her temper as well as her physique. She was at times ungovernably jealous (perhaps not entirely without cause), and she lacked all that tact and self-sacrifice which is necessary to hold even the most loving couple together for any great length of time. The ill-mated pair eventually separated, but Berlioz (who was always generous in money matters), with the utmost fidelity, paid her a regular stipend sufficient to supply her wants until her death.

    Berlioz had a natural talent for making enemies. Cherubini, Fetis, Habeneck, one by one he managed to offend them all, and when he began his career as a critic he became a veritable bull in a china-shop. Endowed with a sparkling wit, his crabbed and disappointed nature gave to this the form of sarcasm, and almost every bon mot he made had a malicious and painful sting in it. He soon attacked right and left, and was royally attacked in return. Once, however, he played upon his brother-critics a practical joke, which is probably unequaled in the annals of music. His works had been censured as sensational, inflated, bombastic, and what not, and many went so far as to doubt whether he could write half a dozen bars in pure and classical style. Then there appeared an ancient work, which had been forgotten and rediscovered, "The Flight into Egypt," by one Pierre Ducré, a composer of the seventeenth century (according to the programme of the concert where it was first performed), which Berlioz had unearthed and presented as a curiosity to Parisian music-lovers. The critics praised the work with much unanimity, and suggested that Berlioz might learn a good lesson from such pure and unforced music. On this our hero stepped forward as the composer of the work, proved Ducré a myth, and thanked his censors for at least once having given him hearty praise—a proceeding which, however, they took care never to duplicate.

    That strange and eccentric being, Paganini, was an emphatic admirer of Berlioz and his works. This was but natural, for Berlioz was as great a virtuoso upon the orchestra as Paganini upon the violin. That so great a miser as the eminent violinist should have opened his purse-strings to our composer is, however, not the least wonderful event in the life of Berlioz. It happened at the period of his greatest need. He had been ill with bronchitis, and, to relieve the resulting poverty, had given two concerts. The first had barely paid its expenses; and, in order to increase the success of the second, both the "Symphonie Fantastique" and the "Harold Symphony" were announced for performance. After the concert, Paganini, who was already speechless with the terrible throat disease of which he ultimately died, dragged the composer back upon the stage, and then and there, in public, knelt down and kissed his hand. Two days later, Berlioz received a note from Paganini, in which, after comparing Berlioz to Beethoven, he presented him with twenty thousand francs, as a substantial token of his homage.

    Paganini was the indirect cause of the "Harold Symphony" having been composed; for it was begun as a concerto for viola, with the intention of allowing the great virtuoso to display a Stradivarius viola, which he had purchased, in concert. Berlioz undertook the task at Paganini’s urgent request, but with considerable diffidence; and the event proved that he was right, for the first movement, when completed, was so little to Paganini’s taste, as a display piece, that the scheme was abandoned, and the incomplete work laid aside. Some time later, when Berlioz was reading Byron’s "Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage," he was struck with the happy thought that the dreamy melancholy of the viola was just the tone-color suited to portray the sad wanderer who sought happiness all over the world—and found it not. The viola concerto was remodeled into a symphony—"Harold in Italy"—and the brooding, muttering instrument became its hero.

    It may be gathered from such anecdotes that Berlioz was particularly given to that species of instrumental music which should tell some definite story, and this is the truth. Programme music (as such music is called) never had a more ardent champion since Bach began it with a concerto, on the departure of a beloved brother on his travels, and Beethoven admitted the objective school into sonata forms in his "Pastoral Symphony." The "Romeo and Juliet Symphony," already alluded to, was composed after the concert just spoken of, and dedicated to Paganini as a token of the gratitude of Berlioz.

    Spite of the animadversions of many of the Parisian critics, Berlioz did not altogether lack friends, and there were some who, like Paganini, held him the equal of the greatest composers of the world. The Government, too, had sporadic fits of generosity, and ordered from him a Requiem and, later on, a Te Deum, both of which were built on the vastest proportions, for on such occasions Berlioz was ever a composer at wholesale.

    The real triumphs, however, were not at first won in France; it was Germany and Russia who first gave to the great works of this composer a reception commensurate with their merit. England and Hungary, too, gave honors to Berlioz which somewhat perplexed the Parisian critics. Had Berlioz been contented to live away from Paris, there is little question but that he would have died a wealthy man, and his fame would not have been so largely posthumous; but he was a Frenchman of Frenchmen, and as the moth turns again and again to the candle that has singed it, so he returned gladly to Paris, even after the most triumphal foreign tours.

    His wife was bitterly opposed to his traveling at all, her jealousy being the probable cause of this opposition and at first the trips were planned with great secrecy. The first trip was to Brussels, which, like Paris, divided itself into parties for and against the composer, the latter having the preponderance; but this was only preliminary to the more important German tour. The Germans received Berlioz with enthusiasm. At Leipsic, Mendelssohn welcomed him kindly, the two composers having known each other in previous years, when Berlioz was in Italy; yet Mendelssohn could hardly appreciate the bizarre and impetuous nature, so different from his own, and there is not much doubt that his cordiality was not of the deepest. The two conductors, however, exchanged batons in token of amity. More sincere and hearty was the approbation of Schumann, on whom the Requiem made the greatest effect. In Brunswick the composer was crowned with laurel, and the orchestra blew him a triumphal fanfare; in Berlin, royalty vied with the populace in praising him. Great as these triumphs were, they paled before the reception accorded the composer in Russia. The greatest musicians sought for the honor of sustaining even the smallest parts in his orchestra, and the success of every concert given was phenomenal. The pecuniary profit of the first concert was twelve thousand francs, and the succeeding ones were scarcely less successful.

    Even in the midst of such intoxicating success, Berlioz’s thoughts were upon Paris, and the achievement of a similar triumph there, which was beyond the bounds of possibility. In Hungary, Berlioz also tasted the sweets of absolute triumph. He had arranged the national wartune of Hungary, the fierce and wonderful "Rakoczy March," for orchestra, with all the fire and passion which were his own characteristics, and the result was one which could not fail to stir the blood of the most phlegmatic auditor; but in Buda-Pesth, amid the Magyar public, the outcome was more than this—it was absolute frenzy. The City of Pesth begged the manuscript of the composer, and carefully preserved it; a silver crown was sent to him as a recognition of his work, and in Hungary, at least, Berlioz has won permanent rank by his development of the national music.

    Spite of all these honors and triumphs, Berlioz did not become either rich or universally recognized. He was determined to live in Paris, and there he had made too many enemies to obtain a sure foothold. Spite of his reputation, he was never appointed to any professorship in the Conservatory. The highest position he was able to attain at that institution was the very humble one of librarian. He received at a later period, however, that decoration so dear to the hearts of all Frenchmen—the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

    The combats which attended the boyhood, youth and manhood of Berlioz were not absent from his later years. Spite of the fiery nature of the man, it took until comparatively old age for him to burn out; for he died at Paris, March 9th, 1869, at the age of sixty-six. Even at his death he was not recognized as a genius by many. He was not, like Wagner, broad enough to found a school, and direct disciples he could have none. He was not fully understood even by Wagner, who said that he ciphered with notes. Spite of the fact that he was a very unequal composer, it must be acknowledged, even by his enemies, that he had some moments of sublimest inspiration. As a composer, as a littérateur and as a conductor he commands the attention of the world, even when he does not invite imitation. His tropical temperament undoubtedly often led him from the correct path in art, as in other matters, yet one can say even here, as was said of Burns:

"The light that led astray was light from heaven!"

    In gorgeous effects of orchestral coloring Berlioz was excelled by one man only, and that was Wagner. He constantly strove to widen the realms of art, and at times did this with the utmost audacity, as, for example, when with four brass bands, a full orchestra, eight pairs of kettle-drums, played by ten drummers, he attempted a realistic tone-picture of the Day of Judgment. In some of his finales the morbid and frenzied vein which has caused us to compare him to Edgar Allan Poe is particularly noticeable; he loved to picture the infernal regions, and scenes of maddening fury. Thus, for example, in his arrangement of "Faust," the hero is not saved, but lost, in order that a terrible picture of Hades may be introduced, during which a terrible chorus, to the words which Swedenborg gives as the language of the imps of hell, is sung. "The Symphonie Fantastique" ends with an equally frightful sketch of the welcome given to the soul of a murderer in the same warm locality. The "Harold Symphony" ends with a wild debauch of brigands, in which a very realistic sketch of ferocious, drunken revelry is given. Such cacophonous movements are not true art. The painter must use shadows as well as lights to produce a great picture, the musician must have dissonances as well as consonances to give a truly emotional tone-poem; but when the painter gives shadows, the composer dissonances only, the result is not an artistic one. Schumann went about as far in the direction of dissonance as it is safe to go, and the ghastly parodies which Berlioz produced in his infernal pictures may be said to be beyond the safety-line. Nevertheless, the good more than balances the evil in Berlioz’s works; his was a mind sui generis, and its workings are not to be judged by ordinary rules. His very failures serve but to make his successes more conspicuous. Had he but studied Bach more closely, and come more thoroughly under the influence of that school, there might possibly have been more of balance in his luxuriance of ideas; but this is only one of the "ifs" with which one can plentifully strew musical history. Taking him even as he is, the fair-minded musician must ever stand amazed at such a Prometheus in music, and, realizing the grandeur of his ideals, more deeply pity the giant with the vulture gnawing at his vitals, and mourn the sorrowful, embittered and distorted side of the life of Hector Berlioz.

* This article has been scanned from a contemporary copy of the Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, 1888 (pp. 437-440) in our own collection. We have preserved the author’s original spelling and syntax. The article is evidently based to an important extent on a (not always accurate) reading of Berlioz’s own Memoirs; a detailed commentary is not in place here.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created in June 2006.

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

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