© 2023 Michael Sproule
It is the height of creative courage to go back to an ancient luminary such as Virgil for the purpose of recounting individual tragedies occurring in the whirlwind of radical and traumatic upheavals.
Berlioz saw that Books 2 and 4 of the Aeneid, which he had loved since boyhood, contained the mythic ‘meat’ to describe his own times.
By contrast, Wagner turned to the mythic ‘meat’ of Valhalla, Nibelheim and forests on which to base his brand of creative courage. In musical terms, if Wagner held to structural tightness and order, Berlioz held to a pre-symphonic freedom and disorder, echoing life as it is actually lived and enriched by the stumblings and pitfalls which populate a Shakespearian, almost anarchic view of life’s vicissitudes.
As a song and classical guitar performer myself, I now unhesitatingly show my hand : I feel Berlioz’s art more closely than that of any of his contemporaries.
We could consider at length the individual tragedies of Cassandre, Didon and indeed Énée himself. Berlioz holds nothing back in setting out their respective courses, but let us consider too the great tenderness shown to the ‘collaterally damaged’, in a way - again I would say Shakespearian - that his great German contemporary for the mythic did not.
I think of Chorèbe, of Andromaque (wordless like the lovers in Scène d’amour), of Anna, Narbal, Iopas, Hylas. Like most in history, theirs is a brief, passing flame, quickly lit and just as quickly extinguished. Berlioz shows immense fellow-feeling for those who ‘pass in the night’, and indeed (and here I speak as a bass chorister who has sung “Les Troyens” complete!) for his citizen choruses of Trojans and Carthaginians, expressing their extremes of feelings in the moment.
Wagner was generous to heroes and principals; Berlioz was generous to all!
Earlier, I referred to Berlioz’s “own times”. Who was the Énée of those times, fleeing a doomed society? Victor Hugo perhaps?
And look at Berlioz’s immense feeling for tragic womanhood, the dignity, poise and resolution which begins perhaps with Marguerite and passes to Cassandre, Andromaque and Didon, expressions all of Goethe’s “ewige Frau”.
In this area, I think we can trawl for explanations to explain the expressive course of Berlioz’s tragic heroines, and how they differ markedly from those of Wagner. France had had her imperial hour and lost it at Waterloo, enabling Berlioz’s generation to rake through the ashes and examine mythically and musically the effects, political and social, of lost national direction. Germany, on the other hand, awaited her imperial star to rise, enabling Wagner to construct heroic archetypes for the triumphant days ahead, so that whatever the loss and tragedy in the process, the outcome for Germany was a new dawn. Contrast this with the awful vision of Didon as she dies - there will be Hannibal, but even he can not stand against the immortality of Rome. This is the language not of a new dawn but of future tyranny.
I conclude with thoughts about the brilliance of one particular extract of Berlioz’s music. Why the Quintet and Septet in Act 4 are so utterly rare and beautiful is that for once Berlioz allows the extraordinary (Didon and Énée) to mingle expressively with the ordinary (the rest of the cast) on equal artistic terms. It is the most humane and touching of ideas, perfectly expressed, even unto the relative brevity of the encounters, as we eagerly await the consummation by duet to follow.
In Act 4, Berlioz fills the world with a beauty and hope which in Act 5 must fracture and break. Such is the way of human affairs. Berlioz, from his own experience, had plenty to say about that!
We are most grateful to Mr Michael Sproule for his valuable contribution to the site.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 1 September 2023.
© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.
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