The Hector Berlioz Website

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Reviewed by

John Ahouse

 © 2008 John Ahouse

Although the Centenary of his death had been celebrated resoundingly in 1969, there appeared to be ample justification for a new Berlioz (1803-1869) commemoration in and around the year 2003. Reasons for this are not hard to find: the intervening decades had provided much source material that was unavailable on the earlier occasion. For the 200-year anniversary of the composer’s birth, researchers now have access to the complete works in new editions, the letters in their entirety, much of the composer’s musical journalism, a choice of new biographies and critical studies, and from widely scattered sources just about every note in recorded performances. Included in this panorama is the Messe Solennelle, the chief work of his pre-Conservatory years, miraculously rediscovered in time to enter into the New Berlioz Edition and to revise our views of his musical apprenticeship.

To harvest the yield of all this critical activity was the task of a series of Berlioz conferences beginning in Massachusetts in 2000 and continuing in London, in Bayreuth, in Paris, in Texas, and – of interest here – in Essen-Werden, under the auspices of the Folkwang Hochschule during the anniversary year itself. The focus of the conference was on “Berlioz in Deutschland”, appropriately for a composer who gladly let it be understood that Germany, not France, had been his spiritual home. The proceedings of the Essen conference have now been published and consist of twenty-five papers presented on 16-18 June 2003. The volume is divided into four sections: “Das Verhältnis einzelner Komponisten zu Hector Berlioz” (“Individual Composers in Relation to Hector Berlioz”), “Das Berlioz-Bild in der deutschen Musikpublizistik” (“Berlioz as Viewed by the German Musical Press”), “Die Aufführungspraxis von Hector Berlioz” (“Hector Berlioz in Performance”), and finally “Das Deutschland-Bild von Hector Berlioz” (“How Hector Berlioz Viewed Germany”).

Leading off the collection, a group of essays takes up eight composers who might be seen productively in their relation to Berlioz. Placed first is the only prominent musician who qualifies in a sense as a pupil of Berlioz despite their closeness in age: noting that Franz Liszt has often been studied in his relation to Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, Detlef Altenburg (“Liszt und Berlioz”) suggests that his most significant ties are not to the foregoing but toward Berlioz, with whom Liszt experienced a deep and spontaneous friendship, and in whose company he formulated his ideas of coupling music with world literature. With Berlioz, too, Liszt developed his broader worship of Beethoven. Though already shaped as a virtuoso, Liszt received encouragement through Berlioz to attempt larger musical forms, and above all, to write for the orchestra, which came to fruition once Liszt was appointed music director in Weimar. Liszt repaid much of his debt to Berlioz by making him the subject of several “Berlioz-Weeks” in Weimar, at which most of the older composer’s works were performed. Going farther, Liszt would ultimately strain the relationship by attempting to bring Berlioz under the umbrella of “The Music of the Future” as part of his new attachment to Wagner, so that by the 1860s only a distant cordiality remained.

In his essay on Berlioz and Mendelssohn, Udo Sirker (“Goethe-Vertonungen von Berlioz und Mendelssohn”) calls attention to certain basic similarities between the two composers. Despite the disparities in their formative experiences, the two derived much from their personal contact in Italy and a shared admiration for Shakespeare and Goethe. In a certain few works, most notably the cantata “Die erste Walpurgisnacht”, the influence of Berlioz can be found in the younger man’s treatment of a loose succession of scenes and a generous use of orchestral effects, while Berlioz, in La Damnation de Faust, a work of much more protracted germination, showed the long reach of his conversations with Mendelssohn. Sirker offers a point-for-point comparison of Berlioz’s Huit Scènes de Faust and how they were re-worked in the Damnation.

With Robert Schumann, Theo Hirsbrunner (“Schumann und Berlioz”) understandably begins with the famous essay on the “Symphonie fantastique”, which Schumann published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1835. Basing an astute critique of an orchestral work on Liszt’s piano reduction, Schumann opened the door to an informed understanding of Berlioz when the latter began giving concerts in Germany. Looking beyond the words of the critic, Hirsbrunner asks if Schumann the composer was not himself influenced by his reading of the Berlioz-Liszt score, finding evidence in the much-revised op. 17 Fantasie of certain freedoms of musical development that could be traced to Schumann’s study of the Fantastique. Other works as well – Hirsbrunner names the cello concerto, the revised D-minor symphony, and Manfred – may show the liberating influence of Berlioz despite their outward dissimilarity.

Berlioz had no better friend in Germany than Peter Cornelius. Once they met in connection with Liszt’s Weimar concerts, the industrious Cornelius prepared sensitive and musical translations of Lélio, l’Enfance du Christ, Benvenuto Cellini and Les Nuits d’été. Cornelius’s own successful opera, Der Barbier von Baghdad owes much to the comedic elements he admired in Cellini. Herbert Schneider (“Cornelius als Berlioz-Übersetzer”) examines a number of especially successful examples of inspired adjustment of the German language to Berlioz’s music.

With Gustav Mahler, Elisabeth Schmierer (“Gustav Mahler und Berlioz”) takes up a composer who is often compared with Berlioz. Was Mahler a “Berliozian”? There is less evidence than one might expect. Working from the lists of the repertory conducted by Mahler during his career, she notes fairly frequent performances of the Fantastique and a couple of the overtures but far greater attention given to Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner. Mahler’s own statements on Berlioz in letters and notebooks are positive but sober and infrequent. Turning to the music itself, Schmierer calls attention to Mahler’s use of the e-flat clarinet, whose theatricality could come from Berlioz. Examples of thematic development in Mahler as well as of multi-movement symphonic design are anticipated in Berlioz, but, given the passage of time and Mahler’s wide experience, could also have been absorbed elsewhere. One musical similarity that stands out, however, is between Mahler’s song Um Mitternacht (Rückert-Lieder) and the third of Berlioz’s Nuits d’été, Sur les lagunes, where Schmierer points to the similar melodic and harmonic treatment of the despairing text. In taking up the composition of orchestral songs, Mahler could scarcely have failed to have known the Berlioz cycle, for which this is offered as evidence.

Richard Strauss offers a different problem. Securely in the Berlioz camp by virtue of becoming co-owner of the Treatise on Instrumentation, which he revised for the post-Wagnerian world, Strauss made numerous disparaging remarks about the French composer, as noted by Julia Liebscher in her essay (“Richard Strauss und Hector Berlioz: Aspekte eines ambivalenten Verhältnisses”). Strauss, she surmises, stood so heavily in the embrace of Wagner’s aesthetic and technical practice that only German composers had lasting validity for him. Notwithstanding, Strauss allowed himself a minimum of tampering with the Berlioz Treatise, adding new material for his edition but leaving Berlioz’s examples and commentary largely as he found them. In a second article concerning Strauss and the revised Treatise, Christian Ahrens (“‘Das treue Horn…’ – Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss und der Orchesterklang der Romantik”), looks at one chapter Strauss extensively rewrote in order to do justice to the use made by Wagner and the later Romantics of the horn as an instrument for blending in the overall orchestral sound, in ways not envisioned by Berlioz.

No less of a Wagnerian than Strauss, the critic and composer Hugo Wolf nevertheless held Berlioz in special affection as a pioneer and innovator. In his article, Christian Berger (“Hector Berlioz und Hugo Wolf”) prints a review from 1884 in which Wolf singles out Berlioz’s King Lear overture as the highlight of a concert with standard German repertoire. Skipping over the remainder of the programme, Wolf devotes his central discussion to a rhapsodic evocation of the Berlioz composition. Berger follows with an analysis of the work, demonstrating the details that Wolf must have found so compelling. As a product of the Mahler-Wolf-Strauss world, Arnold Schoenberg and his school seem to have given little attention to Berlioz. In their mutual appreciation of scrupulous instrumentation, notes Andreas Jacob (“Berlioz und Schönbergs Wiener Schule”), there was a common concern for tone-colour, but for Schoenberg questions of motivic-thematic development were paramount, and he saw himself in a Bach-Brahms line of descent. Yet by his very allegiance to Brahms, Schoenberg and his school moved away from the Straussians; and late in life, according to Jacob, Schoenberg planned his own book on orchestration, for which a surprising number of Berliozian examples were planned.

The second section, “Das Berlioz-Bild in der deutschen Musikpublizistik”, returns the reader to Berlioz’s own time and the critical response to the French composer, who became known largely through his own travels in Germany. The most notable of these was Robert Schumann’s provocative review in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik of the “Symphonie fantastique” in Liszt’s version for solo piano. The title quote comes from Schumann’s offhand dismissal of the work’s programmatic content; and Wolfgang Dömmling (“‘Ganz Deutschland schenkt es ihm’ – Berlioz, Schumann und die sogenannte Programmusik”) investigates Schumann’s own ambiguous relationship to musical narratives and pictorialism. Just how closely Schumann understood Berlioz’s intent is open to question.

Gunther Braam (“‘Ein gewisser Hector Berlioz…’: Die Berlioz-Rezeption in der deutschen musikalischen Fachpresse”) investigates the earliest reviews and comments engendered by his early reputation even before Berlioz began to give concerts in Germany. Providing at the same time a sense of musical journalism in its infancy, these notes rely on anecdote and readers’ correspondence, along with surprisingly detailed reports on Berlioz’s activities in the French capital. Arnold Jacobshagen, who together with Braam has published a documentary volume, “Berlioz in Deutschland”, takes up the first fifteen years of Berlioz commentary in Germany (“Die Anfänge der deutschen Berlioz-Kritik”), from Zelter’s ill-tempered dismissal of the Faust-music in 1829, through Mendelssohn’s skepticism expressed in his letters to his family and Schumann’s growing reserve, arriving at the later enthusiasm of a Robert Griepenkerl as soon as more of the music had been heard under the composer’s baton.

Appearing here, perhaps because both artists were also cultural journalists, is a thorough treatment of the subject of Berlioz and Heine by Marc-Mathieu Münch (“Berlioz et Heine”). Less is perhaps known of this friendship because both men remained in Paris during their productive years, depriving us of what might have been an inspired correspondence. Münch makes it clear that by the 1850s they had largely the same friends and the same enemies, with the difference that Paris was home to Berlioz while Heine was forever the exile. Much of their similarity may be inferred from both writers’ sense of irony; Münch suggests that Berlioz’s public letter to Heine from 1843 is an endeavour to appropriate the latter’s style, whereas Heine in 1838 in his “Lettres confidentielles” left an excellent pen-portrait of his colleague.

In titling the next section “Aufführungspraxis” the editors have imposed a collective title on some mostly unrelated material. Joseph-Marc Bailbé (“Berlioz en Allemagne: la genèse des Troyens”) takes us back to Berlioz’s Weimar visits to anchor the origins of Les Troyens in his serene moments of achievement experienced in the company of Liszt and the Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein. In this sense, Weimar, where he turned fifty, is both a summing up of the composer’s early work and a portal for his greatest achievement yet to come.

If Berlioz’s experiences in Germany exist principally on two planes: those he recounted in his letters, his volume of travels, and ultimately in his Memoirs, and secondarily in his special relationship with the court at Weimar, there is yet a third part to the story, which took place near the end of his life when the composer made repeated visits to the summer concerts just across the German border in Baden-Baden. For a period of years, the impresario Bénazet welcomed leading and emerging French composers to his music festivals. Operas of Auber and Halévy were revived, but fledgling works of Reyer and Saint-Saëns also received their premières. It was for Baden-Baden that Berlioz wrote Béatrice et Bénédict, his final work; and a pair of overlapping articles by Hervé Lacombe (“Baden-Baden vu de Paris, ou Berlioz et ses compatriotes à Bade”) and Rainer Schmusch (“Das französische Repertoire in Baden-Baden zur Zeit von Berlioz”) deal in great detail with the composers and the music appearing at this venue. The latter author provides an exact record of the concert programs in which Berlioz heard his compositions performed, with scrupulous attention and often for a final time, between 1853-61, as well as his Béatrice in 1862 and 1863.

A provocative side-step in these considerations of Berlioz in Germany is Nicole K. Strohmann’s study (“‘Je rêve une edition allemande soignée…’ – Überlegungen zu Weingartners Berlioz-Gesamtausgabe”) of the Weingartner-Malherbe edition of the complete works launched in 1900. Completely superseded by the magnificent New Berlioz Edition, the earlier set is worth remembering for its French-German collaboration by two noted musical figures, marking what was the first crest of Berlioz enthusiasm in the years after the composer’s death and following the Franco-Prussian War when Berlioz was played up as a counterweight to Wagner. It was the era, too, in Strohmann’s description, of the great critical editions of Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn; and the Berlioz volumes provided a solid foundation for viewing the composer’s oeuvre even if the two major operas were not included. The surviving correspondence of the two editors sheds light on their working methods: Charles Malherbe, the librarian and Rameau-specialist, comes across as the more willful, whereas Felix Weingartner as a performing musician is the more exacting in matters of respecting the composer’s intentions.

The fourth and final section, “Das Deutschland-Bild von Hector Berlioz” gathers in the remaining topics that point for the most part to Berlioz himself and his view of Germany. But first, Hugh Macdonald (“Berlioz Takes the Train”), editor of the New Berlioz Edition, takes care of the pragmatic consideration of how Berlioz, as a traveling musician, benefited from the expansion of the European railways in precisely those years when he needed the dependable convenience of moving quickly from one musical center to another. If his earlier travels had still been by stagecoach, he lived to make full use of the new links by the 1850s. Those who attended the conference had the added pleasure of a concert performance by students at the Folkwang Hochschule of the rarely heard cantata Chant des chemins de fer, which Berlioz composed on commission in 1846 for the opening of the Paris-Lille line. Whether the occasional work truly captures the energies of train travel or more broadly reflects the optimism of the industrial age, one could not have wished for a more stimulating performance or a more effective reminder of how Berlioz’s fortunes were facilitated by the technology of his day.

With Michael Heinemann’s treatment of Bach and Berlioz (“Berlioz’s Bach”), two names are paired where there can be little question of influence. It is an irony, and one which must have troubled Berlioz, that the same decade of the 1830s that manifested such an awakening of interest in new music also called forth a no less sincere curiosity about older music of the 18th century and before, whose style and purpose might seem at odds with Romanticism. As early as his friendship with Felix Mendelssohn, Berlioz had to make allowance for the younger man’s training in and veneration for the music of J. S. Bach. Berlioz found such music deficient in expression, lacking in color, and altogether too much taken up with schoolmasterly counterpoint. And yet, Heinemann finds that the composer’s La fuite en Egypte may have been Berlioz’s own idiosyncratic attempt to resolve the encounter of old and new.

From years of study of his musical criticism, Yves Gerard (“‘l’Allemagne’ dans les feuilletons de Berlioz”) knows Berlioz’s convictions thoroughly and is able to define the part played by Germany in his world-view. He concludes, surprisingly, that Berlioz had an image of Germany that was flat and poorly-informed. Whenever Berlioz departed from the French frame of reference, and that was often, it was to the ancient classics that he turned for examples, quotations, comparisons and metaphors, or else to Italian literature, or to the English from Shakespeare to Walter Scott. Berlioz’s image of German culture, already deficient when it came to Bach and Haendel, was no better informed, apart from Faust, when it came to literature. In his discussion of Berlioz and Weber, Frank Heidlberger (“Hector Berlioz und die deutsche Oper”) arrives at a similar conclusion. The French composer’s boundless admiration of Weber, and of Der Freischütz in particular, is well known. Heidlberger shows that in venerating Freischütz Berlioz was scarcely aware of the opera’s significance in a German context (Hoffmann, Lortzing, Marschner) but praises the work as a foil against Italian and French operatic practice of his day. In Weber he found the exemplar of expressive music, identifying with the famous clarinet theme in the overture as the epitome of the art to which he himself aspired.

Berlioz had little interest in philosophy and tended to speak dismissively of all theory, whether inside or outside the practice of music. Thus Dominique Catteau (“Hector Berlioz et les philosophes allemands”) finds few references to Kant or Hegel in his writings despite the ascendance of German philosophy in his day. He would have felt no sympathies for Schopenhauer had he understood Wagner’s embrace of irrationalism; but in Nietzsche’s view of ancient tragedy, Berlioz might have posthumously discovered a kindred spirit. To arrive at Wagner, however, is to take up the greatest problem of the relationship of Berlioz and Germany. In any study of the Berlioz biography, one must be struck by the composer’s artistic isolation. Franz Liszt had been a disciple, but Berlioz had no proper pupils; his colleagues in the Parisian music world tended to view him as a critic; and his contacts in Germany had brought him respect and honors but not artistic fellowship. Thus when the figure of Wagner arose in the 1850s, Berlioz was often perplexed.

Katherine Kolb (“The Berlioz-Wagner Dialogue”) points out that Wagner was everything that Berlioz had aspired to be: composer, conductor, librettist, with his potential achievement ahead of him while Berlioz was in the position of resting on the laurels of music written as much as twenty years before. Kolb examines every contact between the two men and the often strained cordiality that emerged from their imagined rivalry. It is in his final volume of writings, À travers chants from 1862, that Kolb discovers Berlioz’s measured response to the Wagner phenomenon.

A summing-up from Berlioz’s chief biographer David Cairns (“Deutschland in den Memoiren und der Korrespondez von Berlioz”) retraces what is known of his great successes and personal satisfaction from his time spent in Germany. The great “What if?” remains, considering that Berlioz might have done well to take up residence across the Rhine among the skilled musicians and sympathetic spirits he found there. When Berlioz wrote with enthusiasm about his experiences in Germany, it was often to make a point with his Parisian readers. Yet, as Cairns reminds us, local reviews substantiated his triumphs and left no doubt about his welcome. In what could have stood for the closing words of the Essen conference, Cairns suggests that the Germany of the 21st century has once again embraced Hector Berlioz.

The editors, Matthias Brzoska, Hermann Hofer and Nicole K. Strohmann provide a brief foreword to the well-edited volume, and there is an index of names and musical works. Biographies of the contributors are lacking, however.

It is perhaps the mark of a worthwhile collection that it stimulates a desire for additional examination of the subject of Berlioz and Germany. For another day and another conference: studies of the specific influences of Gluck (considered a German musician in those days), Weber, and Beethoven on the young musician, and the role of Antonin Reicha in particular in transmitting the spirit of Beethoven during Berlioz’s studies at the Conservatory; also a study of the central role of the “Berlioz-weeks” in Weimar, surely an unheard-of tribute to a living composer, in summing up his early career and preparing its second half would be welcome.

John Ahouse

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* Brzoska, Matthias, Hermann Hofer, and Nicole K. Srohmann (eds.), Hector Berlioz: Ein Franzose in Deutschland.
(Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 2005). ISBN 3-89007-600-9

We are most grateful to our friend John Ahouse for this valuable contribution to the site.

See also on this site:

Berlioz Convention: “Berlioz in Germany”, Essen 16-18 June 2003

The Hector Berlioz site was created in 1997 by Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb; this page created on 1 March 2008.

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