Thomas F. Bertonneau
© 2007 Thomas F. Bertonneau
Berlioz was not merely a composer mis-heard by… critics and neglected by… conductors; he was not merely an extraordinary artist fighting the usual losing battle with his contemporaries and early posterity; he was also an archetype whose destiny, when retold, was the story of an age; he was the incarnation of a style and spirit that we can no more expunge from the history of western man than one can expunge a stretch of years from one’s own past.1
– Jacques Barzun, Berlioz and His Century (1956)
Before he became a Teutonic enormity and an artistic prophet, before he had made his own mark in the world of music and well before he had conceived his monumental Ring of the Nibelungs, while writing during his Paris sojourn of the early 1840s, a sharp-witted Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) declared keenly of the Gallic composer Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869) that he stood out against the prevailing un-musicality of the French capital both as a phenomenon and a paradox. "Berlioz is no incidental composer," Wagner writes in a dispatch for the Dresden Abendzeitung; "he is in no way related to and has nothing whatever to do with the pompous and exclusive art institutions of Paris: the Opéra as well as the Conservatory hurried to close their doors at the very first sight of him."2 As for Berlioz’s not being "incidental," this means for Wagner that he boasts no organic relation to metropolitan musical life but constitutes rather something sui generis within it – "within it," one might say, spatially or phenomenally while yet existing spiritually apart from and artistically entirely beyond it. Wagner hesitates to call Berlioz either a Parisian or even a Frenchman, he seems so antithetical to his scene: "Berlioz was forced to become and to remain an absolute exception to long-established rules, and such he is and always will be, both inwardly and outwardly… You will hear Berlioz’s compositions only at the concerts which he himself gives once or twice a year.3 " Wagner notes that "nowhere else will you hear anything by Berlioz, except perhaps in the streets or in the cathedral, where he is summoned from time to time to take part in some politico-musical state occasion.4 " Not even government acknowledgment, whether Republican or Imperial, served however to guarantee critical respect; official notice could indeed exacerbate critical hostility. Conservatory professor F.-J. Fétis wrote meanly of Berlioz in 1837: "His rare melodies are deprived of meter and rhythm; and his harmony, a bizarre assemblage of sounds, not easily blended, does not always merit this name."5 In Fétis’ snide opinion, "What Monsieur Berlioz writes does not belong to the art which I customarily regard as music, and I have the complete certainty that he lacks the prerequisites of this art."6
What Wagner calls the "rules," which Berlioz fought to dissolve lest they dissolve him, were those strictures associated with the operatic activity of the Italian-born composers who supplied the steady fare beloved and patronized by concert-going bourgeois custom in the City on the Seine. The names of Gasparo Spontini (1774 – 1851) or Luigi Cherubini (1760 – 1842) emerge nowadays only in musicological investigation, but in 1840, along with Daniel-François Auber (1782 – 1871), they dominated the lyric stage; and opera as a genre dominated Parisian musical life to the virtual exclusion of instrumental and orchestral concerts, notwithstanding a few visits in the 1780s and 90s by Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Music historian Martin Cooper in effect seconds Wagner’s characterization of Berlioz as a creative sport, hard to apprehend directly but describable by reference to that from which he so radically differs, by placing him hors de continuité in the chronicle of the Gallic muse. Cooper begins his classic account (1951) of French music with Berlioz’s death, just before the Franco-Prussian War, and carries it forward to Gabriel Fauré’s demise some fifty-seven years later. In Cooper’s thinking, first comes Berlioz and only then comes something identifiable as "French Music"; the latter, "French Music," is unthinkable without the former, Berlioz, who gradually eclipsed the Italians and opened a space for native talent, but the former may not be conflated with the latter, for it absorbed no influence from the master, who indeed offered it none. Cooper judges that: "Berlioz was fortunate to die without witnessing the miseries of the Prussian War and the Commune… The complete failure of [his opera] Les Troyens had finished him; he could struggle no longer against indifference and misunderstanding."7 Cooper contrasts Berlioz’s philosophic attitude, a kind of Stoicism, with "the deliberate frivolity of the Second Empire, the shameless place-seeking and corruption of Napoleon III’s régime"; he links Berlioz with the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867), as an instance of "the serious artist" who "turned his back on public life in a gesture natural to those who inhabit and cultivate exclusive, ‘private’ universes."8
Nativity explains Berlioz’s lifelong eccentricity and privacy somewhat. Berlioz’s birth was eccentric in the sense that it happened in the provinces; then again his boyhood was often solitary despite his sisters. La Côte St. André – in those days more a village than a town – lies almost adjacent to the Swiss canton of Grenoble, where relatives of the Berlioz family lived; the nearest French city of significance is Lyons. The district’s ingrained cultural conservatism meant that it remained by temperament moderately royalist after 1789 despite the imposition by the Directorate of a so-called Revolutionary government. The Revolution confiscated the Berlioz family property although the Consular government under Napoleon soon restored it. La Côte St. André also escaped the worst distortions of the First Empire, again because of its remoteness from the political center. Life there went on quietly. Now in the early Nineteenth Century, parents did not speak of home-schooling, but Berlioz learned at home, with his physician-father as general tutor, even after he turned ten years old and began to participate in a day academy in the town. Berlioz père approached education unsystematically but enthusiastically and humanely. He stressed literature, history, geography, and science. In his Memoirs, knowing the answer, Berlioz asks, "How much tenderness must a man feel for his son to undertake to carry through such a task?"9 The young Berlioz balked at committing lines from Horace by rote, but he delighted in maps and surveys. He records how he "would spend hours pouring over the atlas, examining the intricate system of islands, straits and promontories in the South Seas and the Indian Archipelago, pondering on the origins of these remote regions, their climate and vegetation and the people who lived there, and filled with an intense desire to visit them."10 The father also made a gift to the son of a flute and a guitar, to which the budding musician applied himself with natural eagerness, and which he soon mastered. A charcoal sketch of Berlioz with guitar exists showing him at age fifteen or sixteen seated alone in deep concentration over the instrument.
Cooper alludes to Berlioz’s late masterwork, Les Troyens, produced in truncated form in 1863 at the Théâtre-Lyrique, which can trace its origins to the days of childhood tuition. Berlioz étudiant felt his reluctance about Latinity suddenly diminish when he graduated from the sententiousness of Horace to the romance of Virgil’s Aeneid, which inspired him, as he read it aloud, with a sense of large action and high-pitched emotion all conveyed in the loftiest diction. He would recite from the text, a quaint exercise that has dropped out of the pedagogical repertory. "How often," he writes, "construing to my father the fourth book of the Aeneid, did I feel my heart swell and my voice falter and break!"11 Berlioz recalls a particular incident involving Virgil’s line, at Regina gravi jamdudum saucia cura, which "disturbed [him] from the outset of the lesson:
Somehow or other, I struggled on till we came to the great turning point of the drama. But when I reached the scene in which Dido expires on the funeral pyre, surrounded by the gifts and weapons of the perfidious Aeneas, and pours forth on the bed – "that bed with all its memories" – the bitter stream of her life-blood, and I had to pronounce the despairing utterances of the dying queen, "thrice raising herself upon her elbow, thrice falling back," to describe her wound and the disastrous love that convulsed her to the depth of her being, the cries of her sister, her nurse and her distracted women, and that agony so terrible that the gods themselves are moved to pity and send Iris to end it, my lips trembles and the words came with difficulty… I was seized with a nervous shuddering and stopped dead. I could not have read another word.12
The Memoirs address the rest of Berlioz’s childhood bibliography less specifically than one would hope. They do, however, cast forth a few hints, which the biographers then help in piecing together. Jacques Barzun, in Berlioz and His Century, mentions François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) and his Genius of Christianity (1802). A teenaged Berlioz transcribed a passage from The Genius of Christianity into his commonplace book. This passage concerned André Chenier, the young poet, a kind of Gallic Chatterton, whom Robespierre condemned and sent to the guillotine.
Berlioz’s religiosity always takes its bearings from his sense that personal integrity, being morally superior to anything that might call itself official justice, always trumps official justice; Berlioz judges indeed that the individual’s decency always puts him at odds with civic institutions. In a similar way and perhaps offering a pattern, the solitary knight-errant of the medieval centuries serves for Chateaubriand as a paragon of Christian temperament, acting on conscience rather than on social cue. Berlioz’s intense reaction to Aeneas’ betrayal of Dido foreshadows his interest in the case of Chenier, as narrated by Chateaubriand, and undoubtedly informs it; Chateaubriand discusses the case of Dido as foreshadowing Christian suffering in The Genius of Christianity, for she becomes innocently a victim to Aeneas’ imperial destiny. It strikes Berlioz as destiny so-called, a mere word functioning as an excuse. An Imperium or a Révolution by its nature tramples the subject’s conviction that he is an autonomous person not at the service of an arbitrary and libidinous collective. Decent men therefore honor Love over Fate; Love is self-guaranteeing while Fate is only so much nebulous verbiage – a claim on the future as worthless as a junk bond. Berlioz scholar Bernard Gavoty mentions Jean-Jacques Rousseau as another source for Berlioz’s view of life but names no titles.13 Rousseau qualifies rather more as a distinct individual than as an advocate for individuality. Nevertheless, the posthumous Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, an account of Rousseau’s Swiss exile, seems to have exercised some attraction over Berlioz and its chapters plausibly assert themselves in the composition that established the young composer’s reputation, for good and for ill, in 1830. In the Symphonie fantastique, the Rousseauvian influence especially inveigles the lonely idyll of the third and middle movement in a music contemplative and almost static. Rousseau would have sharpened Berlioz’s sensitivity to nature, to which the finely tuned idyllic aspects of Virgil’s poetics had already awakened him. Hellenistic pastoral is the background of the Carthaginian sequence in the Aeneid; the orchestral interlude from Les Troyens called Chasse royale et orage echoes the "Scene in the Country" from thirty years later. One may speculate additionally, on the basis of the Symphonie, that Berlioz had some acquaintance with Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821).
By his late teens or early twenties Berlioz must have encountered Lord Byron, Thomas Moore’s Irish poems, Gérard de Nerval’s translation of Goethe’s Faust, and the first-generation French Romantic poets such as Alphonse de Lamartine (1790 – 1869) and Alfred de Vigny (1797 – 1863). He would later make vocal-orchestral settings of Moore and Goethe although regrettably he made none of Lamartine or Vigny; his second symphony, Harold en Italie (1834) takes its program from Byron. Barzun remarks that Berlioz became who he was early through intensive reading. Berlioz had thus put his period of intellectual formation behind him by the time the Parnassians and Symbolists came on the scene, but as Théophile Gautier began to publish, Berlioz began to read him; he would eventually set six of Gautier’s poems under the collective title of Les nuits d’été (1856). One of the poems, "L’îsle inconnue," has an obvious geographical character to supplement its amorous main trope:
Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?
La voile enfle son aile,
La brise va souffler.
Est-ce dans la Baltique?
Dans la mer Pacifique?
Dans l’île de Java?
Ou bien est-ce en Norvège,
Cueillir la fleur de neige,
Ou la fleur d’Angsoka?
Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?
Menez-moi, dit la belle,
À la rive fidèle
Où l’on aime toujours!
Cette rive, ma chère,
On ne la connaît guère
Au pays des amours.
Another of the poems, "Sur les lagunes," perfectly exemplifies the resignation to exile of the one who prefers a "private" to an étatist dispensation. "Sur les lagunes" is almost a Symbolist poem, as is "L’îsle inconnue"; neither one is a public oration. Gautier and Nerval would have made Berlioz aware, in any case, of Baudelaire and the Bohemian poetics. As we have seen, Cooper sees similar creative psychologies in Berlioz and Baudelaire. One, like the other, fixed his direction by pure meaning, by correspondence, by signatures and the stars, turning his back on la foule, while becoming morbidly conscious of ambiant hypocrisy and philistinism.
Of novelists, the evidence suggests that Berlioz read Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo. He regarded Sir Walter Scott’s work in translation with fondness and wrote a Waverly Overture (1827). Much later he would keep current with Gustave Flaubert, whose Salammbô (1862) he particularly liked; the composer indeed consulted the novelist on the topic of Carthaginian attire for the production of Les Troyens, Part Two, in the early 1860s. Yet the life altering – the cataclysmic – literary experience descended de haut en bas, not to say rather incongruously, on Berlioz while he reluctantly pursued medicine, obeying the wishes of his father, in Paris in the mid-1820s. One writes "incongruously" because the French had always disdained the Hamlet playwright, Voltaire having described, or rather condemned, him as violating capriciously all the Aristotelian canons; of course, Voltaire’s was just the kind of fixed opinion to provoke Berlioz into an opposite frame of mind and incline him to unqualified receptivity. "Shakespeare," he testifies, "coming on me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt," revealing at once "a whole heaven of art," in which the percipient "recognized the meaning of grandeur, beauty, dramatic truth… and the pitiful narrowness of our worn-out academic, cloistered traditions of poetry."14 Berlioz’s devotion to Shakespeare can take on features of religious veneration: "Shakespeare! Shakespeare! I feel as if he alone of all men who ever lived can understand me, must have understood us both; he alone could have pitied us, poor unhappy artists, loving yet wounding each other… It is you that are our father, our father in heaven, if there is a heaven."15
One stresses the literary background of Berlioz’s creative impulse and the particular bookish influences on it because his oeuvre, from its earliest items to its last, always aims at a fusion of two things: the moral specificity that one associates with poetry or narrative and the abstract beauty inherent in purely instrumental expression, which bypasses the concept to speak directly to the subject’s moral apprehension. One reason for calling Berlioz a Romantic, despite the frequent classicism of his subject matter, is that he believes in the morally transfiguring and potentially redeeming power of music. For Berlioz, music answers the deformation and dissatisfaction of the public world, twisted by lunatic political schemes and blighted by the false piety of preening egos in official positions. Conservatory director Cherubini, whose heavy Italian accent Berlioz mocks, once actively schemed to prevent Berlioz from giving a concert of his own works at his own expense for which event the Secretary of Fine Arts M. de la Rochefoucauld had already granted permission. "So you are planneeng an insult for the Academy,"16 Cherubini posed rhetorically, adding: "I will not ‘ave it, I will not. I will write to the Secretary and ask heem to withdraw his permission."17 It fell out otherwise. Cherubini especially resented the fact that Berlioz intended to perform a cantata, La mort d’Orphée, which the Prix-de-Rome Committee, whose members vetted aspiring composers, had rejected. For Berlioz, as for many an artist, the antique figure of Orpheus stood for the socially antithetic character of the creative person, doomed to be misapprehended and to compensate misapprehension by his own spilt blood. It was no mere theory. In the revolutionary convulsions of the French nation between 1789 and 1870, Parisians and their countryman saw plenty of spilt blood and it was always the mob, egged on by its leaders, spilling it or shouting for it to be spilt; the victim was more likely than not a dissenter, a person of conscience.
The Symphonie fantastique, inspired by the advent in Paris of a traveling Shakespeare company, while not a vocal work, nevertheless has a "text" or, notoriously, a "program." This program, compounding Shakespeare, Goethe, and de Quincey, is nevertheless every bit from Berlioz, who wrote both it and the score on which it comments in a caloric seizure to attract the attention of one of the traveling players in particular. Harriet Smithson performed as Ophelia in Hamlet, sweeping the admirer off his proverbial feet; she would become, after a prolonged suit, the composer’s first wife. Franz Liszt and Heinrich Heine would stand witness at the nuptials. Like the Orpheus cantata, the Symphonie comments directly on the passion, in the sense of his suffering, of the artist and on the implacable opposition of society to the individual, as individual, rather than as docile, obedient citoyen. The Symphonie fantastique’s program reaches its climax, moreover, in an explicitly sacrificial scene where the artist himself, like a new Orpheus, succumbs to the hysteria of an orgiastic crowd.
Subtitled An Episode in the Life of an Artist, Berlioz’s Symphonie remains a controversial work even while contemporary high-profile musicians argue over its character and meaning and – the erudite question lying at the center of a technical debate – whether the string band should play it with vibrato or without. Berlioz dreamed up for his opus fantasticus a palette of orchestral sonorities unprecedented in the symphonic literature; and he insisted that a purely instrumental score could mediate a complicated semantic intention. Early criticism set the long-sustained tone – with even Berlioz’s admirers admitting a measure of ambiguity into their appreciations. "Hearing the Fantastic Symphony," Wagner writes, "one has the feeling of being confronted with an unparalleled wonder."18 Berlioz’s score, "at which Beethoven would have laughed," declares "a huge inner richness, an imagination of heroic strength" that "hurls out passion like an erupting volcano… Everything is huge, bold, but infinitely desolating."19 Yet Wagner also says, "beauty of form is nowhere to be seen [in the score] and nowhere a quiet and majestically flowing current to whose steady movement we could gladly abandon ourselves."20 Fétis had said as much in nastier terms.
By an irony, Fétis and Wagner got it descriptively right even as they got it judgmentally wrong, for agitation of the soul, constant intellectual disequilibrium, and unpleasant contingency are experiences that the Symphonie aims to convey. Thirty years later, the Bostonians reacted in a similar fashion to Fétis and Wagner, their representative critic referring to "a nightmare or the delirium tremens set to music" and concluding that "we must protest against the idea of endeavoring to reproduce repulsive scenes by sound."21 One imagines the fellow looking down his nose as he penned the period. Wilfrid Mellers, however, calls the same work "22 one of the most tautly disciplined… in early nineteenth century music."23 Hugh Macdonald, a dean of Berlioz studies, assesses the Symphonie fantastique as "at once the most bewildering, the most novel, and the most popular of [Berlioz’s] works." He praises "the uncanny translation into sound of mental images… the resourcefulness of the instrumentation, [and] the modernity of [Berlioz’s] sense of color."24 Time has not resolved these contradictions.
Only well into the Twentieth Century did the Symphonie fantastique begin to gain a foothold in standard repertory, with other items in the Berlioz catalogue slowly and belatedly catching up. A current controversy, fired by a kind of antiquarian passion among musicologists and orchestral players, picks up a thread from Barzun and hinges on the question whether, after one hundred and seventy-five years, anyone but Berlioz has ever interpreted the music as he intended it to be interpreted; or on the question whether modern orchestral practice adequately reflects the materiality (gut strings and pre-modern woodwinds and brass) of the early-Nineteenth Century orchestra on which the composer founded his conception of how the score should sound. In simple, is Berlioz heard or mis-heard? And what does it mean to say that we mis-hear him? If modern orchestral practice had diverged significantly from early-Nineteenth Century fashion, as the antiquarians posit, then Twentieth Century representations of the Symphonie would not have gotten it right. Audiences beyond those that heard Berlioz himself conduct would never have encountered the "real" score; they would have apprehended him, as it were, from an obtuse angle. One writer cites performances after 1870 or so by acolytes of Wagner as the source of troubles, as these technicians of the baton, inappropriately translating from Wagner to Berlioz, applied a surplus of rubato to a score that remains classically rigorous in its indication of tempi, even as, with Romantic audacity, it tests tame notions of scope and color. Berlioz’s Idée fixe is not Wagner’s Leitmotiv; Berlioz’s textures tend to openness while Wagner’s tend to saturation. Post-Berliozian performances of Berlioz would be, by these lights, paradoxically too Romantic. It seems abundantly evident that criticism cannot separate the Symphonie fantastique either from the many-layered circumstances of its conception or from its provocative "program," also tied up in the same tangled knot of place and persons. This too belongs to its paradigmatic Romanticism. In deference to Berlioz, one looks again to the Memoirs.
A group of itinerant players had come to Paris to perform at the Odéon, including the fetching Miss Smithson. It little mattered that Berlioz understood only a few words of English. He believed that he understood Miss Smithson. "The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay her dramatic genius, was equaled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted."25 So powerfully did Hamlet affect Berlioz that, "a feeling of intense, overpowering sadness came over me, accompanied by a nervous condition like a sickness, of which only a great writer on physiology could give an adequate idea."26 During sleepless days, Berlioz wandered in a stupor through the streets of Paris and along the Seine. In his rooms one evening, he found Moore’s Irish Melodies open on his desk at the "Elegy," a poem to hopeless love, in which the poet testifies that, "a sorrowing heart will find its own likeness."27 Unable to fulfill his ascetic promise to himself to stay away from the Odéon, so as "not to expose myself a second time to the flame of Shakespeare’s genius,"28 he returned for a performance of Romeo and Juliet. "At the time," he writes, "I did not know a word of English; I could only glimpse Shakespeare darkly through the mists of Letourneur’s translation…
But the power of the acting, especially that of Juliet herself, the rapid flow of the scenes, the play of expression and voice and gesture, told me more and gave me a far richer awareness of the ideas and passions of the original than the words of my pale and garbled translation could do. An English critic stated in The Illustrated London News last winter that after seeing Miss Smithson as Juliet I exclaimed, "I shall marry that woman and write my greatest symphony on the play." I did both, but I never said anything of the sort.29
Contemporaneous illustrations preserve for posterity Smithson’s effective posture and gesticulation; Delacroix later painted her from memory as Ophelia. Berlioz first responded to the fiery provocation by arranging the concert of his own works that Cherubini tried to prevent; he calculated (wrongly) that publicity would call him to Smithson’s attention. Smithson alas did not read the musical notices. Berlioz then rapidly wrote the Symphonie fantastique, incorporating some already existing material, including the Idée fixe and the entire fourth movement, or Marche au supplice, a discard from an unfinished (a hardly begun) opera. Again, he hoped to become public enough for Smithson to take cognizance of him. What the British journalist of the time refers to as Berlioz’s "greatest symphony" is not the Symphonie fantastique but rather the later symphony with chorus and vocal soloists entitled Roméo et Juliette (1839), another generic hybrid that continues to inspire controversy. The Memoirs passage quoted above in description of the dual revelation of Shakespeare and Harriet Smithson employs a vocabulary intimately related to the one that informs the program of the Symphonie fantastique. Perhaps the Memoirs, being retrospective, merely absorb the earlier text. One suspects, however, that in his autobiography Berlioz engages in a real exercise of disciplined anamnesis and that inquirers can trust the account.
Phrases from the autobiography such as "the rapid flow of scenes" and "the play of… ideas and passions" offer themselves as especially pertinent. They suggest, as a number of commentators have remarked, the "vague des passions," a coinage of Chateaubriand’s in The Genius of Christianity. Berlioz himself cited both phrase and source in explanatory connection with his Symphonie. Chateaubriand associates this "wavering" or turbulence-of-affect with the disestablishment by Christianity of the old, comparatively more stable, pagan emotions; modernity, he says, has disgruntled human emotions further, rendering them motile in the extreme and hypersensitive to all chance provocations. Modern passion has no fit object, as medieval passion had, in saintliness or Godhead, to provide it with direction or quell it in serenity. The modern subject’s faculties, "confined in the breast, act only upon themselves" and receive fresh nervousness from a deluge of "knowledge without experience."30 The last phrase implies journalism and popular fiction – cheap narrative, so to speak. In addition, while we live in unprecedented material affluence, full of stimulation, "our existence is poor, insipid, and destitute of charms."31 The problem becomes exacerbated with each passing year. "The more nations advance in civilization," writes the Viscount, "the more this unsettled state of the passions predominates."32 Formerly when a sensitive soul reacted in this way to the world, he or she might seek refuge in a cloistered life, "but nowadays, when those ardent souls have no monastery to enter, or have not the virtue that would lead them to one, they feel like strangers among men."33 The psychology of the exclus permeates the Symphonie.
The program of the Symphonie suggests an individual’s radical discomfiture with the world leading to an acute spiritual-emotional crisis. The program begins with a narrative "frame" that puts the rest into a unified sequence: "A young musician of morbid disposition and powerful imagination poisons himself with opium in an attack of despairing passion. The dose of the drug, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a deep sleep accompanied by strange dreams in which sensations, feelings and memories are transformed in his sick brain into musical images and ideas."34 Berlioz appends separate titles to the five movements of his Symphonie: (I) "Reveries – Passions"; (II) "A Ball"; (III) "Scene in the Country"; (IV) "March to the Scaffold"; and (IV) "Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath." Each carries an additional weight of programmatic verbiage. Thus, for (I) Reveries – Passions: "The beloved herself appears to him as a melody, like an Idée fixe, an obsessive idea that he keeps hearing wherever he goes. He first recalls the sickness of the soul, the flux of passion, the unaccountable joys and sorrows he experienced before he saw his beloved; then the volcanic love that she suddenly inspired in him, his delirious raptures, his jealous fury, his persistent tenderness, and his religious consolations."35 It is not only in the rhetorical supplement to the score, however, that listeners encounter the expression of arch-Romantic inner turbulence and disequilibrium of the spirit. The music represents these states even more vividly – that is Berlioz’s point – than do the words. Macdonald writes of the Idée fixe, one of the most striking melodies ever concocted by a composer: "The contrast of passionate legato and gruff angularity is deliberate, and though we may not admire the melody as a beautiful entity in its own right (Berlioz did not intend that we should), the rise and fall of its phrases, the violent expression marks, and the insidious chromaticisms perfectly serve his purpose."36 Mellers sees it this way: "This initial arpeggiated phrase, with its rising sixth, suggests a Beethovenian challenge; but it is asymmetrically extended in declamatory style, always aspiring upwards but straining back to the F which droops to E natural. This aspiring phrase is balanced by a clause falling through a seventh, followed by the original sixth inverted, with the chromatic intrusion creating a change to a triplet rhythm."37
Mellers’ reference to Beethoven brings up the question of what relation, if any at all, the Symphonie fantastique bears to the Viennese composer’s Sixth or Pastoral Symphony (1808). The Pastoral’s five-movement layout and its quasi-literary, rather Rousseauvian program together suggest that Beethoven’s score anticipates that of Berlioz, perhaps even by supplying a model. Berlioz had in fact heard the Pastoral when the Société des Concerts traversed eight of Beethoven’s mighty nine in 1828. Berlioz would also probably have had heard Liszt’s piano reductions of the symphonies. The Pastoral would have suggested to Berlioz the possibility of purely instrumental music as the medium for apprehensible narrative although Christoph von Gluck’s opera-interludes already do this in the mid-Eighteenth Century – and Berlioz knew Gluck’s scores intimately. Beethoven’s symphony purports to convey the emotions inspired by a day spent walking in the country, listening to the sounds both of nature and of rural society, and giving oneself to the non-civic immediacy of it all. The first movement, for example, would represent the "awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country" and the second movement a "scene by a brook." As in Berlioz, the idea is to capture by purely instrumental means intense subjective reactions by a sensitive or poetic soul to the sights and phases of country life, some entirely natural, and others having to do with peasant rituals, such as a village dance with pipers and a hymn of thanksgiving offered in prayer after the passage of a thunderstorm.
Beethoven’s musical material nevertheless differs entirely from that of Berlioz. Despite its folksong-like character, the first subject of Beethoven’s first movement functions, without any preliminaries, as the main theme of a clear sonata-allegro; whatever the undoubted subtleties of the working-out, listeners immediately grasp the direction of the musical argument. A crisis comes with the thunderstorm – the effects are vivid, even cinematic – but the crisis also passes: the experience for the listener is positive and restorative. In Mellers’ words, nature constituted for Beethoven "a refuge from people" so that the Pastoral becomes "a deliberate study in innocence by a sophisticated consciousness"; and "by making his modulations simply an effect of color," Beethoven creates an idyll in which "there is no conflict."38
The Symphonie fantastique, by contrast, is all conflict; Berlioz allows no reconciliation of subject with object-world, and he permits no restorative assimilation to the natural scene. Starting from critical premises about the modern Self, Rousseau’s and Chateaubriand’s, and building on his own experience of impossible desire, Berlioz tells the story musically in his Symphonie of the subject’s inevitable annihilation, of his sacrifice by a demonic world that despises integrity and authenticity and mocks them ruthlessly until they are humiliated. The listener’s vicarious experience of the Symphonie fantastique must correspond more to that implied by De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater than it does to that implied by Rousseau’s Reveries. While one might analyze the first movement as a sonata-allegro, it behaves almost as though Berlioz conceived it as an anti-sonata; for always and everywhere, by abrupt modulation, rhythmic displacement, and bizarre instrumental timbres he subverts one’s expectation about what the music ought to do and where it ought to travel. Even the Haydn-like slow introduction to the Allegro Agitato proper of the movement challenges inherited form, since it borrows its basic intervals from the very thematic stuff to which it is supposed to serve as a mere preamble. The Idée fixe, always present, tends to retain its shape, but the accompaniment renders this shape unstable by attacking its elegance through offbeat nervous figurations, like thromboses, in the bass. It is as though a subject apprehended an object but only under fitful strobe-like illumination among twilight and shadows. The fact that the Idée fixe, although an integral melody, is also an extended one makes it difficult to seize upon in another way: on its initial appearance (violins) it stretches through forty bars of plastic unpredictable motion; it thereby exceeds the ability of any ordinary "listening memory" to record it and in this sense it possesses just the sublimity that Berlioz requires it to have.
The "subverted melody," as one might call it, recurs in the Berlioz oeuvre, operating like a structural principle. The gripping Act I aria from Les Troyens, "Du Roi des Dieux," sung by Cassandra while the Trojans fatuously drag the wooden horse into their city, pits the anxiety ridden minor-key desperation of the prophetess against the major-key exuberance of a triumphal march in the nationalist idiom. In the "Ride to the Abyss" in Part IV of La damnation de Faust, the steady gallop of the horses, represented by the celli and basses, trips constantly against offbeat bleating interjections in the high woodwinds, culminating in the condemned man’s affrighted shout of, "Il pleut du sang," just before he plummets into the pit.
The Symphonie fantastique also illustrates Berlioz’s concern for spatial effects as an enhancement of the musical meaning. In the third-movement Adagio, the "Scene in the Country," for example, a lonely shepherd pipes a simple song, given to the Cor Anglais, which invites an answer; the response comes from an oboe that the score explicitly positions backstage of the orchestra so that the effects of distance and separation strike listeners realistically. Macdonald notes that in the "Scene in the Country," more than elsewhere in Berlioz’ score, "the debt to Beethoven’s Pastoral is… most obvious."39 But Beethoven gives out nothing in the Pastoral so desolate as Berlioz’ forlorn piper; even the storm, when it passes, does so distantly, mixing fragments of the Idée fixe with the tremolos on the muted drums. When at last the Cor Anglais plays its plaint again no answer comes. The fourth movement, or "March to the Scaffold," masses a military instrumentarium, with prominent trumpets and side drums with snares attached. The program tells how "the artist," in his opiate delirium, "dreams that he has killed his beloved, for which he has been condemned to death and led to execution… At the end, the Idée fixe reappears for a moment like a last memory of the beloved before being cut short by the fatal blow."40 The fifth-movement finale, "Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath," calls for offstage bells that intone the medieval plainsong Dies Irae, subsequently taken up and distorted by various combinations of instruments all playing in extreme registers. Here, the spirit of the deceased finds itself, like Faust in Goethe’s drama, condemned to hellish tortures, completing the victimary trajectory of the supplementary story. The subject of the drama discovers his Orphic fate and succumbs to his tormenters in a sparagmatic tableau. The movement is partly fugal, fugue being the musical procedure par excellence for bringing a crisis to its head. Macdonald refers to the "Witches’ Sabbath" as "a scene of chaos and a Bosch-like profusion of ungainly figures," in which "the orchestra is exploited in an altogether revolutionary way."41 Again, a number of later musical moments in the Berlioz catalogue plausibly stem from this movement, most especially the Dies Irae of his Grande Messe des Morts (1838), with its four brass bands deployed north south east and west around the orchestra and chorus, and the final sequence (Part IV) of the "Légende dramatique," La damnation de Faust (1842), with its demon-chorus and weird instrumental effects.
As a lure to snag Harriet Smithson as his wife, the Symphonie fantastique proved slow acting; the marriage needed four years after the premiere to happen – and it was a less than satisfactory match despite its producing a son, Louis, whom both parents loved even when he tested that love severely. As prophecy, however, the Symphonie fantastique proved canny, as though Berlioz had predicted (he had!) how the critics would pillory his autobiographical-expressionist appropriation of the hitherto genteel musical form known as the symphony. Beginning the first movement of the Symphonie fantastique as a slow introduction on the model of Haydn is probably a calculated gesture to make the subsequent disruption of inherited form all the more shocking. Shocked listeners were. We have sampled contemporary Parisian reaction. Foreign reaction employed terms no less harsh. The London Athenaeum opined in March 1839 that the Symphonie "is a Babel, and not a Babylon of music."42 The Dramatic and Musical Review registered its judgment in January 1843 that, "Berlioz, musically speaking, is a lunatic," a view echoed by another London paper, which called the composer "a daring lunatic."43 An anonymous New York reviewer wrote in November 1868 that: "The third movement [of the Symphonie] ends with what the programme calls ‘the sinking of the sun – a distant roll of thunder – silence.’ The thunder is well imitated, and the silence is delicious."44 At least orchestras were playing the score. A second symphony, Harold en Italie after Byron, appeared from Berlioz in 1834, rather more conventional than its precursor, but with the novelty of requiring a solo viola in an obbligato or concerted role. A third symphony (1839), involving vocal soloists and choruses as well as a large and variegated orchestra, sets portions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and has obvious links to the original Smithson-cataclysm of 1827.
Wagner liked a fourth and final symphony, the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, scored for a massive military wind-band or harmonie to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the 1830 Revolution. Berlioz financed his own orchestra concerts, as Wagner reported, and he struggled to get his operas performed, pulling strings, entering into exchanges of favors that typically fell into delinquency once Berlioz had delivered on his side of the bargain. Benvenuto Cellini (1832) failed through active sabotage by its reluctant producer; theaters pronounced La damnation Faust unperformable, and Les Troyens could only be mounted, shorn of its first two acts, in the inadequate Théâtre-Lyrique five years after its completion in score.
The Old Berlioz, as we might call him, held the status at the end of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth of a sport or a curiosity, to be sampled on rare occasions for his outrageous and possibly entirely non-musical qualities, while being otherwise safer to ignore. The practical demands of his scores, such as the three on-stage brass ensembles required for Les Troyens, baffled and irritated his contemporaries; but the very challenge constituted by these demands would eventually attract to the composer’s posthumous cause the advocates of a new technology, recording, that became adequate to symphonic and choral music with the arrival of the electrical process in the mid-1920s. French critics of the 1840s despised Berlioz – or welcomed the rhetorical opportunity to pretend that they did – but stereo "buffs" of the 1950s and 60s learned to love him. In the 1980s a battle took shape with competitors claiming laurels for having set down digitally the "definitive" enrigistrement of the Symphonie fantastique or the Requiem.
The name of Berlioz even got swept up in debates over what falls outside the limits, not just of musical, but also of political correctness, with ministers of state and descendants of Richard Wagner weighing in on the issue.
The "Berlioz Phenomenon" raises a number of esthetic and epistemological questions in acute form. What do we mean when we speak of Romanticism in music? How is Romantic music different from the "Classical" music that preceded it? Can music, especially instrumental music, convey meaning, as the "program" describing the "action" of the Symphonie fantastique implies? Or can music express the events that generate a cluster of emotions, as the Symphonie fantastique is supposed to express Berlioz’s emotions on being bowled over by Harriet Smithson playing Ophelia? What constitutes a "correct" or "authentic" performance of a particular score? And what, given the inevitability of temporal distance, are the chances of recovering from one hundred and seventy years in the past the composer-intentions that would permit a "correct" or "authentic" performance? Do the criteria of musical beauty change or are they related to Platonic ideals whose being is changeless and eternal? If the criteria of musical beauty do change then what forces bring about the changes? What does representation mean in the realm of music? Does music really represent anything except itself? How does technology influence musical reception? Does technology – recording – remove listeners even farther from the composer-intention than a live performance given many decades or even a century after a score’s composition and premiere? Or does a recording in fact produce intimate knowledge impossible in the distracting conditions of a public concert?
Consider the question concerning how one defines Romanticism as applied to music rather than literature. For Jacques Barzun, Berlioz epitomizes the entire Romantic Movement, exhibiting on the one hand a Shelleyite or Byronic "fire" and on the other hand a "cool self-criticism": "From the first he displayed a rational conservatism, a prudent regard for the significant proprieties, which in any man doubles the offense of his revolutionary acts."45 Barzun compares Berlioz to Vigny, remarking that "aristocratic self-control" signally characterized both men, each of whom knew how to balance "now his intellectual good breeding, and now his daemon."46 Hence the weirdness, melodically speaking, of the Idée fixe as against the studiously polite clarity of the orchestral textures that it inhabits – or rather haunts. The balance that we locate in the man we may, moreover, also locate in the music where, in Wilfrid Mellers’ summation, "the asymmetry of the [melodic] clauses is complemented by a tonal precariousness created by chromatic intrusions in the melody, and by a dialogue between the melody and the bass."47 We might think again of that Gothic arch of a melody in the first movement of the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale as against the Prussian Army of wind-players assembled by the score to give it voice. And while Berlioz is always expressive he is never narcissistic.
If, as Mellers says, "Wagner’s grandeur is the apotheosis of the personal," then Berlioz by contrast "thinks melodically in vast phrases that acquire a more than personal grandeur."48 The scale of Berlioz’s works would derive, on the convergent accounts of Barzun and Mellers, from the scale of his melodies, each being conceived in a kind of liberation from any preordained harmonic scheme and each therefore requiring a new conception of harmonic architecture. The work grows organically from the melodic seed, to invoke a botanical metaphor; and it is with the seed that Berlioz always starts. "Organicism" belongs with Romanticism. Not by coincidence was Berlioz an early and a lifelong devotee of Goethe. Veteran Berlioz specialist Sir Colin Davis goes so far as to claim for the composer the title of "the first and only genuine Romantic."49 But – here’s the rub – in almost the same breath Davis also says that Berlioz "remained a Classicist all his life; his roots were firmly there with Gluck, Beethoven and Weber."50
To assess Berlioz’s Romantic qualities one might compare his work with the work of his (inevitably younger) contemporaries, all of whom are German, at least by acculturation. Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) and Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), with both of whom Berlioz maintained friendly mutually edifying contact, gravitated to the same literary sources as Berlioz and both, like Berlioz, made ambitious settings of Goethe’s Faust. A random few bars of any of Schumann’s orchestral compositions reveal a world of difference from Berlioz. Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, like the Symphonie fantastique, follows the five-movement pattern of Beethoven’s Pastoral, but there the resemblance ends. Schumann orchestrates in a famously "thick" manner, with many octave doublings; the French horns provide the dominant coloration at the climaxes, supported in the Finale by the trombones. The rhythms, once established, roll on predictably. In fact, Schumann in the Rhenish coins the archetypal sound of German Romantic Music, a sound we hear also in his one-time protégé, Johannes Brahms. Liszt, like Schumann a pianist, also tends to score in a "thick" manner, writing piano chords for large ensembles. His thirteen "Symphonic Poems" take a cue from the Symphonie fantastique in that they aim to narrate a story or expose an idea by purely instrumental means. The most Berliozian of them, Héroïde Funèbre (1854), probably directly imitates the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, but like the others it consists of a single movement, and it creates a sound as much anticipatory of Wagner’s as it is dissimilar to that of Berlioz. Neither Schumann nor Liszt is ever detached from his treatment, as Berlioz almost invariably is from his; they are perfervid (gloriously so) where he is cool and, at least some of the time, ironic. Listeners sense this irony or distancing strongly in Harold en Italie, where the solo viola stands apart from orchestral incident and "comments" on it. Both Schumann and Liszt entered the repertory swiftly, despite controversy – and there is no doubt but that they both are much more "listener friendly" than Berlioz. Their appeal, finally, is less intellectual than that of Berlioz. Then again, just as Davis says, Berlioz, at the same time that he is more audacious formally than his peers, keeps a stronger orientation than they do to Eighteenth Century music, especially to the formalism and nobility of Gluck’s operatic ethos.
In the early days of recording, Beethoven, Wagner, Schumann, and Liszt had their advocates. Large chunks of Wagner, a difficult and challenging composer, had entered the discography as early as 1914 when Karl Muck (1859 – 1940) made acoustic recordings of the Bayreuth Master’s ultimate opera, Parsifal; in the same year Arthur Nikisch (1855 – 1922), Chefdirigent of the Berlin Philharmonic, made an acoustic recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, complete. Oskar Fried (1871 – 1941) committed Liszt’s Les Préludes to disc by the same rudimentary process. As far as I know, no one ever recorded Berlioz acoustically, but Felix Weingartner (1863 – 1942) made platters of the Symphonie fantastique using the new electrical process as early as 1925. The British composer Sir Edward Elgar (1854 – 1934), a pioneering gramophone "buff," preferred Weingartner’s Fantastique to the one set down the following year with the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne under Gabriel Pierné (1863 – 1937), omitting the first and third movements. The founder of the Concerts Colonne, Edouard Colonne (1838 – 1910), knew Berlioz and sought his counsel about how to interpret the score; Pierné used Colonne’s score, with its composer-sanctioned annotations. Another conductor associated with Colonne, Pierre Monteux (1875 – 1964), tackled the Fantastique in 1930, leading his specially constituted Orchestre Symphonique de Paris in the advantageous sonic environment of the Salle Pleyel. He too used Colonne’s annotated score.
Weingartner and Pierné belonged to the Nineteenth Century; neither of the two men trafficked much with Twentieth Century music. Monteux, on the other hand, had the reputation of being avant-garde. Not only had he stood on the podium at the scandalous 1913 Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, a concert ending in a riot that required the police to put down, but he had also made the first recording of that same Red Banner of musical modernism, with the Orchestre Symphonique, in 1929. Monteux’s 1930 Fantastique has survived in two forms, the recording itself and a documentary film of the studio sessions, including the Finale in dress rehearsal. On the basis of these, Monteux clearly regarded Berlioz neither as Classic nor as Romantic but rather as a modernist of the same order as Stravinsky.
Building on their experience of recording Le sacre, Monteux and the studio technicians spent much time and effort in finding the optimal deployment-pattern for their multiple-microphone setup. Multiple microphones served the aim to make the clearest master-disc representation of the important inner parts of the Fantastique’s score; Monteux understood that although Berlioz calls for close to 140 players, about equal to the number specified by Stravinsky for Le sacre, the Symphonie’s textures run toward those of chamber music except in the climaxes. At nearly eighty years of age, the 1930 Monteux Fantastique remains revelatory, not only of Berlioz’s music, but of the conductor’s certainty that he deals with a modern composition and of his conviction that this Episode in the Life of an Artist speaks directly to the alienated, shell-shocked, demon-haunted world of the Twentieth Century, as much as the Russian’s pagan ballet. Connections bind Le sacre to the Symphonie. Berlioz made several forays into Russia, playing concerts of his music and establishing contact with Russian composers, like Peter Tchaikovsky and Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov. The latter translated the Frenchman’s Traité sur l’art d’instrumentation into Russian; Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov’s student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, studied the Traité and spoke candidly of his debt to it. Technical features of Le sacre reflect a Berliozian influence: one is Stravinsky’s fondness for combining instruments at their extreme range, so that the double basses stomp like elephants while the flutes skirl out their highest notes. The general scenario of these "Scenes of Pagan Russia" is ritualistic and sparagmatic as though Stravinsky had taken the idea of Berlioz’s "Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath" and expanded it to embrace the entire score.
One might hazard that Monteux has divined the following common "moral" in the two scores: in seeking the erasure of inherited belief – of Christian restraint on desire, for example – every self-consciously revolutionary age unwittingly opens a space for the resurgence of beliefs that antedate the eradicated creedal inheritance and which it had previously obviated. Modernity thus seen resembles a great stumbling parade advancing drunkenly toward the tumbrels and guillotines upon which the intoxicated worshippers must die. The Dies Irae, made into a grotesque of itself in the "Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath," symbolizes the subject’s wrath, as turned against itself perversely; and so it reminds us of the viciousness of our resentments and the vanity of our contradictory desires.
In purely musical terms Monteux deserves praise for bringing out the inner voices – which in Berlioz usually means the woodwinds – of the polyphony. Monteux’s tempi are fairly steady, with just a bit of rubato in the "Rêveries – Passions" where the various apparitions of the Idée fixe justify nuances of acceleration and deceleration. The second-movement valse is suitably brilliant and flottante although the cornet obbligato at the reprise, for enhancing the luster of dance-tune, is missing. Monteux plays the "Scene in the Country" as bleakly as it has ever sounded, suggesting the distance of the offstage oboe almost as neatly as a post-war stereo recording. In the "March to the Scaffold," deliberate roughness of playing generates an atmosphere of horrific spontaneity such as might accompany a public execution. The Finale leaves the listener stunned, partly because Monteux speeds along like an express train, partly because he emphasizes the panic quirkiness of the fugue. The film of the performance shows Monteux, always from the back, waving his baton as though he presided at something like the end of the world. In the era of the 78-rpm disc there were a handful of other recordings of the Symphonie fantastique. The number of catalogue entries under that title only began to increase significantly, however, after World War Two. In the 1940s meanwhile recordings appeared for the first time of La grande messe des morts, under Jean Fournet, and Harold en Italie, under Serge Koussevitsky. Berlioz expert Matthew Tepper describes Fournet’s Requiem as, "rather dim and closely-miked," with the chorus being "short of men" and the score being played with "a slight cut in the Sanctus (essentially, the omission of a written-out repeat)."51 Tepper acknowledges Fournet’s to be "a very passionate reading,"52 even if technically it came prematurely. The situation – France had fallen and German armies occupied the country – demanded a service for the dead and wounded, for the dissolution of the Gallic nation, and only the Berlioz Requiem could have addressed these needs adequately.
In the mid-1950s, it became a matter of French national policy to record the Requiem in stereo, so as to do it justice with new technology. A consortium of companies pooled resources with Radio France, the official partner in the undertaking, to make the first multi-channel documentation of Berlioz’s choral monument, choosing the German conductor Hermann Scherchen to lead the combined forces in St. Louis des invalides, where the great work had its premiere. Engineers placed forty microphones in the Gothic space to capture the sound of three hundred performers, among them ten timpanists and twenty or so extra brass players. Technique met technique. Berlioz himself, as his Traité implies, understood the orchestra as technology and thought scientifically about how to get the effects he wanted. Scherchen and his assistants did the same as they approached the Requiem and if the result sounds a bit artificial this is not necessarily a betrayal of the composer.
The Symphonie fantastique, more than the Requiem, lay at the inception and at the heart of the Berlioz oeuvre. To it "Berliozians" ever returned. The post-war Fantastique went stereo at last with Sir Thomas Beecham’s French National Radio Orchestra studio sessions in 1958, followed closely by Paul Paray’s Detroit Symphony foray on the Mercury "Living Presence" label in 1959. Monteux re-recorded the Episode binaurally with the San Francisco Symphony that same year. It can be said of Beecham, Paray, Monteux, and Charles Munch, who issued his performance with the Boston Symphony in 1960, that they all adapt Berlioz’s partitur to the contingencies of the Twentieth Century symphony orchestra, substituting for putatively obsolete instruments like the ophicleide or the Sax horns that the composer so liked their modern equivalents while making little fuss about such specifications as locating instruments elsewhere in the auditorium than in the orchestra. The merits of these interpretations individually considered might be high (they are), but the proliferation of Fantastiques on record portended the descent of the vivid sport into the familiarity of routine, the artistic default against which Berlioz articulated his creative life. In addition, the Fantastique had gained status as a test case or demonstration-disc for "hi-fi buffs," eager to show off their twin loudspeakers, a development reflected in the marketing of all these platters of long-playing vinyl. The "New Berlioz" of 1960 was no longer the curiosity of 1900, to be gingerly sampled; he was the author of a fifty-minute symphonic essay, perfect for the LP-format, whose felicitous luster could be emphasized in post-production by tweaking the treble-bias of the master tape or adding artificial reverberation to the bass. This derailment of artistic intention into pure technical ostentation would definitely qualify, in Barzun’s term, as mis-hearing the composer.
Into this potential embarrassment, determined to recover Berlioz for art, stepped Colin Davis (not yet "Sir"), in 1963. Twelve years earlier, at Bryanston summer school in 1951, Davis heard a performance of L’enfance du Christ (1854) whose melodies knocked him off his feet. Berlioz, remembers Davis: "was unlike anyone else… Berlioz – with his unique voice, and with the kind of music he was writing – had to be especially in control. Rather like Sibelius, another wild spirit, he had to have enormous discipline to get down onto the paper what was burning in his mind."53 With a contract from the recording division of Philips Davis entered a London studio to produce the first installment, the Fantastique, of an integral Berlioz "cycle" using the identical forces for each item: the London Symphony Orchestra, the John Alldis Choir, and later the Royal Opera, with a consistent stable of vocal soloists. With his intuition of Berlioz’s music as being grounded in Gluck’s aristocratic operas and an interest in scraping away modern alterations or omissions in the score, Davis created a "classicizing" interpretation that not only stood out in the competition but also altered the way people thought about the composer. Davis took the exposition repeats in the first movement, restored the cornet part in the valse, and replaced the tuba with the original ophicleide in the "Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath." The Philips engineers unobtrusively archived the sessions in an extraordinarily transparent audio image, with a good deal of "space" around the instruments even when they "spot-miked" a solo.
In de-emphasizing Berlioz as a psychedelic hipster, Davis breasted the cultural stream of the 1960s, nowhere more than in his performance of the Requiem, a work that could be and was, like the Fantastique, misapprehended – with Scherchen’s version perhaps contributing to the error – as a Dionysiac celebration or pandemonium purely for the sake of it. Berlioz himself wrote of his Grande messe des morts that, "the text of the Requiem was a quarry that I had long coveted"; and that, on receiving the state commission to write it, "I fell upon it with a kind of fury."54 When Berlioz set the medieval vision of the Last Judgment, as he does in the Dies Irae of his choral-orchestral office for the dead, he must have done so with the conviction that he lived in apocalyptic times, this despite his un-churched condition and default-status agnosticism. Berlioz remarks explicitly that he lavished abundant attention during composition on the segué from the Dies Irae proper to the Tuba Mirum, which is the most complicated passage of the score, and he added exact verbal directions for the benefit of others who might conduct. He worried, not without cause, that careless execution would reduce the entrance of the four brass bands and the ten timpanists to "mere noise and pandemonium, a monstrosity."55 Indeed, at the premiere, conductor François-Antoine Habeneck, planning sabotage, deliberately withheld a cue at the critical moment forcing Berlioz to leap to the platform to save the ensemble. For an agnostic, Berlioz has conjured up vivid musical imagery that speaks of some kind of genuine conviction.
Davis makes a meritorious comment: "I think that, even though he grew away from or out of his belief like Verdi or Beethoven, he never forgot what it was like to believe. He still remembered what it was like to be afraid of the Last Judgment and to feel the intolerable weight of sin he was dragging around him."56 As Davis added new items to his "cycle," audiences gained from his careful readings a heightened appreciation of how archly visionary the Berlioz oeuvre was and in how craftsman-like a way the artist had devoted himself to each of his creations in succession. Davis and his studio team had found a formula for employing the latest recording techniques to serve Berlioz neutrally rather than featuring themselves with the composer as a convenient occasion. Davis seemed to have taken to heart Mellers’ pithy comment that while "Berlioz intended to revolutionize," he always fomented and innovated "in the interests of order."57 Davis thus brought a renewed seriousness to the Berlioz reputation by treating the works with both ardency and scholarship. By the time he had committed the magnum opus of Les Troyens to disc in 1970, music-lovers could hardly think the name Berlioz without also thinking the name Colin Davis.
Two younger podium professionals began to take an interest in Berlioz in the 1980s, both of them British, both of them ambitious, and both of them after traversing in concert and on disc a veritable archive of representative Western music from the Seventeenth through the early Nineteenth Centuries. Their rise in the concert world coincided with the demise of the twelve-inch vinyl long playing disc and the switchover to the compact disc as the new medium of musical conveyance for home listening. That shared ascent also coincided with the abandonment by long-standing labels of their classical catalogue and the shift in production of classical-music CDs from the old corporate model, focused on performer-superstars, to new small-scale entrepreneurial one operating with a more modest and democratic notion of performer-status.
The espousal of Berlioz by these two men would embroil France’s greatest composer more than a century after his death in the sharpest musicological issue of the late Twentieth Century: the debate over historical authenticity in musical performance. Neither Roger Norrington (born 1934) nor John Eliot Gardiner (born 1943), both later knighted, invented the term "historical performance practice," but the activities of both of them in the 1980s and 90s informed the term’s standing definition: it came to designate what they and what a proliferating nucleus of industry trend-setters did. In The Maestro Myth (1991), classical-music iconoclast Norman Lebrecht describes the "historical performance practice" movement – and it behaved like a movement in its sloganeering, our-way-or-no-way manner – as having taken life in the 1980s at the same moment when in "post-industrial societies" people "were discovering real ale, wholewheat bread, carbonated spring water and open-toed sandals."58 There is indeed something of "Bourgeois Bohemianism," as of the hackneyed ethos pour épater les bourgeoises, about musical authenticity. "Its basis," writes Lebrecht, "was academic and its premise inarguable: to perform exactly what the composer wrote, in the way he wanted to hear it, on the instruments and in the style of his time."59
The "Authenticity Craze" exhibited many symptoms of invidious reaction and like most reactionary agitations for a cause it made its key critical points against the status quo through selection and exaggeration. Quite probably when Wilhelm Furtwängler or Hermann Abendroth in the 1930s performed the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 with the full string complement of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, using a Nineteenth Century edition with bowings penciled in by the High Romantic violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim – they produced a Romantic version of the work that falsified the intimacy of its conceptual scale. Possibly when Leopold Stokowski transcribed Bach or Handel for full modern orchestra, he took liberties and so put on offer something that stemmed more from Stokowski than from Bach or Handel. Like their literary precursors the Existentialists, the "Authenticity Types" wanted to impose on culture, or at least on concert-audiences, a new regimen of ascetism. Lebrecht justifiably refers to their puritanism although to call them puritanical is not the same thing as saying that their case means nothing; like most fads, historical performance practice, while claiming to be more than it really is, points to a few truths and deserves a hearing. One should recall Chateaubriand’s remark about the plight of desire in a world that has dismantled all the spiritual disciplines and banished them elsewhere. The "Authenticity Types," like Berlioz according to Davis, were Classicists and Romantics, reactionaries and revolutionists, all at once; they bounced back and forth between the extremes and in true extremist fashion their rhetoric sprang in equal parts from resentment and self-certifying illumination.
According to Lebrecht, Norrington qualifies as the "Bernstein" and Gardiner as the "would-be Toscanini" of the trend.60 This remark means left-handedly that Norrington is showy and demonstrative where Gardiner is a martinet who seeks more rigorously than Norrington to exercise control over every detail of an interpretation. Norrington and Gardiner insist in common on small ensembles, justifiable in Baroque and early Classical music, if less so in cases like Beethoven’s Choral Symphony or orchestral music by Brahms or Wagner; on gut rather than wire strings for the violins, violas, celli, and basses; on only those instruments that would have been available at the time of a work’s composition or (stretching the point) within the lifetime of the composer; on literal tempi, as predicated by the metronome markings that appear in scores beginning at the end of the Eighteenth Century; and – absolutely essential to the sound that their specialized ensembles produce – no vibrato on the strings, except where explicitly directed in a score. Finally, they insisted on tuning about a quartertone lower than the Concert A that had been standard since the middle of the Nineteenth Century.
For Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven, these choices made readily discernible and often startling differences from the usual representation that convinced intuitively, more or less. Sharp thwacks on a drum with a leathern rather than a polyethylene head simply sound right for Haydn’s Military Symphony, just as gut strings sound right for Beethoven’s Pastoral. Even Norrington’s outing with Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony makes a point: with a reduced string band, the woodwinds and brass, which give the music its characteristic German-Romantic coloring, resound more prominently than they do with the usual large philharmonic-type string complement. Both Norrington and Gardiner policed rhythm assiduously, bringing in many cases a new rigor of articulation to the phrasing of themes and melodies in older music. Having covered the Baroque and Classical repertory, filling the catalogues with their discs, they naturally turned to works of later periods. Both took an interest in the Symphonie fantastique. Norrington entered the lists first in 1989, with his London Classical Players; Gardiner took his turn in 1991, with his French-named, Paris-based Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique.
In the booklet-apologia accompanying Norrington’s recording, the maestro mentions right at the start that he selects an appropriate tempo for each movement of the Symphonie and then sticks to it: "Since it is immensely detailed and the work of a genius, it does not seem necessary to add all sorts of extra speed changes or to alter those that Berlioz prescribes."61 This by itself would not distinguish the interpretation of Norrington from that of Monteux or Davis (and the ear in fact detects some pushing and pulling here and there), so more than a steady tempo is at stake. Meticulous obedience to Berlioz’s dynamic markings plays a role. In "A Ball," for example, "Berlioz marks the woodwind entry of the Idée fixe piano, while the waltzing strings remain mezzo forte, almost drowning the thought."62 True to his intention, Norrington plays the passage just this way, where even Davis cannot resist equalizing the dynamics to lend obviousness to the Idée fixe. Norrington employs four Erard harps of the 1830s, smaller than modern harps, with a brighter sound, for the same movement, where Twentieth Century practice has almost invariably reduced the complement to two. "An even greater revelation," Norrington writes, "is the sound of Berlioz’ array of brass instruments…
Not only does he have horns, still carefully insisting on the stopped ("bouché") sound passed down by the classical hand-technique, but he also has pairs of old-fashioned valveless trumpets right alongside the most modern cornets (making quite a different sound from the older instruments and today’s). And in addition, he has the older narrow-bore trombones alongside the brand new ophicleides, which are now extinct (or were until this recording!). With all this wonderful range of sounds the habitual "blare" of a Berlioz brass section gives way to a kaleidoscope of colours.63
Norrington has given thought to seating, placing the first and second violins respectively to the left and right of the conductor on the stage and separating the instrumental choirs as much as possible. These gestures, historically informed, aim at increasing aural awareness, during the performance, of the antiphony inherent in Berlioz’s orchestration and thus in making the counterpoint, often dependent on antiphony, as clear as possible. What results stem from these scholarly preparations? The period-instrument band indeed generates a more nuanced and variegated range of sounds compared with the standard modern philharmonic orchestra. While Norrington’s palette of timbres need not replace the standard one, listeners must acknowledge the boon in its non-mandatory presence. In "A Ball," for example, the quartet of Erard harps lends an element of glittering phantasmagoria to the ballet-like ambiance, just as the valveless trumpets lend much to the deliberate crassness in "March to the Scaffold."
But Norrington really achieves his ambition of revealing previously unknown layers in the music in the "Scene in the Country." Mellers remarks that Berlioz’s music exhibits a "basically polyphonic nature" growing always through a process of "melodic generation."64 Through Gluck, Mellers argues, Berlioz maintains contact with the procedures of the French Baroque – with the music of the two Couperins père et fils, and with Jean-Philippe Rameau. Under Norrington’s direction Berlioz’s Adagio takes on the character of a chromatic Ricercar, developing the plainsong-like shepherd’s lament into a web of increasingly dense counterpoint, adding the Idée fixe to the texture, and finally fading away into the simple yet startling combination of Cor Anglais and tympani. Norrington almost shifts the emphasis of the Symphonie as a whole to the middle movement.
Gardiner’s note to his 1991 Symphonie fantastique shows him to be more acutely aware of the received tradition – and of the competition – than Norrington; where Norrington’s prose is rhetorical Gardiner’s is polemical. Gardiner testily quotes Colin Davis as having pronounced that period-instrument performances of Berlioz signify nothing but "desperation to say something new about an aging repertoire," to which Gardiner responds that it is not so: "There are signs that for all the illuminating, pioneering work of great Berliozians like Beecham, Munch and above all Davis himself, awareness of the full extent of his creative originality is only just beginning to dawn."65 In Gardiner’s opinion, "Berlioz’s music has often been pummeled into conformity with the sonorities of the standard modern symphony orchestra," a tendency that exerts the effect of "sapping the music of its innovative life-blood."66 Not content only to duplicate the likely instrumentarium and seating-chart of Berlioz’s day, Gardiner has taken his orchestra to record the Fantastique in the venue of the piece’s premiere, the auditorium of the Conservatory where Berlioz, in considerable tension with the administration, spent his years as a composition student. "We have seated the orchestra," writes Gardiner, "as Habeneck [who presided at the début] is known to have done in his concert series… with first and second violins separated on either side of the conductor, and with the lower strings ranged with the woodwind and brass across the steeply rising tiers at the rear of the platform."67 According to Gardiner, it is "fundamental to our performance… to recapture as precisely as possible the sound of the instruments in Berlioz’s orchestra, for which he wrote with such specific instructions to create aural pictures of unique immediacy and clarity."68
And what of Gardiner’s results? As does Norrington, Gardiner undoubtedly forces listeners to hear the familiar anew. The hand-stopped horn-motifs in the slow introduction of "Reveries – Passions" exemplify Gardiner’s attention to specific timbres, as they do also in "Scene in the Country." Gardiner’s valse manages to outshine Norrington’s in glissando brilliance although a careful audition hears only two harps to Norrington’s four; but Gardiner’s cornet-descant in the reprise of the waltz-tune comes off more brightly than Norrington’s. Gardiner takes the "Scene in the Country" noticeably more slowly than Norrington; this comparative slowing-down adds something to the concluding bars, where listeners become intensely aware of how Berlioz achieves his thunderous onomatopoeia, but it also makes the movement as a whole seem sectional, as compared to its seamlessness under Norrington. Gardiner outdoes Norrington in supplying the bloodthirsty crassness essential in the "March to the Scaffold," where his two ophicleides vent forth with ripe raspberries deep down in the bass range of the texture. Where Gardiner is slower than Norrington in the Adagio, he is faster in the "March" and in "Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath." In the "Dream," he moves at a clip even faster than Monteux’s in the remarkable 1930 Paris recording. So virtuosic are Gardiner’s players, however, that the rhythmic articulation is always crisp and obvious, the sculpting of the melodic phrases always clear. The two ophicleides are up to their fruity high jinks once again; the skeletal col legno passages in the string band, which forecast one of the stock gestures of the horror-movie score, sound truly and appropriately bizarre.
Norrington has recently (2004) recorded the Fantastique a second time with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra using modern instruments but applying historical performance practice to the execution; he has also documented the Requiem, in a daringly slow but awe-inducing interpretation, also in Stuttgart. Gardiner has produced a slightly larger Berlioz discography than Norrington, his interpretation of Roméo et Juliette, again applying historical performance practice to the execution, being especially noteworthy; and Gardiner has advocated Berlioz as an opera composer, contributing to the 2003 Berlioz Bicentenary a production of Les Troyens at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, said to be the first truly integral staging of Berlioz’s masterwork. (This is Gardiner grabbing at the moniker long applied to Davis’s 1969 performance.) One might ask, do not Norrington and Gardiner protest a bit too much when they insist so volubly that their readings banish a century and more of obscuring accretion to reveal the true old formerly hidden newness of Berlioz’s plus-Romantique-que-le-Romantisme scores?
In one salient matter neither seems much to respect Berlioz, who stipulated a personnel of at least 130 as necessary for an effective demonstration of his musical intention; and neither of the two Authenticity mavens uses more than eighty, making almost any standard interpretation more authentic than theirs. The reason is probably financial. When the recordings were made hiring the requisite 130 players would have strained the budget beyond breaking. Perhaps this is quibbling. It is merely an observation, after all, and takes away nothing from the obvious achievements of both men, which I happily grant. Perhaps what the triangulation of Berlioz, Norrington, and Gardiner most powerfully signifies is that the name Berlioz remains inescapably controversial more than two hundred years after his birth. During the Berlioz Bicentenary, the controversy would spill over from the domain of musical argument into that of political contention.
British musicians, not French ones, dominated the bicentenary celebrations in honor of Berlioz, even those in what ought to be the undisputed heart of Berlioz country, the city of Paris. True to their history, the French only granted their stellar son his due in a mean spirited way, undercutting the recognition. Their rancor had two foci: a plan to remove Berlioz’s remains from their private grave and re-inter them in France’s national shrine for the illustrious dead, the Panthéon in Paris; and the announcement by managers of the Théâtre du Châtelet that they intended to stage the great work that Berlioz saw as the summation of his creative life but never actually saw in performance in a complete or adequate way – his Virgilian opera Les Troyens. The reaction to these two issues emerged conjointly with the same plaintiffs lodging the charges in both cases. As reporter Hugh Schofield writes, the plan to move Berlioz’s mortal remains "met with unexpectedly harsh opposition from many of the composer’s own fans, as well as from critics who say Berlioz was a right-winger with no place in France’s Republican Valhalla."69 Schofield quotes Berlioz biographer Joël-Marie Fauquet as saying in an editorial in Le Monde, "The fact is inescapable: the Berlioz who invented the modern orchestra also showed himself in his life to be an ardent reactionary."70 By this argument Berlioz should therefore not receive official recognition through ceremonial reburial in the nation’s mortuary shrine. A committee supervising the Bicentenary celebrations referred the matter to then Président Jacques Chirac, who by his silence and inaction sided with the Fauquet position. Berlioz remained in the ground at Montmartre.
The Parisian productions of Les Troyens, then in the planning stage, became an opportunity for additional censorious agitation. Historian of ideas Paul Gottfried summarizes the spasm of righteousness, as it appeared in a Paris newspaper: "Since Berlioz had based his opera Les Troyens on Virgil’s Aeneid, a Roman epic that celebrates Latin antiquities, honoring Berlioz would be tantamount to glorifying Mussolini and his brand of Italian fascism. Such a move [i.e., staging Les Troyens], Le Monde seems to be arguing by quoting the admonitions of Jean Kahn, Philippe Olivier, and Gottfried Wagner, should be reconsidered, particularly when decent people are battling fascist residues."71 The guardians of political correctness in the European Community had already lobbed the f-word-grenade against Berlioz and Les Troyens on the occasion of the annual Salzburg Festival in the summer of 2000, when conductor Sylvain Cambreling and scenic-designer Herbert Wernicke mounted a production; it was this version that elicited the screed from Gottfried Wagner. The accurate description of Berlioz’s attitude toward the tumult of French politics in the mid-Nineteenth Century is that he taught himself to disdain the recurrent fervor of an indefinite succession of soi-disant revolutions punctuated by bouts of sclerotic dirigisme. That attitude hardly qualifies him as a reactionary although political agitation for radical causes and revolutionary movements against the prevailing dispensation does qualify itself as reactionary. It defines reactionism. Near the end of Berlioz’s life, in a letter to Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, he would write, "Those pathetic little gangsters known as great men rouse me only to disgust – Caesar, Augustus, Antony, Alexander, Peter [the Great] and all the rest of those glorified brigands."72
Martin Cooper has written that Berlioz, like Baudelaire, sought refuge from secular disappointment in his "private world" of artistic endeavor. Berlioz lived in the French polity perforce but he sought no redemption in politics; he necessarily communicated with ministers of state and even kings and emperors, as did Beethoven in Austria and Dmitri Shostakovich in the Soviet Union – that is to say with reluctance and distaste. Characterizing Caesar and Augustus as "brigands" illuminates the argument of Les Troyens, which declares Fate and Empire to be, if not outright delusions, then derailments of constructive life, inimical both to private happiness and to love. The Symphonie fantastique is a unified five-movement orchestral composition on the topics of love and betrayal and Les Troyens is a unified five-act operatic composition on the same; Les Troyens might be said to objectify what in the Symphony fantastique remains subjective. The opera’s scheme two female protagonists, Cassandra and Dido, replace the male protagonist of the Symphonie.
"I had conceived," Berlioz writes in the Memoirs, "of a vast opera on the Shakespearean plan, based on the second and fourth books of the Aeneid."73 Princess Carolyne urged Berlioz in 1856 to write the libretto, which he completed in 1858. He read it privately to friends in various salons until rumors of its existence began to circulate in public. The Opéra showed no interest but gradually Berlioz convinced his acquaintance Léon Carvalho, director of the Théâtre-Lyrique, to back the effort. A smaller venue than the Opéra, the Théâtre-Lyrique could not adequately mount the grand tableaux indicated by the score, which Berlioz brought to completion in all its aspects in 1860. The composer and playwright bowed to practicality and not only agreed to jettison the first two acts but to adapt the remainder to Carvalho’s smaller cast and facilities. The excised acts (I and II) together constituted Part I of the opera, La Prise de Troie, which the composer would never see staged and which no company would tackle until an ambitious production in Karlsruhe in 1897. The remaining three acts (III, IV, and V) became Les Troyens à Carthage, with a summary prologue devised by Berlioz for the occasion to give the audience some sense of the omitted action. The disruptive, inhuman Destin of Berlioz’s scenario seemed to fall on the production like an Olympian curse, with every conceivable annoyance conspiring with every other to force the author into further artistic compromise. The fire marshal of Paris forbade the extras from carrying torches in the pantomime to accompany the Chasse royale et orage, making the effect ridiculous; the same interlude required a set-alteration that the stagehands were habitually slow to make, necessitating the institution of a dramatically awkward half-hour intermission.
Carvalho argued with Berlioz about the diction of his libretto: "There’s a word in the prologue that worries me… Triomphaux"; "It’s the plural," said Berlioz, "of triomphal, as chevaux is of cheval, originaux of original, madrigaux of madrigal, [and] municipaux of municipal."74 By a miracle, the November to December 1863 run of Les Troyens turned a small profit, but nervous, Carvalho closed down the production after twenty-two performances.
Mellers puts his finger on the real disconnection between Les Troyens and its mid-Nineteenth Century French public – or possibly any public of any time:
Les Troyens…is an idealized vision of a new heroic civilization: or rather of the old world, and the old technique born anew. This was no puerile utopia. Dido is a heroic figure, but also a woman, with human passions and frailties. In Berlioz’s imaginary aristocracy, people, like Dido, would still love, suffer, and die, as they have always done; but human life would acquire once more the dignity and sanctity of the heroic age.75
Mellers says that Les Troyens expresses Berlioz’s "growing sense of disparity between the ideal and the real."76 David Cairns remarks that Berlioz shares with Virgil "fear of the collapse of civilization as they knew it."77 Both Mellers and Cairns could be quoting the man himself: "The mass of the Paris public" regards "all music that deviates from the narrow path where the makers of opéras-comiques toil and spin" as "the music of a lunatic."78 The Second Empire struck Berlioz as an age of insipidity, without seriousness, launched on a course, like Faust in La Damnation, towards the abyss. An editorial cartoon from the time of Les Troyens à Carthage strikingly corroborates Berlioz’s estimate. Le Charivari depicted Greek soldiers with their hands covering their ears running away from a masonry wall behind which is seated an orchestra above which rears a banner reading, "Partition des Troyens," or "The score of Les Troyens." The caption says: "Comme quoi les Grecs auraient certainement levé le siege devant Troie si les Troyens avaient eu la partition de M. Berlioz en temps utile."79 ("If only the Trojans had armed themselves with Mr. Berlioz’s score, they would certainly have repelled the Greek attack.")
Productions of Les Troyens happened sporadically in the last third of the Nineteenth Century, mostly in Germany, and the first two thirds of the Twentieth Century, mostly in Great Britain. The first recording – of Les Troyens à Carthage only – came about in 1952 under the direction of Hermann Scherchen. Famously, Colin Davis led performances at Covent Garden in 1969, recording the work without cuts for Philips a year later. James Levine headed an important mounting at the Metropolitan Opera in 1983, with Jessie Norman taking the role of Cassandra and Tatiana Troyanos that of Dido. The Covent Garden and Met performances having dispelled the aura of a logistically impossible work, Les Troyens has since appeared less infrequently. As the bicentenary of the composer’s birth approached productions fairly proliferated, with at least six in 2003 alone. A kind of performing tradition had settled in, going back to the original Théâtre-Lyrique design, with its monumental scenic decor, faux-antique costumes, and massive stage action – even though the prescribed massiveness was limited by the original venue. In the period that calls itself "postmodern," all that had to go, of course.
The two recent undertakings documented on DVD – the Cambreling and Wernicke interpretation for the Salzburg Festival and Gardiner’s Théâtre de Châtelet interpretation – stand in contrast to the televised account of the Levine Troyens of 1983, also issued on DVD. Gardiner’s Châtelet Troyens generally escapes the limitations of its postmodern afflatus and stands as a great performance, the equivalent of Davis’s Covent Garden sally of 1969, against which others must be measured. Cambreling’s Troyens is another matter, musically acceptable, but scenically inadequate – even a betrayal of Berlioz. It is best to begin with Cambreling.
Why the politically correct critics attacked Cambreling and Wernicke is hard to say, since it would be difficult to imagine a more politically correct, hence less faithful, staging of this colossus of sung theater. Berlioz admired Gluck and traits that one might associate with Gluck do inform Les Troyens; nevertheless, Les Troyens is not Alceste or Iphigénie en Tauride. Static blocking, almost entirely dependent on the music for divulgence of character and motivation, when applied so consistently, fits badly with Berlioz’s dramatic vision. Things happen in Les Troyens: exits and entrances not only of individuals but also of crowds and armies. As the curtain goes up on Act I, the whole of Troy rushes from the city gates to the beach to celebrate the apparent departure of the Greeks. At the end of the same act, the crowd drags the great wooden horse into the heart of the city, sealing the Trojan doom. Act III begins as Berlioz wrote it with a grand and extended ballet, which Wernicke omits. Wernicke’s reduction of the scene to minimalist abstraction tells the audience everything about postmodern esthetics but next to nothing about Berlioz’s Shakespearean theory of epic drama. For Wernicke – and it is clear from interviews that Cambreling agrees with his collaborator – all parties in Les Troyens, with the possible exception of Cassandra in Act I and II, are neurotic, vainglorious, and self-serving in motivation. As though anticipating the baseless charge of fascism, Wernicke dresses the Trojan soldiery in black military uniforms deliberately reminiscent of Nazi secret police regalia; and he has them carry American M-16 rifles instead of period-appropriate swords and shields. Under Cambreling’s musical direction, the singers often interpret their parts stridently rather than beautifully, Cassandra’s terrific closing aria from Act I being deprived by the gesture of much of its pathos. Deborah Polaski, who sings both Cassandra in Part I and Dido in Part II, has a suitable voice for the role, but the directorial conception prevents her from acting with it as she might.
Berlioz conceives of Carthage under Dido as a utopian project, with the people and their queen united to build up a new city free from the corruption of Tyre, whence Dido has fled after the murder of her husband by the usurper Pygmalion. As Berlioz writes his drama, the advent of the desperate Trojans on Tunisian shores and Dido’s betrayal in love by Aeneas disrupt the experiment in civic idealism. This is that "disparity between the real and the ideal" that Mellers remarks. Wernicke, for no reason related to Berlioz’s text, has decided that the Carthaginians, far from being noble and idealistic, are effete and cynical. He directs them to comport themselves superciliously and nastily; he dresses them in black gowns and black business suits, adorning the women with elbow-length aquamarine gloves and built-up atop-the-head coiffures, making them resemble risibly the fearsome housewives in Gary Larson’s "Far Side" cartoons. Everyone sips champagne cocktails in long-stemmed glasses and reclines on Tyrian purple cushions with gold fringe. They all give the impression that the proceedings have left them in a shared state of terminal ennui. Cambreling speaks rightly when he says of Les Troyens, "Ce n’est pas une pièce très optimiste" but rather one that emphasizes "la ruine, la fin d’un monde."80 The destruction of Carthaginian happiness can only strike the audience as tragic, however, when Dido and her people possess admirable qualities. Tragedy lies in Dido’s very openness to love. The hymnal procession that opens Act III, on the refrain "Gloire à Didon," emphasizes the caritas that animates the Tyrian colony. But for Cambreling and Wernicke, this procession becomes a parody of the modern – intolerably bourgeois – business meeting.
In their estimation of Aeneas, Cambreling and Wernicke come closer perhaps to Berlioz’s intention than in other matters, for while Aeneas is the hero of Part I he is effectively if not nominally the villain of Part II. If the image were not present, which it is because the production has been issued as a DVD, one might find good things to say about the musical aspect of Cambreling’s interpretation. Critics have accused him of lacking fire but the criticism rings false. Opera being spectacle, however, and DVD being a visual medium, the production labors the music with the tendentious and rather colorless scene.
Gardiner’s Châtelet Troyens operates at a higher level intellectually, artistically, and musically than does its Salzburg counterpart although some "subversive" gestures from the postmodern playbook have found their way into the mixture. Thus the Châtelet production takes the scenic design some distance towards postmodern abstraction, yet not nearly so far as Cambreling and Wernicke. The settings are recognizable. We even see Troy aflame in a brief transition from Act I to Act II. The Trojan soldiery wears what look like World War One British Army uniforms while the invading Greeks come clad in U.S. Army camouflage fatigues and carry, not M-16s but rather Soviet-era AK-47s, which they point savagely at the Trojan women at the conclusion of Act II. The North African sequence of Part II uses brilliant colors, retains the exotic ballet of Act IV, and emphasizes (rightly) the plan of Dido and the Carthaginians to establish a philosophical polity. The idealism of Dido’s plans for Carthage is a theme in Virgil’s poem. In the Châtelet production, the audience sees, for example, models of the not-yet-completed acropolis of the city and of the projected harbor being consulted by engineers and surveyors. Heavily stylized, the scenery nevertheless exhibits some linkage to the tradition, insofar as there is one, going back to the 1863 premiere. Some simple touches generate a wondrous effect, as when, during the Hymn to the Trojan Gods ("Dieux Protecteurs") in Act I Gardiner puts a real sistrum, the antique instrument that Berlioz prescribed, onstage; or as when, at the end of Act V, Dido prepares for her suicidal death by unfurling a long magenta scarf down the monumental white steps that she has ascended. The red ribbon vividly symbolizes the fatal emotional wound that Aeneas has dealt Dido in the names of Fate, the Roman race-to-be, and Empire. The conversation-song of the Trojan sailors at the beginning of Act V, which Cambreling omits, reminds us that Berlioz thought of Les Troyens as Virgil seen through the dramaturgy of Shakespeare.
Musically, too, the Châtelet production repeatedly astonishes. Gardiner opts for two stunning divas, Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra in Part I and Susan Graham as Dido in Part II. The elements come together for a powerful climax at the end of Act I when Cassandra sings her desperate heart out in prophesying the impending disaster in whose prediction the Trojan people refuse to believe; her nervous melody takes its place in counterpoint with the delirious joy of the Trojan March, the single unifying melodic motif of the two parts of the opera taken together.
Arrêtez! arrêtez! Oui, la flamme, la hache!
Fouillez le flanc du monstrueux cheval!
Laocoon!... les Grecs!... il cache
Un piège infernal...
Ma voix se perd!... plus d’espérance!
Vous êtes sans pitié, grands dieux,
Pour ce peuple en démence!
Ô digne emploi de la toute-puissance,
Le conduire à l’abîme en lui fermant les yeux!
(Elle écoute les derniers sons de la marche triomphale qu’on distingue encore et qui s’éteignent tout d’un coup.)
Ils entrent, c’en est fait, le destin tient sa proie!
Sœur d’Hector, va mourir sous les débris de Troie!
During this scene, Berlioz instructs a small adjunct orchestra of brass players to accompany the people onstage. Gardiner deploys his musicians accordingly and in a scholarly coup realizes an opportunity to put on display the specialized Sax instruments demanded by the particular composer in the score. Another terrific moment comes at the conclusion of the first North African act, when, on news that an enemy of Carthage advances with his armies on Dido’s city, the just-arrived Aeneas pledges his Trojans to fight alongside the Tyrian defenders. Tenor Gregory Kunde works hard to redeem Aeneas in Part II of the opera, bringing his considerable thespian talent to bear on making the character’s perfidy seem the result of his confusion between the tug of love and the tug of duty. Aeneas chooses duty, but Berlioz chooses love and sides with Dido, as he did when he was twelve years old. Gardiner understands this whereas Cambreling and Wernicke manifestly do not – or understand it but cynically refuse to represent it. Gardiner brings his usual dedication to historically informed musical practice and period instrumentation to Les Troyens. One hardly notices it because the audible result so thoroughly convinces a listener of the interpretation’s rightness. Gardiner honorably serves Berlioz’s idea of the grand and the noble.
Berlioz added the last chapters of the Memoirs once the Théâtre-Lyrique Troyens of 1863 had run its truncated course. "My career is over… I compose no more music, conduct no more concerts, no longer write prose or verse."81 In pouring his lifeblood into Les Troyens, Berlioz says, "I did not take Latium."82 He saw himself a failure. The prose gives the full sense of Berlioz late in life, as Cooper calls him, a broken man. He had outlived two wives and would outlive his son. Friends were dying. He was dying. He recalls how after Les Troyens debuted, strangers "often stopped [me] in the street… who wished to shake hands with me and thank me for having composed [my opera]."83 He wonders, leaving the question open, whether such spontaneous expressions of appreciation by ordinary lovers of opera did not constitute sufficient compensation for the caustic hostility of the critics, "by whose hatred one can only feel honored, for it is the disdain of the whore for the honest woman."84 Thus does Berlioz the old man, eaten by stomach cancer misdiagnosed, meditate on the world. Bitterness never represented the sum and total of his life. Germany received him. At the ducal courts he found the positive response of highly trained musicians and sensitive audiences for which he had longed. Before the cult of Wagner in Germany came the cult of Berlioz – but no, never a "cult," but rather a keen sense of something both new and beautiful. The penultimate paragraph of the Memoirs epitomizes Berlioz’s hard-earned wisdom: "Love or music – which power can uplift man to the sublimest heights? It is a large question; yet it seems to me that one should answer it in this way: Love cannot give an idea of music; music can give an idea of love. But why separate them? They are the two wings of the soul."85
It is not a case, then, of "New Berlioz" or
"Old Berlioz." It is a case always and everywhere of the perennial
or even of the Platonic Berlioz. One believes finally, stepping to
his side and opposing on his behalf all those who railed against him in his
life, that he took Latium after all.
Jacques Barzun. Berlioz and His Century – An Introduction to the Age of Romanticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Hector Berlioz. Memoirs of Hector Berlioz. Translated and edited by David Cairns. London: Gollancz, 1969.
Peter Bloom. The Life of Berlioz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
The Viscount of Chateaubriand, translated by C. I. White. The Genius of Christianity. Baltimore, MD: John Murphy Company, 1856.
Martin Cooper. French Music from the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré. New York: Oxford University press, 1961.
A. E. F. Dickinson. The Music of Berlioz. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1972.
Bernard Gavoty and others. Hector Berlioz: Genie et Réalité. Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1973.
Ian Kemp, editor. Les Troyens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Norman Lebrecht. The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power. New York: Citadel Press, 1995.
Hugh Macdonald. Berlioz: Orchestral Music. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969.
Wilfrid Mellers. The Sonata Principle. (Man and his Music, Part Three.) New York: Schocken, 1969.
Nicolas Slonimsky. Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers since Beethoven’s Time. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975.
Richard Wagner, translated by R. Jacobs and G. Skelton. Wagner
Writes from Paris: Stories, Essays, and Articles by the Young Composer. New
York: John Day, 1973.
i. Barzun, 10.
ii. Wagner Writes from Paris, 129.
v. Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective, 57.
vii. French Music from the death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré, 8.
ix. Translated by David Cairns, 34.
xiii. In the symposium Berlioz: Génie et réalité (Librairie Hachette, 1972), 28.
xv. Memoirs, 462.
xviii. Wagner Writes From Paris, 130.
xxi. In Nicolas Slonimsky, The Lexicon of Musical Invective, 60.
xxii. Man and his Music: Part III – The Sonata Principle, 183.
xxiii. Berlioz: Orchestral Music, 30.
xxv. Memoirs, 95.
xxvii. 96 – 97.
xxx. The Genius of Christianity, translated by C. L. White, 296.
xxxiv. Berlioz: orchestral Music, 33.
xxxvii. Mellers, The Sonata Principle, 182.
xxxviii. 65 & 66.
xxxix. Berlioz: Orchestral Music, 36.
xl. Berlioz: Orchestral Music, 36.
xlii. Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective, 57.
xlv. Berlioz and His Century, 61.
xlvii. The Sonata Principle, 185.
xlix. Andante website interview with J. Tolansky.
li. Mr. Tepper’s Berlioz website.
liii. The Hector Berlioz website, David Cairns interviews Sir Colin Davis.
liv. Memoirs, 228.
lvi. Interview with J. Tolanksy.
lvii. The Sonata Principle, 180.
lviii. The Maestro Myth, 276 – 77.
lxi. Booklet to the EMI CD of Symphonie fantastique, 1989.
lxiv. The Sonata Principle, 188.
lxv. Booklet to the Philips CD of Symphonie fantastique.
lxix. BBC News online, Sunday, 16 February 2003.
lxxi. Paul Gottfried, The Strange Death of Marxism, 86.
lxxii. Memoirs, 555.
lxxv. The Sonata Principle, 189.
lxxvii. In The Trojans (Ian Kemp, editor), 77.
lxxviii. Memoirs, 474.
lxxix. Berlioz: Génie et Réalité, 225.
lxxx. Interview with Pierre-René Serna, the Hector Berlioz website.
lxxxi. Memoirs, 482.
This article is a revised version of the
original copy which is published on the Praesidium website of the Center
for Literate Values.
We are most grateful to Dr. Thomas F. Bertonneau, Secretary of the Center and
member of the editorial board of Praesidium and Dr John Harris,
the editor-publisher of Praesidium, for granting us permission to
publish this article on our site.
Praesidium is the quarterly journal of the Center for Literate Values.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18
July 1997; this page created on 1 November 2007.
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