The Hector Berlioz Website

Legouve and Berlioz

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    Ernest Legouvé (1807-1903), writer, poet, playwright, and a member of the Académie Française, was one of Berlioz’s lifelong friends, and remained true to the composer’s memory long after his death. In 1886 he published in Paris a book entitled Soixante ans de souvenirs, later translated into English as Sixty Years of Recollections by Albert D. Vandam and published in London in 1893. In it Legouvé devoted a perceptive and sympathetic chapter to Berlioz, which gives a valuable and colourful portrait of the composer by a contemporary who knew him well over a period of more than 30 years. It was written many years after the composer’s death and after the publication (in 1870) of Berlioz’s own Memoirs, which he knew well and refers to in several places. Legouvé’s account differs in places from Berlioz’s own, notably concerning his relations with women, a subject to which Legouvé devotes much attention. Though undoubtedly truthful and well-disposed, Legouvé cannot be assumed to be accurate in every detail: as a writer he shared with Berlioz an occasional tendency to embellish his account for effect. One example is the statement that at the very end of his life Berlioz made a special effort to cast his vote at the Institut on behalf of Charles Blanc, in return for a service he had received from him twenty years earlier (§VI). Legouvé melodramatically places the story ‘a fortnight’ before Berlioz’s death on 8 March 1869; the vote took place in fact months earlier, on 25 November 1868 (Julien Tiersot, Le Ménestrel 16 September 1911, p. 291). The chapter is reproduced here in full in the original French, scanned from our own copy of the 1886 edition, and readers will be able to form their own judgement.

    As Legouvé relates (§III) he first heard of Berlioz during the latter’s stay in Italy in 1832 and was anxious to meet him as soon as both men returned to Paris. This can be dated to November of the same year from a letter Berlioz wrote to his sister Nancy (Correspondance générale no. 293, dated 26 November; hereafter abbreviated CG) in which Berlioz says “I have met Eugène Süe [a writer whom Berlioz hoped would write a libretto for him]; I was put in touch with him by a certain M. Legouvé, a charming young man who has a pension of 30,000 pounds [livres] and who wrote to me recently asking to be introduced to him.” Their first meeting is related in picturesque detail by Legouvé himself (§III). This was the start of a close friendship which lasted over thirty years and never faltered. Though the two men did not see eye to eye on everything – Legouvé never ceased to admire Italian music, as he emphasises in the opening sections of his chapter on Berlioz – they shared a great deal in common in their tastes and artistic outlook, and on a personal level both had an uncommon capacity for loyalty and generosity. In 1862 Berlioz dedicated to Legouvé his collection of articles on music entitled A Travers chants, the complete French text of which is available on this site.

    Part of the correspondence between the two men has survived – over 20 letters from Berlioz to Legouvé dating from 1838 to 1864, and a handful from Legouvé to Berlioz. A few of Berlioz’s letters are actually cited by Legouvé himself. The extant letters are mostly brief, and the preserved correspondence probably gives only an incomplete idea of the closeness of their relationship: both men lived in Paris, and had numerous occasions to meet, hence there was less need for written correspondence. But it may be also that though close to the composer Legouvé did not perhaps belong to the circle of Berlioz’s most intimate friends, and Berlioz did not apparently write to him with the frequency and copiousness which he shows for example with Humbert Ferrand or Franz Liszt, or members of Berlioz’s own family. It is noticeable that Legouvé was not one of the correspondents to whom Berlioz would regularly write during his many concert tours abroad (unlike for example Auguste Morel), and that Legouvé himself has very little to say about Berlioz’s travels outside France which played such a large part in the composer’s career.

    For Berliozians, Legouvé is particularly associated with the composition of Benvenuto Cellini. In his Memoirs (chapter 48, end) Berlioz makes a point of mentioning the generous loan of 2,000 francs which Legouvé advanced to him to enable him to work on the opera (Legouvé, with characteristic reticence, only alludes to this generosity of his indirectly [§VII]). The correspondence fills in some of the detail of the story, and suggests that Legouvé did in fact advance money to Berlioz on two occasions not one, first a loan of 1,000 francs at some time in 1836, and a second also of 1,000 francs in July 1838 (for both cf. CG no. 558, dated 3 July 1838) – years later the two were telescoped into one by Berlioz. A number of letters of 1838 refer to the loan, which Berlioz was able to refund promptly in late December in the same year thanks to Paganini’s gift of 20,000 francs (CG nos. 563, 607, 611). Berlioz showed his gratitude to Legouvé by dedicating to him the overture to Benvenuto Cellini when it was published as a separate concert piece in January 1839 (CG nos. 625-6; Holoman no. 76B). He draws an analogy between his own predicament and that of the Florentine sculptor in the opera – Berlioz needed metal to be able to complete his work, just as the sculptor when casting his statue, and it was Legouvé who had made it possible. Berlioz in fact intended to dedicate the complete opera to his friend, but the full score was never published in Berlioz’s lifetime.

    A few years later, in 1842, Berlioz collaborated with Legouvé by setting to music the ballad La Mort d’Ophélie on a text by his friend after Shakespeare (Holoman no. 92). A letter of Berlioz refers to this: “Let me know when you are coming to Paris. I want you to hear the piece I wrote last week on your delightful poem The Death of Ophelia […] If you like it I will orchestrate the piano accompaniment for a nice little orchestra and I could include the whole piece in one of my concerts” (CG no. 769bis, 8 May 1842). The work was subsequently orchestrated by Berlioz (in July 1848), and eventually published as the second of the three pieces entitled Tristia in 1851 (Holoman no. 119B), though it was never performed in Berlioz’s lifetime. Legouvé himself does not mention this collaboration in his Souvenirs.

    Subsequent letters show the continuing friendship of the two men. In 1856 Berlioz congratulated Legouvé warmly on the success of his play Medea (CG no. 2113, 9 April). In 1859 Legouvé offered to support Berlioz should be wish to apply for a post as conductor in succession to Narcisse Girard who had just died, though Berlioz declined (CG no. 2465, 19 January). He congratulated Berlioz on the success of Béatrice et Bénédict in 1862 and Les Troyens in 1863 (cf. CG nos. 2645, 2792). Legouvé was also evidently helpful on more than one occasion in finding employment for Berlioz’s son Louis (cf. CG nos. 2658, 2904). It was appropriate that both men should have received public recognition simultaneously when they were both promoted to the Légion d’honneur in August 1864 (CG no. 2877).

    You will find here the complete text of Legouvé’s chapter on Berlioz in the original French.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 19 September 2004; revised on 1st March 2023.

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

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