Ernest Newman on Berlioz

© Peter Heyworth and Victor Gollancz







The three articles by Ernest Newman on this page were originally published in 1904 and 1919, and subsequently reprinted in a book entitled Berlioz: Romantic and Classic, Writings by Ernest Newman, selected and edited by Peter Heyworth (London, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1972), a copy of which is in our own collection. The text and the photo that accompanies it have been scanned from this publication. We have not been able to contact either the descendants of the editor or the publishers of this book.

The article on the relation of Wagner and Berlioz appeared in The Speaker on 8 October 1904, and the article concerning Berlioz as journalist appeared in two installments in The Birmingham Post on 17 and 24 March 1919.

We have preserved the spelling and syntax of the text but have annotated it, using square brackets, hyperlinks and footnotes, to make corrections and/or to provide additional information and detail where appropriate.


The Relation of Wagner and Berlioz

The Speaker 8 October 1904

English students with a knowledge of French who want a really good book on Berlioz the man, could not do better than get the Hector Berlioz et la Société de son Temps of M. Julien Tiersot, published in the early part of the present year. The work is done with German thoroughness combined with French ease and grace of style, and altogether it is the most complete and reliable study of the personal Berlioz that has yet appeared. From so sane a study as this, Berlioz comes out a bigger man than ever. He has generally served as a mark for the wit or the abuse of people who knew next to nothing about him; to see the man as a whole is to realise that the undeniable follies of his early years can be made too much of, and that so far from being merely the romantic poseur of the popular imagination, he was really a man of culture and intelligence, quite as well balanced as the average great musician, and with a much better all-round brain than the majority of them. We have heard a little too much of the mad, effusive Berlioz; it is time that overworked legend was put to sleep, and the complete Berlioz allowed to be seen.

Perhaps the false opinion of him that has so long been current, both as man and as musician, has been partly due to the ill-considered zeal of the Wagnerians for their great idol. Both Berlioz and Liszt, having had so much of the root of Wagnerism in them before Wagner, were a priori subjects for Wagnerian dislike; but Liszt, of course, was graciously tolerated, not because he was Liszt, but because he was an unselfish supporter of Wagner—a distinction to which Berlioz could not lay claim. M. Tiersot has done us all a service in making a connected story of the relations of Wagner and Berlioz from first to last. He presents the facts impartially, and sums up upon them judiciously; and most people will agree that on the whole Berlioz comes the better out of the examination. Neither man understood the other properly—that goes without saying; each forgot himself at times and behaved foolishly towards the other; but on the whole Berlioz’s errors were less gross than those of Wagner. He did not make Wagner’s mistake of impertinently patronising his opponent; nor did he, like Wagner—as I shall try to show—condemn some of the works of his opponent without knowing anything about them.

Most people, when they think of Wagner and Berlioz, have in mind that dramatic episode between them in 1861 [1860 in fact], when Wagner was in Paris. Berlioz declared against him—partly out of real dislike and misunderstanding of Tristan, partly goaded to a momentary loss of all self-restraint by the long neglect of him at the Opera, followed by this sudden lavishing of favour upon his foreign rival. His article, read calmly, really contains much sound æsthetic; but he made the cardinal mistake of attributing to Wagner opinions which the latter never held. Wagner had an easy case in replying; and he replied with commendable dignity and good taste. It was the hour of his triumph; he could afford to be magnanimous to his unsuccessful rival.

But Wagner had previously spoken of Berlioz with irritating, patronising ignorance. In Opera and Drama there is that famous passage of pseudo-criticism, which with many good souls no doubt passed for a genuine analysis of Berlioz. Wagner, with sad lack of humour, speaks of Berlioz’s dependence on mechanism, of his being buried hopelessly beneath his machines, and so on— Wagner, who is dependent as no musician ever has been upon machinery, who relies for a thousand effects upon the stage carpenter and the limelight man, and who often revolts our dramatic sense by being so much beholden to stage trickery ! No one can take him seriously here; but there is another reference of his to Berlioz that is worth looking at for a moment, if only to ask the official English Wagnerians if they are quite sure they have clean consciences in the matter.

In 1852 Liszt meant to give Lohengrin at Weimar; Wagner thought it all right. Then Liszt took up Berlioz’s old opera Benvenuto Cellini, and Wagner thought it all wrong. He wrote Liszt a letter that apparently throbs with love and pity for Berlioz, but in which the parade of patronising goodwill cannot hide from us the annoyance that underlies it. In his letter to Liszt of September 8, 1852, he says, “If there is one composer I expect something of, it is Berlioz; but not if he follows the path that has led him to the platitudes of his Faust Symphony, for if he goes any further in this way, he can only become quite ridiculous. If any musician needs a poet, it is Berlioz. …He has need of the poet to penetrate him,” and so on, in the well-known Wagnerian æsthetic. He offers Berlioz his own libretto of Wieland, which Berlioz wisely declines.

Now, two or three points in the letter need elucidating:

(1) Wagner speaks unsympathetically of Cellini. Did he know anything of it? What are the facts? The opera was produced in Paris on September 3, 1838, and withdrawn after only three performances. Wagner, being at this time in Riga, could not have heard the opera. Could he have acquired his knowledge of it from the score? After the Paris fiasco only the overture and eight vocal pieces were published. The opera underwent many changes. It was given in Weimar in 1852, altered again, and given in 1856, and then published. Apparently Wagner, in 1852, could have known absolutely nothing of the work.

(2) Every schoolboy knows that Berlioz’s Faust is not a symphony, but a dramatic cantata or opera. The original Eight Scenes from Faust had been published in 1829. Wagner seems to have known nothing of these. The complete work was produced in 1846, failed, and was not published until 1854. Wagner’s use of the term “Faust Symphony” clearly points to complete ignorance of the work which he has the impertinence to describe as consisting of platitudes. (About 1830 Berlioz really thought of doing a Faust Symphony, and it is quite possible he may have mentioned the idea to Wagner at some time.)

(3) It is not surprising to find Wagner thus depreciating other men’s works of which he knew nothing or next to nothing; there is testimony that he did the same thing in the case of Schumann. But why is it that the phrase “Faust Symphony”—which, in the language of the vulgar, at once gives Wagner away—has been carefully withheld from the English public? Turn to Hueffer’s translation of the Wagner-Liszt letters, revised by Mr. Ashton Ellis, and you will find that the word “symphony” has been deliberately omitted. The sentence runs, “the absurdities of his Faust”. Turn next to the big Glasenapp biography which Mr. Ellis is translating and expanding, and on page 337 of Volume III you will find that Mr. Ellis, though he is so prodigal of space that 1,300 pages are devoted to getting Wagner up to 1853, cannot find space to quote the incriminating lines of this letter. He omits all reference to Faust. He gives the sentence, “If there is one composer I expect something of, it is Berlioz”; then he omits the rest of the sentence, making it appear that Wagner was simply bursting with generous artistic sympathy, and hiding that tell-tale passage from the innocent reader. Discreet dots do the work of concealment, and the letter is resumed with the sentence, “But he needs a poet who shall fill him through and through.” Mr. Finck, again, in his biography, prints the words “Faust Symphony”, but without comment, and without any attempt to discover whether Wagner could have known Berlioz’s work at all.

With a knowledge of these facts the English reader has a rather better chance of appreciating the letter of September 8, 1852, at its true value. Berlioz did at least “read and re-read” the prelude to Tristan before he said he could make nothing of it; Wagner disparaged Cellini and Faust upon the basis of an ignorance about as complete as one could imagine. Yet there is talk of the “ingratitude” of Berlioz, while Wagner, thanks to the care with which his admirers revise his correspondence for the English public, is made to appear scarcely one degree lower than the angels. Thus—as I had occasion to remark once before—thus does Wagner-worship make for the “truly human”.


1. Newman seems to have conflated Wagner’s visit to Paris in 1861 for the performance of his Tannhäuser at the Opera, with his visit in the previous year. On that occasion, Berlioz reviewed a concert given at the Théâtre-Italien in February 1860 in which some of Wagner’s works were performed. This review was published in the Journal des Débats on 9 February 1860 (subsequently reproduced in À Travers Chants), and prompted Wagner to write an open letter to Berlioz, published also in the Journal des Débats two weeks later on 22 February, page 2. See also on this site the page Berlioz and Wagner where excerpts of this letter are reproduced.

Berlioz as Journalist

The Birmingham Post 17 March 1919

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of Berlioz has passed almost unnoticed in the English musical press. He is not a composer in whom the British public takes much interest, for the British public knows little of him except The Damnation of Faust, and has no idea of his whole range. But I should have thought that my colleagues on the press, even if they do not care greatly for his music, would have remembered him on this occasion affectionately as a musical critic and journalist. Berlioz as a composer was too original for his own day, and more especially for his own country. His music, even with the proceeds of his foreign tours as a conductor, hardly sufficed to keep him; and for many years he had to supplement his income from these sources by writing musical criticisms for the Figaro and the Journal des Débats. Apart from his famous Memoirs, his collected prose writings are contained in three volumes—A travers chants (mostly pieces of serious criticism), Les Grotesques de la Musique, and Les Soirées de l’Orchestre. Of these the last is in many respects the most interesting today. The serious critical studies are well worth reading, because it is always fascinating to see an artist who is himself a skilled practician running an expert, sensitive anger over the work of others. But some of Berlioz’s subjects are a little passés now; and his insight into Beethoven, for example, is not as marvellous and as modern, so to speak, as Wagner’s. The Soirées de l’Orchestre, on the other hand, is a book that can never grow old; readers will still be chuckling over it a hundred years hence. Someone ought to translate it into English, if he can be trusted to do so in a style as finely-pointed as Berlioz’s own.

Berlioz ought to be specially dear to the hearts of musical critics everywhere, for in him they will recognise a great fellow-sufferer. It is bad enough to be a musical critic in, say, Birmingham, and to have to listen to for the thousandth time, and to write about for the thousandth time, always in fresh words, the same symphonies, the same suites, the same overtures, the same songs, the same singers, the same fiddlers and pianists. But most of the music the modern critic has to sit through, if stale in his ears, is at least fairly good of its kind; while poor Berlioz, in the unmusical Paris of his time, had to listen professionally to new operas and operettas and vaudevilles that were so beneath contempt that not even the names of them have survived for us to smile at. We can dimly guess at the feelings of the composer of Faust and Les Troyens and the Te Deum as he sat through this sort of thing week after week, and tried to concoct a feuilleton upon the monstrosities. He necessarily took refuge, as every critic has sooner or later to do in an unmusical town, in irony; the only way, as Figaro said, to keep oneself from crying is to keep laughing; the only way to prevent yourself going mad at certain concerts is to find amusement in the antics of the lunatics who have written the music or those who are performing it. Every musical critic has to work out for himself a sort of technique of endurance if he wants to survive to a reasonable old age. The value and the charm of Les Soirées de l’Qrchestre are that here Berlioz lets us into the secret of his own concert and opera technique. Upon the feebleness and fatuities of the composers and performers whom he had to criticise he turned an abundant humour and the finest of irony. He could slay with an epigram; he could convey the most damaging censure by the simple process of conveying nothing. Hugo Wolf could be delightfully and dexterously contemptuous at times—as when, by way of criticism of some inferior artist or other, he merely quoted the first line of one of the famous Mignon songs of Goethe—“Heiss’ mich nicht reden, heiss’ mich schweigen”. But Wolf’s touch at its best had not the delicacy of Berlioz’s. Asked, after a performance of Don Giovanni, what he thought of the baritone who had been playing the part of the wicked hero, he replied, “I think he deserves the prix Monthyon.” (The prix Monthyon, let me explain for the benefit of the English reader, is a prize given annually in Paris for virtue.)

Berlioz could not have survived his awful experiences as a musical critic but for this gift of his for seeing absurd things humorously instead of angrily; and in the pages of the Soirées de l’Orchestre the critic of today may learn how to face his own troubles as a man and a humorist. For in these matters it is only the names and the forms that change: the diseases are perennially the same—the singers, the pianists, the violinists, the audiences, the agents, the bad composers, and all the rest of them. Berlioz had his Aerbut Paerks, though he would know them under another name; and then, as now, the real musicians in any concert or operatic performance were the orchestra, the singers, for the most part, being just—singers. The scene of the Soirées is set in an opera house that is mostly given up to inferior works. When one of these is being performed, the orchestra keep just the big drum and a brass instrument or two going, while the bulk of the band read books or talk. It is during performances of this sort that the stories of the Soirées are told by Berlioz himself (sitting in the front row of the stalls) to the orchestra, or by the orchestra to him. There is the story of the grocer’s assistant who hissed Der Freischütz, who died in the hospital, and whose skeleton was sold to the Opera, where it paid for its one-time owner’s lèse majesté by appearing night after night in the scène infernale of Der Freischütz; “at the moment when Samiel cries ‘Here I am,’ there is a thunderclap, a tree falls into the abyss, and our grocer, the enemy of Weber’s music, appears in a red light, brandishing, full of enthusiasm, his flaming torch. Who could ever have divined the dramatic vocation of the joker?” There is the story of the prima donna with the acid voice who was practising at her open window one morning when a milkwoman passed. “Ah,” sighed the milkwoman, “Marriage isn’t a bed of roses.” Returning in the afternoon, she hears the same agonising sounds. “Mon Dieu,” she says, crossing herself: “Poor lady! It’s now three o’clock, and she has been in childbirth since this morning !” There is the delicious skit, in the story of Barnum and Jenny Lind’s American tour, of the never-changing advertising methods of the prima donna’s agent. The American newspapers are full of accounts of the agitation of the ocean when the Swedish nightingale crossed it, and of the deaths by suffocation in the huge crowd that awaited her landing at New York. The crowd turns its eyes towards the sea, and beholds a marvellous and affecting sight. “The dolphins and the whales, who for eight hundred (some say nine hundred) leagues had taken part in the triumph of the new Galatea and had followed the ship, spouting fountains of perfumed water, fell into convulsions in the harbour, ravaged by despair at not being able to come on land with her; old sailors, shedding great tears, abandoned themselves to the most lamentable wailing; while seagulls, frigate-birds, and other savage birds that inhabit the vast solitudes of the ocean, more fortunate than the whales and dolphins, hovered fearlessly around the adorable singer, lighted on her pure shoulders, circled about her Olympian head, holding, in their beaks, enormous pearls, which they offered to her in the most graceful fashion, cooing sweetly the while.” Even this is not enough. Barnum has invented for Jenny Lind the “claque à mort”. Before her arrival he has sought out a number of poor devils who were tired of life, and pointed out to them that they would be of more value to their families dead than alive. He guarantees the heirs of each of them two thousand dollars the day they carry out their agreement with him, which is to fling themselves out of high windows when the prima donna passes, crying with their last breath, “vive Lind”, or under her horses’ feet, or under her carriage wheels, or to stab or shoot themselves after she has sung her second aria, declaring loudly that they can no longer endure prosaic existence after such paradisiacal delights; and so on.

There is a delicious calculation, again, of the value of each note emitted by an operatic tenor who, with a salary of 100,000 francs, appears on an average seven times a month, or eighty-four times per annum. “Supposing a role to consist of 1,100 notes or syllables, this figures at one franc per syllable”. Thus in William Tell—“Ma (1 franc) présence (3 fr) pour vous est peut-êre un outrage (9 fr). Mathilde (3 fr) mes pas indiscrets (100 sous) ont osé jusqu’à vous se frayer un passage (13 fr)”; while the prima donna who plays Mathilde, having only a beggarly 40,000 francs, replies at the rate of merely eight sous a syllable: “On pardonne aisément (2 fr 40 c) des torts (16 sous) que l’on partage (2 fr). Arnold (16 sous), je (8 sous) vous attendais (32 sous).” Yes, Berlioz as a journalist was great. The Soirées de l’Orchestre ought to be the vade mecum of the young musical critic. One particularly valuable wrinkle he will find there—how to convey his opinion of a wretched new work without discussing it.

The Birmingham Post 24 March 1919

A young musical critic in another town asks me for further particulars as to that feature of Berlioz’s journalistic technique to which I referred at the close of last week’s article—how he conveyed his opinion of a wretched new work without discussing it. My friend thinks the tip might be of service to himself and others who are engaged in the nefarious business of musical criticism. As hardly any one in this country seems to know anything of the delightful Soirées de l’Orchestre I have pleasure in exhibiting in closer detail one of the most fascinating chapters of that book.

There is the usual platitudinous opera being performed, and the musicians of the orchestra have time to talk among themselves and with the gentleman in the stalls (Berlioz himself). Corsino, the leader, thinks this opera just the sort of work on which Berlioz could exercise his “talent of saying nothing” in his criticism. Berlioz protests with mock seriousness. “What do you mean? I always try to say something in my miserable feuilletons. I merely vary the form; what you call saying nothing is often a way of speaking very clearly”. Corsino goes out and returns with a collection of the critic’s articles, extracts from which he reads to the orchestra, as specimens of the art of criticising by saying nothing. For instance, “if he wants to scoff at the author of a libretto without making the least observation on his poetry, he employs the atrocious means of telling the plot of the work in rhymes that run along as prose”. Examples are quoted. Berlioz gravely repudiates the charge that these are “atrocious”. “I had no malicious arrière-pensée. It was the run of the rhythm that made me write like that. The opposite of Molière’s M. Jourdain, I made poetry without knowing it. After having listened to a barrel-organ playing the same air for an hour, don’t you find yourself singing the tune in spite of yourself, no matter how ugly it may be? So it’s quite simple that after listening to an opera containing such verses as those my prose should drop into verse and that I should be able to dis-rhyme myself only by an effort.” He speaks of all the disagreeablenesses of the critic’s life—the necessity of hearing poor works, the necessity of writing about them, of giving the public some idea of a thing that itself was destitute of ideas, of never repeating oneself in precisely similar circumstances, of telling the truth without wounding susceptibilities, and so on.

After ten minutes or so of this, Corsino pulls him up. “You resort to irony”, he says, “to prove that you never resort to irony. But here are the proofs, and I call the orchestra to witness.” He proceeds to read one of Berlioz’s articles. It is about an opera called Le Phare (The Lighthouse), produced on December 27, 1849. “The scene represents a square in the village of Pornic. Breton fishermen are about to set sail with Valentin, the pilot. They sing a chorus …” The critic begins to give the story of the drama as it gradually enfolds itself. But after six lines he stops. “I fear I should weary the reader if I were to go into further details as to the music and the verses of this work. I will just add a word on the mise en scène.” It seems that at the back of the stage another drama was being enacted, unknown to the audience. The scene represented a sea in a furious storm. It is explained, with great elaboration, that this realistic effect is produced by a crowd of poor devils crouching under a painted canvas, and making the waves by contortions of their backs and legs. Comparison are made between this instrument of torture and the famous cage invented by Louis XI, in which prisoners had no room to stretch their limbs. The waves have, however, one advantage over the prisoners of Louis XI. They can talk to each other. They quarrel; each thinks the others are shirking their work and putting too much upon him. The repartees are fast and furious; the altercation drifts off into an argument on social inequality and the rights of man. Tempers rise, until there is a free-fight among the waves. The effect, from the scenic point of view, is magnificently realistic. “It was a water-spout, a typhoon. And the public admires this fine confusion—the effect of politics—and becomes enthusiastic over the rare talent of the machinists of the Opera.” It is all done with delicious wit and gravity. The reader is so drawn into the story that he quite forgets that Berlioz began by ostensibly discussing the production of a new opera; and by the time the story is over, whatever interest the reader may originally have felt in the opera has evaporated.

Even better is the account of “Diletta, opéra-comique in three Acts”, produced on Monday, July 22, 1850. Berlioz begins his article thus: “It is very sad to have to think about opéras-comiques on a Monday, because Monday is the day after Sunday. Now on Sunday you go to the Nord Railway Station. You get into a train and you say to it, ‘Take me to Enghien’ When you descend from the obedient vehicle you find some good friends, true friends, of the sort whose name you don’t know very well, but who don’t couple yours with an opprobrious epithet when your back is turned, and someone asks who you are”. At Enghien they talk of what they are going to do this delightful Sunday; some are going in a boat on the lake to fish. The friends come to crossroads and part. Then Berlioz is inspired to a rhapsody on friendship. “O true friendship, sister of republican fraternity !” And so on. He strolls over the plain of Enghien. He becomes appropriately conscious of all the sights and sounds and silences of the place. In the distance church bells are heard: they cease, and the silence is profounder than before. “You stop; you listen; you look into the distance—towards the West. You think of America, of the new worlds springing up there, of virgin solitudes, of vanished civilisations, of the grandeur and the decadence of savage life. Then the East—memories of Asia crowd upon you; you think of Homer and his heroes, of Troy, of Greece, of Egypt, of Memphis, of the Pyramids, of the court of the Pharaohs, of the vast temples of Isis, of mysterious India and its sad inhabitants, of China in decay, of all these ancient mad, or at any rate, monomaniac, races.” A bird flies from a bush and soars into the sky, singing joyously. “It seizes a gnat and goes off with it, thanking God, whose beneficence, it says, is spread over all nature, for it does not disdain the providing of nourishment for the young of birds—a naive sort of gratitude which perhaps the gnat does not share.” Piquant Parisiennes pass. The bells again call the faithful discordantly to church. You decide to go to vespers, and the inevitable description of the pretty little church follows. In a corner of the wall you find three words discreetly carved: “Lucien: Louise: toujours.”

The inscription sets you thinking. What tender romance do they half conceal, half disclose? You become very romantic yourself; you think of when you were eighteen, and you look into space, trying to see again a vanished form. “The organ plays; a simple melody reaches you through the walls of the church. You wipe your right eye and say again, ‘Bah! I’ll go to vespers’. And you enter.” There follows a description of the church, the congregation (thirty women and children), the curé, the choir (“all singing out of tune in a way that would rot the teeth of a hippopotamus”), the organist, who has no knowledge of harmony, the barbarous music. You are set dreaming now of art; how nice it would be to own a charming little church of this kind, to give sweet music in it, to retire into it to pray, to evoke the past, to smile, to weep. Your meditation is interrupted by the organist playing a dance tune from an old ballet. It drives you out. You go into the cemetery, find a tombstone with the right slope, recline against it, and read Vergil. You hear sobs. A little girl on crutches comes into sight, weeping bitterly. She tells you, at great length, the sad tale of herself and the swallow with the broken leg. You put your book away, light a cigar, and make your way to the train for Paris, some saucy final impudence of the child who has not had the tip she expected, rankling in your mind. “And that is why I am so little disposed to give you an account today, Monday, of the new opéra-comique. Today’s idyll has stupefied me. Tomorrow, then !” But the next day’s feuilleton gets us no nearer the subject. “It is always sad”, it begins, “to have to think about opéras-comiques on a Tuesday, because Tuesday is the day after Monday.” The reader is again led gently off the track of the opera by means of a long story. At the end of this, “Now let us come to the principal object of this article. We must never put serious matters off till the morrow: it is always so sad to have to think of opéras-comiques on a Wednesday. Diletta … but … very … the music … always … paleness … platitude.” And an editorial footnote is appended: “The author’s manuscript here becomes indecipherable by any of our readers. We are thus forced to print his criticism of the charming opera Diletta in a slightly incomplete form.” That is all; but Berlioz has managed to convey what he really thought of Diletta.


2. In Les Soirées de l’Orchestre (18th evening) Berlioz has deliberately changed the title of the opera and the date of his original review of it. The opera was Giralda, ou la Nouvelle Psyché,  by Scribe (libretto) and Adam (music); Berlioz reviewed its first performance in the Journal des Débats, 30 July 1850.

See also on this site:

Berlioz’s “Troyens” at Covent Garden in 1957, by Ernest Newman

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 1 February 2012.

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

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