Musical Courier, 8 February 1936
© Musical Courier
The recent presentation in New York of Berlioz’ Fantastic Symphony by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Beecham offered another opportunity to review the merits of this much-debated composer. Ever since Schumann delivered his famous dictum that Berlioz was “more of a musical adventurer than a genius,” there have been two camps which have split on the subject of this provocative artist. A veritable controversy has long centered about Berlioz, curious as it may seem in the case of a musician whose work was done a century ago and therefore should naturally have long since appeared in its proper perspective.
In the last decade or two—coinciding perhaps with the decline of the Romantic ideal and a greater concentration of musical expression on the technical aspects of the art rather than its soulful inner connotations—there has been an effort on the part of a small group to find new and supposedly inherent beauties in the French composer’s music, considered in itself and apart from the rather naive programs which were attached to it.
There are a few propagandists for the French creator—not only among his countrymen who regard him as a classic but notably among the English conductors and a few Central Europeans—whose efforts to reinstate his scores among the foremost examples of symphonic art have been carried on diligently. In certain cases this campaign has been prompted by a sincere desire to do justice to one of the earliest and most original pioneers of orchestral music in its more picturesque and programmatic phases. But one also suspects that the opportunity offered by the large-scale scenic panoramas and melodramatic mood-pictures which abound in this hyper-Romantic composer are not ungrateful ones to the virtuoso conductor, in a day when new orchestral works immediately understandable to the general public are unfortunately few.
Berlioz is generally acknowledged to have been a path-breaker in certain of the technical aspects of composing—in orchestration, for example—and also in giving a new vividness of external descriptive effect to what was previously a rather abstract, subjective and formally fettered medium. But those who rank him among the major composers undoubtedly overlook a distinction recently made by J. H. Eliot in a suggestive article on this musician in The Chesterian (London). It is that between historical importance and intrinsic worth, a conflict in points of view which curses a good deal of contemporary criticism. There is no doubt that the critic of today leans, in most cases, too much to the historical side. It is perhaps the extreme result of the revolution in every sphere of thinking which came as the result of the evolutionary hypothesis in natural science. Instead of having a static viewpoint on things, the modern trends to rank everything in the scientific manner as important according to its degree of influence on the future. In art, this is a largely false method, since inherent values are often forgotten in the purely cerebral pleasure of tracking down “sources”.
“We cannot,” says Mr. Eliot, “argue too freely from the historical importance of Berlioz’ work, which must be acknowledged by every student of music. Historical value in a composer’s work is no guarantee of its intrinsic worth; it means that he created a new method of applying music, or happened across technical devices which were of use to his successors; but not necessarily that he carried the former to the highest possible development or that he employed the latter in the best possible way. It is obvious that Berlioz has wielded tremendous influence directly; but this is aside from the point at issue.
“Why is it that the bulk of Berlioz’ music should make poignant appeal to many cultivated musicians, and yet leave utterly untouched others who are, it is reasonable to assume, experienced to an equal degree?
“It appears to me that the problem centres in a peculiarity in the warp and woof of Berlioz’ characteristic music. It is almost purely episodic: it does not conform to a plan of development that can be grasped in the scheme of the music itself. Berlioz cuts himself loose from traditional form, even in the very casting of a melody . . . .”
The English writer confesses that the much-vaunted beauty of Berlioz’ thematic material eludes him, but keeps an open mind as to whether the traditional formal development and thematic strength exhibited in the classic composers may not be, after all, only one possible phase of musical expression. He concludes that Berlioz (who once said in bitter jest that he would only be understood in 1940) may yet be vindicated; but he cleaves to his opinion that the defects standing in the way of appreciation lie in the music itself. And in this opinion he is seconded by a writer in the New York Sun, who commented on Sir Thomas’ recent exhumation of the Fantastic Symphony: “There will be those who will object to the inclusion of Berlioz among the ‘minor’ composers, but last night’s exposition . . . sufficed to answer any lingering doubts about the work. One can scarcely imagine a more vivid or searching examination of the score by a conductor, or a more expert orchestral performance. But, if anything, the musical qualities of the work lost thereby. Sir Thomas made every point to support a belief that Berlioz was the first composer really to think orchestrally; he showed, not once but several times, what Death and Transfiguration owed to the first movement of this work, and Till Eulenspiegel to the fourth. But the greater the brilliance of the orchestral texture, the less the actual musical material impressed one.”
These verdicts to the contrary, the dispute will probably go on indefinitely. Perhaps the cause Ber1ioz will take its place with those other famous litigations—the Mahler Enthusiasts vs. the General Public, and the Bruckner Circle contra the People.
* This article and the pictures that accompanies it have been scanned from a contemporary copy of the Musical Courier, 8 February 1936, in our own collection. We have preserved the author’s original spelling, punctuation, and syntax. We have not been able to contact the editor and publishers of the Musical Courier.
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The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 8 March 2010.
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